‘Cat love bites’ – what do they mean and why do they happen?

The ‘cat love bite’ is, I believe, a misnomer. This is not about biting you because he/she loves you. Cats might bite their owner for a number of reasons (e.g. redirected aggression) but in this article I’ll discuss the reason why cat owners call this version of cat biting ‘love bites’.

It happens when you are petting your cat. You are showing your love for your cat through stroking, kissing and cuddling. You are throwing a ton of love at your cat. Your cat might lick your hand and then bite. The bite might be gentle and it might become stronger. Or the bite might be quite sudden and feel painful. The behavior depends on each individual cat.

The way I read this situation is that your cat has interpreted petting by you as play. It may not happen if the petting is gentle. But if you pet a little bit too vigorously, he may decide that you are playing.

How should I pet my cat?
How should I pet my cat? The way you see in the picture is fine. It is gentle and around the back of the head. Photo: Pixabay.
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The only form of play that domestic cats know and understand is play hunting and killing. That’s their normal version of fun and entertainment. Although I have seen a cat deliberately slide down a kids’ slide in a playground for fun. I decided that this cat enjoyed the feeling on his skin when he slid down. Petting can aggravate a cat as it irritates the nerves in the skin. This can provoke a bite.

And we all pet with our hands. If you pet too hard your cat learns to relate to your hands as prey items, animals to kill. This is how they relate to all toys. Your hand becomes a toy.

That said by the way, play is vital to the health and wellbeing of a cat as is dog walking to a dog. The answer is to use a cat tease to substitute hands when playing and to limit petting to a style and type that you cat enjoys but does not provoke play. You’ll learn that through observing your cat’s response. Each individual has their own threshold or tolerance.

Cat owner allows their cat to extensively bite and scratch their hand
Cat owner allows their cat to extensively bite and scratch their hand. This is training a cat to see human hands as play items which to a cat means animals to kill. Photo in public domain.

Only use your hands in contact with your cat when he is not amped up; when he is chilled and in the mood for a bit of loving from you. You decide when your cat is amped. You do this through observation and learning about his habits, rhythms, moods and responses. Cats learn that stuff about us so we should be able to do it about them.

The cat tease
The Cat Tease – Photograph by Michael at PoC

Another point is that over the years your cat will understand you better and this may modify his response. What I am suggesting is that he may learn that strong petting is not play and therefore not bite.

When petting my cat, I have found that it can unwise to dangle my fingers in front of his face or over his head (although my cat is a committed hunter). This can provoke an attack as he can perceive fingers flapping around as a prey animal, perhaps a bird. The response is instinctive. He can’t help himself. Although not all cats will respond in this way. It depends how keen the cat is about hunting. They vary in their keenness about hunting and killing.

The conclusion about cat love bites is that there is no love in them. They are almost invariably on a human’s hands and cats, in that moment don’t see them as hands belonging to their human caregiver and companion but prey ‘items’ to attack instinctively. The same bites occur when kittens play with each vigorously.

Separate play from petting and you’ll avoid them. Sometimes cat owners inadvertently train their cat to see their hands as toys. That has to be unlearned. This can be done by gentle petting when your cat is sleepy and over time.

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