Why do cats bite to show affection?

A different version of the question in the title is: Cat Love Bites: What Do They Mean? You will see various and numerous answers to this question and I think some of them are incorrect. “Cat love bites” are gentle bites which don’t break the skin in contrast to those bites which are made aggressively and which cause a puncture wound. So, they are gentle bites which indicates friendliness in a cat’s behaviour which in turn is why they’re called love bites.

Cat love bite
Cat love bite. Kitten on mother. Image by Tania Van den Berghen from Pixabay
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True expression of love

But I don’t think they are true expressions of love because they are aspects of play: among themselves and with us (see photo above). There is a friendliness in them but the purpose is play and these gentle bites are normally stimulated through petting your cat a bit too much so that it goes from a relaxing petting session into a play session. This in turn can lead to the next level up which is play-fighting which, in fact, can go to the next level which is full-blown aggression. It depends how you interact with your cat and whether you trigger these instinctive behaviors.

Anatomy restrictions

So, biting can be a sign of affection when it is gentle because cats who are friendly with each other play with each other (again, see photo above) and when they do this, they gently bite each other. Why do they have to bite? It’s because, unlike humans, they don’t have hands to help them show affection. They have paws at the end of which are claws and they have their mouths which contain teeth with long canines. They can also rub up against another cat and the human companion to show affection through scent exchange.

I think the reason why cats bite to show affection is because they are limited in their anatomy as to how they can touch the other cat or the person so they use their teeth in a gentle way.

Feline love bite kitten style
Feline love bite kitten style. The picture appears to be in the public domain.

Misleading description

It’s probably fair to say that “love bites” is a slightly misleading description despite it being commonly used. After all, biting is not very loving but then humans also do love bites but under different circumstances. Whereas cats do love bites during friendly play sessions, humans do them during lovemaking sessions. People, therefore, seem to be equating the feline love bite with the human love bite, but it is not strictly accurate because the circumstances are different. And there is an element of aggression in the human love bite but the aggression comes from a different source. For cats it is play-hunting. For humans it is frustration and the love-hate relationship.

Petting leading to aggression

A lot has been written about petting your cat leading to biting and aggression. It is about overstimulation and it is very easy for a cat to escalate a love bite into a more aggressive bite. In fact, the simple process of love biting their human companion can encourage them to go further. They seem to like it and want to bite harder. The cat seems to take pleasure in the actual process of biting. This helps to escalate the behavior which is why cat owners need to be careful when petting.

Peterbald bites Peterbald sibling on neck in play
Peterbald bites Peterbald sibling on neck in play. Photo: Светлана Лютова who is also the breeder.


The question of love in felines

The issue of “love” in relation to domestic cat behaviour is quite a tricky one. It is unquestionable that domestic cats have affection for the human companions provided the human is behaving themselves and looking after their cat well. But is probably fair to say that the feline version of “love” is not the same as the human version.

For example, you don’t have feline marriages! That sounds ridiculous but when humans fall in love they sometimes get married or they enter into long-term relationships. They create babies. But when a male cat wants to create babies, they simply mate with a female cat and then clear off and disappear. There is no love in that lovemaking process. It is a functional procreation process. You don’t get marriages in the feline world. You’ll see friendships between cats, often male-to-male and female-to-female, in feral cat colonies when they rub against each other and associate with each other. So, there is an emotional attachment but the classic male-female love in the domestic cat world does not exist.

Cat owner allows their cat to extensively bite and scratch their hand
Cat owner allows their cat to extensively bite and scratch their hand. Photo in public domain.

Biting is a form of play

It is an anomaly that biting, which can hurt, is meant to be a sign of love or affection. That’s why I don’t think it truly is a sign of affection. It is a form of behavior grounded in domestic cat play which is essentially play-hunting. And hunting results in biting. That, I think, is the more accurate answer. It is my personal answer and it probably is different to the answers that you will see elsewhere on the Internet.


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