You and your cat are enjoying some fun one-on-one interaction. You're petting her and she purrs in return and maybe head butts against your hand. At some point, while still purring, she grabs your hand with her teeth. She seems to hardly apply any pressure, holding your hand with her teeth, while still purring away contently. Congratulations! You have received a "love bite" from your kitty!
What does a "love bite" from a cat mean?A very gentle bite is a sign of intimacy in the feline world. As cats groom each other, they will often turn a lick into a gentle holding bite too. As long as your cat is relaxed, her tail isn't twitching and above all, the bite isn't forceful, she's probably telling you that she's enjoying the interaction. Very often, a cat will be licking your hand before and right after the love bite.
How to tell love bites apart from aggressive biting?It's easy to confuse benign love biting with real aggressive biting. If you get bitten while petting Kitty, it's not necessarily an expression of affection.
These may not be real "love bites" but actual aggression-derived bites or possibly playtime aggression. Even if your cat doesn't break the skin while biting, she may still be telling you to back off and stop petting her. Instead of a sign of intimacy, biting in this case falls under the category "petting-induced aggression".
Kittens often turn a petting session into aggressive play, trying to grab your fingers and hands, claw at you and bite. They may also gnaw on your hand as a way to relieve teething discomfort. You should not confuse these behaviors with love bites. While they are just "kittens being kittens", it's important to gently teach your kitten that they are not allowed.
For inexperienced cat owners, it can be difficult to tell the types of bites apart. Generally speaking, love bites are gentle and the cat tends to stop within a few seconds and get back to licking your hand. Aggressive biting (whether playtime-induced or petting-induced) tends to be more fierce and preceded by several warning signs, such as tail lashing and dilated pupils.
Can you tell which type of biting is shown in this image?
Experienced cat owners should be able to read the signs even from a still picture like this one. If you look at the cat's expression, you can see that the ears are flattened, the pupils are dilated and the cat is grabbing onto the hand with both teeth and claws. So, if you guessed this is aggressive biting, you were right. It doesn't matter whether or not it was initiated during petting or from rough play with the cat - at this point, it's aggressive biting.
Never encourage a kitten or a cat to "rough play" with your hands. Sure, a tiny 5-week-old kitten looks cute when he tries to struggle with a human hand, but eventually those teeth and claws will become much stronger and it won't be as much fun. Even if you're willing to suffer through bites and scratches, this is stressful for your cat and is best avoided.
Learning to read your cat's body language is key in determining what kind of biting you're dealing with. You can read more about petting-induced aggression - and how to avoid it - in our article about feline aggression toward people.
Should you stop your cat from giving you "love bites"?If you're sure that these are love bites and they never escalate into actual aggression, then there's no harm in them. As far as your cat is concerned, these gentle bites are part of your mutual grooming ritual. Consider yourself very lucky! Not many cat owners reach this level of intimacy with their cat.
However, if the bites are - or become - aggressive, or even if the cat becomes tense and seems uncomfortable, then you should no longer consider them "love bites". Aggression is never a positive thing in a relationship and for a cat to be properly bonded with her owner, it's best for all concerned if aggression is taken out of the equation.
In order to wean your cat from biting your hands, you'll have to learn to read her body language and try to assess when she might be ready to bite. When you feel that your hand may be grabbed by those teeth, simply stop petting your cat and move your hand away.
If you managed to stop in time and there was no teeth-to-skin contact, you can reward your cat with verbal praise and/or a treat. If you missed the exact moment, and ended up with a bite, just wait for your cat to let go of your hand, and move away.
Never punish your cat or scold her. Click here to read more about why you should never punish a cat (and what can be done instead). As with any behavioral modification, consistency and patience are imperative, so stick to your decision and give your cat some time to figure out the new rules.
Tell us about your cat's love bites in a comment! Need help telling love bites apart from aggression or help with dealing with any behavior issues? Post your question in the cat behavior forum.