- Not a substitute for professional veterinary help.
Your cat is playing a lovely game of “nuzzle my head into your palm” with you and then wham, out of nowhere, your cat nips you. And man, cat teeth are sharp. What the heck, though? You were having a good time. So why is your cat biting you?
There’s a common name for interactions like this, actually—it’s called “love biting,” or pet-induced aggression. Admittedly, we don’t love these bites. According to PetMD, it’s a seriously common behavioral complaint among cat owners.
Of course, there are also more aggressive bites that are clearly not the product of misdirected affection. And cat bites can be dangerous. Here’s what you need to know.
1. Love bite
Love bites, again, usually happen when you and your cat are otherwise being affectionate. It’s a nip, and in most cases it doesn’t break the skin. It might start out with licking before you feel the graze of teeth against your hands. In other words, your cat won’t be showing you any other signs of aggression—they won’t be hissing or clawing at you, or trying to get away.
That said, love bites are usually actually a sign that the cat is done with cuddling or being petted, as Kelly Ballantyne, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist at the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois, Chicago, told PetMD. Essentially, a cat nips you because they’re overstimulated and you’re not getting the message.
Mentally rewind: were there any more subtle signs your cat was sending that suggested they were done with playing? If not, try to pay more attention the next time you’re interacting with your cat to see if you can better recognize her cues. The ASPCA has a great list of signs to look out for.
Bummer fact: not all cats enjoy being petted, and some cats have areas of their body that they don’t like being touched, like their bellies or near their tail.
Or, if it was especially light and it happened while your cat was licking you, it could be an accident. They’re trying to groom you, and their teeth, well, slipped.
2. Your cat was “hunting” you
If you were playing with your cat with a hunting-type toy—say a wand toy—and your cat ended up biting you, it could be that she was so focused on the excitement of the hunt that it got warped into biting you, according to Dr. Kathrynn Primm at IHeartCats. Chalk it up to how focused kitties get—it’s just in their DNA.
3. Your cat is being aggressive
If your cat’s bite had precursors of hissing, growling, and her ears were laid back, that’s a pretty good sign that your cat was peeved and was biting you, on purpose, out of aggression. There are a few reasons this can happen according to the ASPCA, from your cat feeling fearful, territorial or defensive to your cat acting out something called “redirected aggression.”
Redirected aggression happens when your cat was previously aroused by something they couldn’t get to, like an animal out the window, and then they redirect that arousal at you (or another pet) by being aggressive. It’s common, and the attack can happen even hours later.
If that sounds like your cat, you’ll need to seek out a veterinary behaviorist to see if you can course-correct so that you and your kitty can make peace. The sooner, the better.
Punishing an aggressive cat won’t work, Dr. Primm says, and while you set up an appointment, just try not to make your cat angry or escalate the situation.
If your cat bites you but it doesn’t break the skin, you’ll want to figure out what’s causing the behavior, but you don’t need to seek medical attention.
If the bite does break the skin, wash the area with water immediately, VCA Hospitals advises. You can rinse it with a salt solution, but don’t use any disinfectants.
If the bleeding hasn’t stopped, you can compress the area. You need to see a doctor ASAP. Cats have a lot of unfriendly bacteria in their mouths, and a bite can transfer them to make humans very sick, according to VCA Hospitals. A bite can lead to flu-like symptoms, fever, and even death (though this is very rare.) Young people, old people, and folks who are already ill or immunocompromised are most at risk.
Your doctor will likely have to file a report based on the bite. If your cat isn’t current on their rabies vaccinations, they may need to be quarantined for a short time.
The important thing to note is: cat biting shouldn’t be taken lightly. If love bites happen more than once, or if your cat is aggressive even once, it’s time to talk to a professional to get help. Your cat shouldn’t feel that much unease around somebody who loves her—and you shouldn’t get hurt when trying to be the best cat person you can be.