Wrex and Garrus are the first cats I ever owned and they are extremely cuddly and love being stroked. Imagine my surprise when they first started to lick my hand, then suddenly bit me. Let’s look at why cats do this and if it’s a behavior you need to worry about.
Why does my cat lick and bite my fingers?
Cats will lick their owner for a variety of reasons: To strengthen their bond with you, to get rid of smells or to cover you in their smell. If they lick and then gently bite you, think of it as a cat love bite, a way to show affection through gentle nibbling. If they bite you hard, however, your cat might have an underlying medical condition that’s causing it pain.
But let’s look at all of these scenario sin greater detail.
There are several reasons why cats lick their owner:
- To strengthen the bond to humans.
If you have more than one cat, you may have noticed how cats often lick and clean each other. This is a social behavior to strengthen the bond between cats, or it can be a way to calm down the other cat if it is angry or aggressive. In any case, it is meant to be a loving behavior and you should be happy that your cat shows you such affection (but be sure to wash your hands afterwards!).
- To get rid of smells.
Cats clean themselves with their tongue. After they’ve eaten, they will lick themselves for a long time to get any remains of food and any smells out of their fur. In the wild, they want to get rid of the smell so no other predators will find them. Similarly, if your cats are lying on you and you’re emitting a smell, they sometimes try to lick the smell off so you don’t attract other predators. As a bonus, you will then smell like your cat and your cat will see you as its property.
- To take up smells.
Cats also like to lick things that taste nice. Spilled milk, crumbs, anything they can get their tongues on. If I cut up carrots or anything else that has an interesting smell, my cats like to smell and like my hands.
Having a cat lick your hands or arms may not always be pleasant, as cat tongues are fairly rough, but what is worse is a cat suddenly biting you.
Why does my cat bite me out of nowhere?
There are four reasons why the cat might suddenly bite you when you pet it:
- Declaration of love
If your cat is purring when you’re stroking it and maybe even drools contently, a gentle bite on your hand or finger is usually a sign of affection. If a cat play bites you, it’s not trying to hurt you. A play bite usually doesn’t hurt, and even if you’d rather your cat didn’t bite you, there’s no aggressiveness involved. Your cat loves you, be happy!
- Playful behaviour
If your cat becomes restless while you’re stroking it and maybe also touches you with its paws, this can simply be playful behavior. Garrus sometimes lies on his favorite chair and lets you stroke him for a good long while, then he’ll suddenly grab your arm and bite it a bit during play. He simply has a lot of energy and enjoys play-fighting. Of course it’s best not to encourage this behavior and you’re well-advised never to use your hands to play with your cats. Use fishing pole toys or similar and make sure you signal to your cat that your hands are off-limits. You might have fun playing this way with a kitten, but a grown cat attacking your hands is no fun.
- A warning
Many cats do not like to be touched on their belly or their paws. If you stroke your cat and suddenly feel your cat’s teeth, you should see this as a warning to lay off the area. Usually, there are other warning signals as well if your cat doesn’t like something. Often you can see your cat’s tail twitching or swishing back and forth. This is also a warning, and if you heed it, it might not start biting you. If your cat gives you a bite as a warning, the first bite is usually fairly gentle.
In few cases, your cat’s bite will actually hurt. Sometimes cats will become aggressive towards their owner. This should not happen if you’re being gentle with your cat and it shows no other signs of aggression. If your cat suddenly bites you unprovoked while being stroked, it might experience pain due to a medical condition and the pain can lead to aggression. Examples are an inflammation that is causing your cat discomfort or a broken bone or broken paw that will hurt when touched. If this sudden aggressiveness appears, you might want to have your cat checked by a veterinarian.
How to stop a cat from biting while petting
It is certainly sweet to be nibbled by a kitten, but it can be much more unpleasant in an adult cat. If your cat starts to bite you, you should immediately stop stroking it or playing with it and loudly say „Ouch!“ or similar. It will then realize it did something wrong, something that made the play-time or stroking stop, and it will learn that this is undesired behavior.
Do not punish your cat. Cats will learn how to behave through positive reinforcement, not through punishment. (This is also how clicker training your cat works.) If you punish your cat, it will not learn to stop the behavior, but it will learn that it can’t trust its human because the human sometimes lashes out for no reason.
If your cat starts nibbling on you and you stop playing with him and put him on the ground, you’re not punishing it but taking away the positive reinforcement of play. Your cat will learn that the game continues if it doesn’t bite you and it won’t bite you in the future.
Another thing that can help when your cat likes to play-fight with you is to exhaust your cat. If your cat is bored and it’s energy and aggression build up, it might „discharge“ and attack you, even if it’s just trying to play with you. So play with your cat regularly, make him run around your home and let off steam until he’s tired and happy and overall more balanced. Then your furry friend can enjoy a friendly stroking session on your lap and not see it as an invitation to play.
If you need some inspiration for cat toys, see my article on cat toys where I tell you which toys my cats liked and which they didn’t.
Talk to your vet
Lastly, if your cat’s aggression is brought on by an underlying medical condition, an inflammation, a broken bone or a tumor, you’ll need to get him treatment. Get your cat examined if he suddenly becomes aggressive and find out the underlying cause. Bones can mend, inflammations can heal and even tumors can often be treated. Get your cat treated early to save it from needless suffering.
I hope this article gave you a good overview of the reasons why your cat might suddenly bite you unprovoked and I hope you can solve the issue and spend many happy years with your furry companion.