It can hurt in more than one way when your cat suddenly bites you. It’s even more baffling when the bite follows a loving lick. Before you take the out-of-nowhere bite personally, cat behavioral experts say to consider your feline’s reasoning behind the seemingly unprovoked attack.
“Body language is key,” says LeeAnna Buis, CFTBS, at Feline Behavior Solutions. “Instead of waiting for serious cues like biting, hissing, and swatting, watch for subtle indicators.” She adds that if your cat suddenly becomes sensitive to touch, that’s a sign it’s time to see your vet. Here are the most common reasons your cat licks and then bites you, plus how to stop the cat bites and nips.
Why does my cat lick me and then bite me? 8 reasons
1. Affection: The love bite
Cats lick you for the same reasons they lick their feline friends—to groom and to bond, says our Certified Cat Behaviorist at Cat World, Katenna Jones, CAAB. If a loving nibble follows a lick, it’s likely your cat is leaving his scent and marking you as his human. These small “love bites” won’t break the skin or cause discomfort.
2. Correcting you: You’re not petting your cat right
Cats will bite each other and us when they’re not being groomed or petted how they would like to be. “Cats tend to be more likely to bite as a means of ending the interaction or possibly even getting you to hold still,” Jones explains. “When my cat is grooming her sister and her sister doesn’t do something right, she’ll bite her.”
Cats can be very particular about how they like to be touched. In general, cat-approved pets are in the same direction as fur growth (not back and forth), under the chin, between the ears, and against the cheeks.
3. Overstimulation: Your cat has had enough of your pets
A friendly feline suddenly biting their human companion isn’t unheard of. Actually, it’s pretty common and is usually due to overstimulation, Buis says. “Overstimulation isn’t just caused by big, intense petting sessions. Sometimes just a minute of gentle petting can cause a bite or other form of overstimulation aggression.”
Some tell-tale signs your cat has had enough pets include:
- Twitching skin
- Light or intense swishing of the tail
- Ears turning slightly to the back or side
4. Feeling playful: Your cat is telling you that they want to play
Providing opportunities for mental and physical stimulation is good for your cat’s health—and keeps him from attacking your feet, arms, and the couch. Buis says biting is usually a sign of pent-up energy. While it’s tempting to wrestle his tummy with your hand, opt for a wand toy, kicker, or other energy-burning play.
5. Instincts: Your cat wants to hunt
Your happy house cat comes from a long line of fierce hunters. He might not have to look further than his bowl for a meal, but his predatory drive is very active. If your cat licks and bites you, then tries to pull at or shake your hand with their mouth—it’s time for a satisfying game of cat and (toy) mouse.
6. Stress: Your cat may be stressed or anxious
Anxiety and stress might look like increased aggression in your cat, including biting, swatting, and hissing. Other signs of stress may include:
- Not using the litter box
- Change in appetite
- Change in sleeping habits
7. Fear: Your cat has been spooked
A lick and the proceeding bite might be unrelated to you completely. It’s called redirected aggression and is brought on by a sudden scare. Your cat could have heard an unfamiliar noise in the next room or spotted the neighborhood tomcat roaming the porch. Your hand happens to be the next best thing to attack.
8. Underlying health condition: Petting causes your cat discomfort
If your cat licks and then bites you when your touch or pet a particular area, he might be telling you he has pain or discomfort. “If your cat suddenly becomes sensitive to touch, it’s important to see your veterinarian,” Buis advises.
How do I get my cat to stop biting me?
It’s a rewarding experience for both you and your cat to give and receive kisses. If those kitty kisses are followed by a nip or a bite, gentle encouragement to change behavior is recommended. Like other sudden changes in behavior or mood, a visit to the vet might be warranted to rule out any underlying health conditions.
Give him toys to bite
Play with your cat should satisfy their predatory drive. Choose toys that squirm, fly, and flitter like real prey would. Encourage your cat to stalk, pounce, and “kill” the prey. The most important part, says Buis, is ending with something he can bite—and ideally, that’s not your foot or hand. “Wind the play session down and follow it with a chewy treat to simulate eating their prey,” she says.
If a cat licks and then bites you while being pet, you might have missed subtle signs of overstimulation. Buis knows it can be difficult to recognize when your cat says, “I’ve had enough pets,” or “Please don’t touch me there.” So, she says to try a cat petting formula:
- Allow your cat to ask for petting first by holding your hand up and waiting to see if they rub against it.
- Pet your cat for about 60 seconds. If they’re particularly sensitive, this might be less. Then, take a break. If your cat wants more attention, he’ll let you know.
- Pet for another 60 seconds, then another break.
Some cats prefer to sit quietly without being touched at all. “The most important thing is to consider how they want to be petted, not how we want to pet them,” Buis says.
Discourage the action early on
Kittens are known offenders to little nips and bites. They’re playful, teething, and learning how to express their instincts to hunt. “It’s tempting to rustle that kitty belly with your hands and let them grab on and bunny kick you,” Buis says. “But you can’t expect your cat to know when hands are supposed to be played with and when to be gentle or leave them alone.”
Instead, teach your cat or kitten early on that your hands and feet aren’t toys. Introduce your cat to kickers, stuffed mice, and other toys they can kick and bite.
What to do if the bite is aggressive
If your cat is suddenly aggressive, he is trying to tell you something isn’t right. Your vet can help rule out environmental changes that could cause stress or diagnose an underlying health condition.
Jones says to watch out for, and notify your vet of, any common threads causing the sudden aggression. “For example, do you notice that your cat is more likely to growl when you are petting in a certain direction, speed, or spot? Does the aggression occur at a certain time of day? What about a particular location,” she asks. These are all important questions to get to the root of your cat’s sudden aggressive biting.
Frequently asked questions
Q: What causes cats to bite?
If a cat licks and then bites you when being pet, he’s likely overstimulated and wants a break from the human touch. Adult cats bite due to stress, redirected aggression, to play, or could have an underlying health condition that causes pain when touched. Kittens will bite o nibble when teething and learning how to play. A cat’s natural hunting instincts should be redirected to toys, not your hands and feet.
Cats bite each other to assert dominance, play, or respond to a threat.
Q: Why does a cat lick?
Licking is an important tool for cats to groom themselves and others. When your cat licks you or another cat, he’s bonding through grooming.
Q: Why does my cat lick my other cat and then bite?
Bonded cats will groom one another to show affection. They might lightly bite to show affection, hold the other in place, and swap scents.
Q: Why does my cat lick and then bite me but not my partner?
Chances are that you and your partner pet your cat differently. It might be that your cat doesn’t like how you are petting him. He is biting because he is overstimulated, is telling you to stop petting him, or wants you to change how you’re petting him.
If the biting isn’t associated with petting and is a light love nibble, you might consider yourself the favorite pet parent.