Biting is usually seen as a form of aggression in cats, but what if they were licking you first? Why in the world would a cat lick you first only to bite you a few seconds later?
When a cat licks and then bites you, it can be for several reasons, including showing you affection, telling you they’re done with this interaction, or trying to spark a playful exchange. To know where this licking and biting is coming from, you’ll need to look at some other clues as well.
1. Licking and Biting as a Sign of Affection
You’re undoubtedly aware that when cats groom themselves, their tongue is the main tool used to smooth and clean their hair. Long, luxurious licks are often coupled with quick bites or nibbles to remove dirt, seeds, or mats.
Cats are social creatures. In the wild, they will often live in clans where multiple cats share in the hunting, sheltering, and even the grooming duties. When cats groom other cats, they will also lick and then bite in order to get their haircoat in peak condition.
Your housecat considers you part of their clan. They will groom you just as they would any other furry member. So, while you’re busy petting and loving on them, they may try to return the favor by grooming you-often with a lick and then a bite or nibble. These types of bites aren’t hard and don’t break the skin. You won’t find any other signs of aggression, such as growling, hissing, or tail switching. They will most likely be calm, have their eyes half-closed, and continue to lick you after the bite.
You usually don’t have to do anything to correct this behavior. But if you aren’t a huge fan, you can try ignoring your cat to let them know you didn’t appreciate their love bite.
2. Licking and Biting as a Form of Play
When you’re right in the middle of an epic petting session, your kitty may see this as an opportunity to turn that attention to something a little more rambunctious. Sort of a “while I have you here” action.
This type of biting isn’t usually hard; just enough to get your attention. They may also curl up and play-kick you with their hind legs, or immediately jump up and dart around as if in pursuit of something. This will be more common in younger kitties that are prone to playing anyway.
Again, no aggression here. Although, they may stand back and twitch their tail as they prepare to pounce on you for the next round of play. If this isn’t what you had in mind, simply ignore the behavior and move onto something else. Don’t punish your kitty for play-biting, and don’t continue to play with them until they’re ready to play nice. Make sure you use a toy as a middleman so that your cat won’t abuse your fingers or hands.
3. Licking and Biting to Tell You They’re Done
Even the greatest and most relaxed petting sessions can’t go on forever. While we are usually the ones to end these fluffy lovefests, sometimes your cat may decide that enough is enough. They may start by licking you as a way of saying thank you for the attention and then bite you to signal the end of the interaction.
Often, a cat will get up and leave after they bite you if this is the message they are trying to convey. However, if you happen to be sitting in their favorite napping spot, they may prefer that you leave instead. This might bring out a little aggression with some soft hissing or growling or even some claw-less batting until you get the idea and leave.
With this type of behavior, ending the interaction is exactly what they want. Walking away and ignoring their behavior may not be the best way to let them know you don’t appreciate them biting you.
Instead, you’ll want to end it on your terms. Try to watch their body language and stop petting them before they bite. They may get tense, pin their ears against their head, or start to squirm around a little before biting you. You can then stop petting them and even set them down on the floor or move them away from you so that they understand that this was your idea and that they don’t need to bite you.
Are Cat Licks and Bites Unhealthy?
Cat’s mouths aren’t the most sanitary places to hang out, but a few harmless licks or nibbles on your skin isn’t going to cause much of an issue unless you have open wounds. However, it’s never a bad idea to wash your hands and arms after petting or playing with your cat. This helps to remove excess germs and dander that may cause your allergies to act up.
Most bites after licking that you receive from your cat aren’t going to break the skin. They probably won’t even leave an indentation. If that’s the case, you’re good to go. If a bite does break the skin, it’s best to wash thoroughly with soap and water to reduce the chance of infection.
Cat bites can commonly cause abscesses, and a more severe condition caused cellulitis if left untreated.
Cats have many behaviors that we often view as strange, with licking and then biting us topping most of our lists. However, it can be completely natural for cats within their cat community (of which you are part). Most of the time, take your cat’s licking and biting as a sign of affection and acceptance. Just be sure you can tell the difference between being playful and when they mean more serious business.
Dr. Chyrle Bonk has been practicing veterinary medicine since 2010. She lives in Idaho with her husband and two sons, where they spend their free time exploring the great outdoors that is right in their backyard.