What should I do about my cat's love bites?
December 4, 2011 11:15 AM   Subscribe

How should I respond to my cat's playful nipping?

As discussed here and here, I recently adopted a cat, The Grey Lady Jane Grey.

She is recovering from tapeworm, and more importantly, from a stressful vet visit. (It's been about a week.) The Boyfriend and I are delighted that she's in perfect health now, and we're also relieved (though also sad) that not a single person responded to any of the ads we posted about having found her. She's finally, for certain, our cat.

But here's the thing. She's recently (within the last several weeks) started biting me. Not with any force at all -- it doesn't hurt, there are no marks. She does it in the morning when I wake up: she'll bite at my skirt and my hand and she'll do it all while looking perfectly happy. If she can reach my boob, she particularly likes to bite me right on the nipple, but she settles for my hand if it's the closest thing. She'll do it after offering her neck up to me for chin scritchies, and though I make it clear with a stern "No!" that nipping is uncool, she's still doing it with increasing frequency.

In the first few days we were getting to know her, there were a few incidents in which she actually bit in a painful way, but she was clearly in distress then, or in hunting mode and testing her boundaries. We would say "Ouch!" and walk away, (mainly because it really did hurt), and that behavior stopped.

She has replaced it with this playful nipping, which though completely painless seems like something we ought to discourage. She does it not only during play (hunting) time, but also during cuddle time. Oh, and she mostly only does it to me, often while saying hello. She rarely love-bites The Boyfriend.

Am I overly concerned about the bite-y stuff? Should I just go with it, and realize my cat likes to bat at me and nip at me and she thinks it's all in good fun? Should I try to socialize her more so that she doesn't do this, in which case, how? I don't want her to get confused about affection time, or to think her affection is unwelcome. It's just this one behavior that worries me.

(I am pretty sure this is not a health thing. It's a behavior that was manifesting before the worminess and that has continued after the worminess.)
posted by brina to Pets & Animals (11 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
My kitten did that, and it drove me batty. She was obviously being affectionate in her boneheaded way, and really didn't want to stop.

The only thing that finally worked was every single time she did it, I not only said "No!" and stopped petting her, I ejected her from my lap/the bed/the couch with prejudice. Cuddle time was over. That fixed it pretty quickly, actually - within a month, I'd say. She still will occasionally lean a tooth on my arm when she's totally blissed-out, but she'll usually catch herself and pull back, and if not, off she goes.

(I think it's a weaning thing - my cat was hand-raised so totally socialized to humans, but her mom was feral and I'm not sure how long she stuck around to nurse the kids after giving birth on a coworker's porch.)
posted by restless_nomad at 11:20 AM on December 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

One of my cats does the same thing - never during play time, only during cuddle time and her preference seems to be when I'm still warmand pink from the shower. Like restless_nomad, I've gotten her to do it much less through immediate withdrawl of cuddle privileges. Quick, boring no (without much fuss - she's the more....scientifically minded of the two and I could see her trying it again if she thought it might get an interesting reaction) and ejection from the bed/lap.

I have a friend who thinks it's cute when her cat play-bites and weird that both of my cats look at her like she's crazy when she tries to get them to play with her hands. Both of mine seem to understand that biting is not ok (though Esme does occassionally slip up when the warm, pink flesh is too tempting).
posted by brambory at 11:27 AM on December 4, 2011

Our cats did this as kittens. It never really hurt and I thought it was adorable, so we never did anything to discourage it other than to say "Oww!" when they got a little enthusiastic, and they grew out of it on their own.
posted by joshuaconner at 11:42 AM on December 4, 2011

I would continue with the "no!" (with optional "Ow!"--my female cat, who can be overenthusiastic while kneading, has learned to be more gentle if I yelp) followed by immediately dumping the cat and walking off. Cats are very good with immediate cause and effect: if you follow this routine every time she nips, without fail, she'll get the point.
posted by thomas j wise at 11:54 AM on December 4, 2011

Try this: Instead of saying "no" when she nips, HISS at her, exactly like a mother cat would do to train a kitten. When you say "no," you're speaking English; when you hiss, you're speaking cat. Start with a fairly quiet, mild hiss; if you really put your heart and soul into it you can scare the entire bejeesus out of them, and you don't want that.

I had exactly this problem with playful biting by one of my cats, and it went away within a couple of days once I started speaking her language. I'll never forget her "WTF?" look the first time I did it. Once she understood me, she stopped.
posted by Corvid at 11:59 AM on December 4, 2011 [6 favorites]

when she bites you, flick her in the nose. perfectly harmless, but they don't like it
posted by cupcake1337 at 12:01 PM on December 4, 2011

Cuddle time was over.

This is it. Say No!, stop playing immediately and this should stop the behavior. They'll see that the nipping means OMG PLAY WITH HUMANS OVER NO WAY THIS IS TERRIBLE NOW WHAT and it'll be cut right out of routine.
posted by sweetkid at 12:31 PM on December 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

I asked a similar question a while back. There might be some helpful answers for you there.
posted by patheral at 2:27 PM on December 4, 2011

See, I have no problem with it at all. Dunno if I'd be okay with the nip-biting (ow!?!) but hand-bites, as long as they don't hurt and are intended as playful/loving, are to me a sign of love and friendship.

this from the one whose cat wakes me up by clawing the pillow, just so she can have bellyrubs at 5am. i'm such a tool. don't become me.
posted by Heretical at 8:28 PM on December 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

Knowing why your cat is doing this might help soooo... The cat is marking you, which is a sign of affection, it's also why cats rub their faces and the sides of themselves against things they like. You'll probably notice the cat rubbing the side of its mouth against things like the bottom corner of your TV or tables.

It's not a health issue. If you don't like the behavior, put the cat down and ignore it when it bites you like that, but personally I find it affectionate. This is much different than hard biting which is never acceptable.

You can still train the cat to only 'love bite' acceptable areas by just putting her down/going away if she bites a part of you that you don't like. Also, know that if you pet the cat too long it might bite you. Watch the tail, as soon as it starts twitching, stop petting the cat.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 1:24 PM on January 3, 2012

One last thing, as you noted, she only does it to you (rarely your BF) and certainly wouldn't do it to any random stranger. So don't think you have to break the behavior because she might flip out on someone else. That won't happen in this case.

But retrain if you want. I understand how it can be weird or uncomfortable. I'm glad your kitten likes you!
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 1:25 PM on January 3, 2012

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