The Love-Hate Relationship. Why Cats Groom Then Bite

Introduction

It’s common for cats who have bonded with each other to groom one another as an act of affection. Mutual grooming serves to strengthen social connections between cats. During a grooming session, one cat will lick and gently bite the other cat’s fur to remove dirt and loose hair. Often these grooming interactions start out peaceful, with both cats purring and appearing relaxed. However, friendly grooming between cats frequently escalates into more aggressive biting that goes beyond normal cleaning. This seemingly contradictory behavior of affectionate grooming that leads to bites can be perplexing for cat owners.

Social Bonding

When cats groom or are groomed by other cats, their brains release oxytocin, also known as the “love hormone” or “bonding hormone” (Source). Oxytocin strengthens social connections and promotes bonding behaviors in many species, including humans and cats. Researchers have found that friendly interactions with humans, like petting and cuddling, also cause cats’ oxytocin levels to spike (Source).

In addition to oxytocin, grooming releases endorphins in cats’ brains. Endorphins are neurotransmitters that produce feelings of pleasure and relaxation. The combination of oxytocin and endorphins released while cats groom makes the experience enjoyable and reinforces their social bond. Cats who frequently groom each other are likely to develop closer relationships.

Overstimulation

Too much grooming can overstimulate cats and cause them to bite as a response. Grooming releases endorphins, which while pleasurable, can also overwhelm a cat if done excessively. The Petting-Induced or Overstimulation Aggression in Cats article by the Humane Society of Huron Valley explains that “When endorphin levels get too high, cats can become over-stimulated and annoyed, which may cause them to bite” (https://www.hshv.org/petting-induced-or-overstimulation-aggression-in-cats/).

Cats have sensitive nervous systems and their tolerance for stimulation varies. A post on Reddit confirms that biting due to overstimulation is “a direct response to overstimulation” when a cat’s nerves are overwhelmed (https://www.reddit.com/r/cats/comments/1172p2n/love_bites_aka_pettinginduced_biting_or/). The key is to pay attention to a cat’s body language and stop petting before they get overstimulated.

Communication

Cats may bite each other while grooming as a way to communicate that they’ve had enough grooming or to establish dominance. According to the website Why do my cats bite each other, while grooming?, cats give “love bites” during grooming, which are harmless but signal that grooming time is over or that the cat wants to be left alone.

Biting can also communicate dominance, with the biter attempting to exert control over the groomee. Cats have a social hierarchy, so a dominant cat may bite a more submissive cat to say “I’m in charge here.” This often occurs between cats that are establishing their relationship.

Play Behavior

Cats may transition from grooming to playful biting as a means of social bonding. Grooming releases endorphins that can make a cat feel relaxed yet energetic. This can lead to playful behavior like biting or grabbing with their paws. It’s a way for cats to interact and strengthen their relationship through play. While painful, this type of biting is not meant to be aggressive. Cats have sensitive skin so their play bites can still cause discomfort. Shifting into play mode allows cats to practice hunting techniques together. The grooming brings them close, then the nipping and grabbing mimics the actions they would use to catch prey. It satisfies their natural hunting instincts. Overall, transitioning from grooming to playful biting enables social bonding, energy release, and lets cats indulge their predatory nature through safe, friendly interaction.

Sources:

[Why Do Cats Bite Their Fur? Is your pet overgrooming? – Feliway](https://us.feliway.com/blogs/news/why-do-cats-bite-their-fur-is-your-pet-overgrooming)

[Biting while grooming?? My cat started biting himself hard … – Reddit](https://www.reddit.com/r/felinebehavior/comments/t9q0c0/biting_while_grooming_my_cat_started_biting/)

Stress Response

Excessive grooming can be a sign of stress or anxiety in cats. When a cat is feeling stressed, they may overgroom as a self-soothing behavior. The repetitive motion of licking and biting can help calm their nerves. However, overgrooming can reach the point where it leads to hair loss, skin irritation, and even self-mutilation. At this stage, the grooming itself becomes stressful for the cat.

As cats feel increasing stress from excessive grooming, they may begin biting themselves. The biting stems from feeling overwhelmed and overstimulated. It can be a desperate attempt by the cat to interrupt the grooming cycle. Biting provides momentary relief from stress through an intense competing sensation. However, the underlying anxiety remains unresolved. Without treating the root cause of stress, cats are likely to return to obsessive grooming and biting after a short period of relief.

If you notice your cat excessively grooming and biting, it’s important to identify sources of stress. Changes in environment, schedule, health or relationships can trigger anxiety. Cat bites during grooming may be a cry for help. Providing environmental enrichment, routine, affection and medical care can help relieve stress and curb harmful overgrooming behaviors.

One tip to stop the cycle is to interrupt your cat when you notice excessive grooming. Gently distract them with play or treats to shift their focus. But ultimately, determine what’s causing their stress and take steps to address it.

Medical Causes

One of the most common reasons cats may bite themselves while grooming is due to medical issues like skin irritation, fleas, or allergies. Cats have very sensitive skin, and conditions that cause itching or discomfort can lead to excessive grooming and biting as a response. According to Daily Paws, “Skin conditions, allergies, parasites, and pain can all cause your pet to overgroom or [bite].”

Fleas are a major trigger for cats to bite themselves when grooming. The bites from fleas cause intense itching, and cats will aggressively groom in an attempt to relieve the irritation. However, this grooming can lead to biting as they overstimulate their already inflamed skin. As pointed out on Feliway, “Always check with the vet if you notice any overgrooming behavior. Skin conditions, allergies, parasites, and pain can all cause your pet to overgroom or [bite].”

Allergies are another common medical reason for biting during grooming. Just like in humans, cats can develop allergies to things like food, plants, or environmental irritants. The resulting skin irritation leads to scratching and chewing. According to Quora, cats may “bite themselves when grooming [due to] skin irritation or allergies, causing them to itch and bite.” Checking with a vet can help identify and treat the underlying cause.

Breed Tendencies

Some cat breeds are more prone to biting while grooming due to their energetic and playful personalities. For example, Bengal cats are known for being active and requiring a lot of stimulation. If not provided with enough playtime and enrichment, they may bite themselves or others during grooming out of boredom or excess energy. Similarly, Abyssinians and Siamese are intelligent, vocal breeds that can become overstimulated and bite from too much petting or grooming. On the other hand, more relaxed breeds like Ragdolls and British Shorthairs are less likely to bite during grooming sessions.

According to a discussion on Reddit, playful breeds that are prone to attacking hands and feet like Savannah cats are also more apt to bite during overstimulating social grooming (source). Knowing your cat’s breed tendencies can help prevent biting by providing appropriate outlets and adjusting the stimulation level of grooming.

Preventing Biting

To avoid overstimulation and biting during grooming, there are several tips cat owners can follow:

  • Keep grooming sessions brief and end at the first sign of agitation, such as twitching skin, swishing tail, or flattened ears. This prevents overstimulation.
  • Use a soft brush or comb and brush gently in the direction of hair growth. Avoid pulling or tugging on knots.
  • Distract with treats or toys if signs of overstimulation occur. This redirects biting behavior.
  • Schedule more frequent, shorter grooming sessions to keep coat maintenance manageable.
  • Use synthetic facial pheromones like Feliway to help relax cats during grooming.
  • Identify and address sources of stress or anxiety that may be triggering the biting behavior.
  • Consult a vet to rule out medical causes like allergies, pain, or skin irritation.

With patience and these tips, cat owners can make grooming less likely to cause overstimulation and biting.

Conclusion

In summary, cats groom each other as an important social bonding activity and expression of affection. Mutual grooming strengthens relationships between cats by distributing scent, removing irritants, and releasing pleasurable endorphins. However, cats may also bite during grooming due to overstimulation, as a communication signal, while playing, from stress, or for medical reasons. Despite the occasional nip, social grooming remains essential to feline society. Understanding the complex motivations behind this behavior allows cat owners to provide a rich social environment and prevent problematic biting.

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