The Purr-plexing Behavior. Why Does My Cat Lick Then Attack?

Introduction

It’s not uncommon for cat owners to experience their feline friends giving them an affectionate lick, only to follow up with a quick nip or bite. This contradictory behavior can be confusing, leaving owners wondering why their cat is biting them after grooming. While this lick-bite sequence may seem peculiar, it’s often a normal part of a cat’s communication style.

In fact, studies show that around 50-60% of cats alternate between licking and gentle biting when interacting with their owners. It’s an instinctive feline behavior rooted in their ancestry and social dynamics. With some detective work, cat parents can usually decipher the meaning behind kitty’s mixed messages.

Explaining the Behavior

The lick-bite behavior is when a cat will gently lick your skin, then follow it up with a nibble or light bite. Often the bites are soft and don’t break the skin. Cats exhibit this behavior while grooming themselves or other cats, and they will also direct it towards their human companions.

Licking is a social bonding behavior for cats, often done between cats that have close relationships. The licks are meant as a sign of affection. When a cat licks you, it’s showing that it cares about you and sees you as part of its social group.

However, sometimes those licks turn into playful little nips or nibbles. There are a few possible reasons a cat might lick then bite:

Affectionate Grooming

It is common for cats who live together or have a close bond to groom each other as a sign of affection. Licking and grooming releases endorphins and oxytocin that promotes wellbeing, bonding and relaxation in cats [1]. For related cats or cats that have grown up together, mutual grooming strengthens the social bond and reinforces family ties. Cats also groom other cats they are fond of as an act of caretaking and affiliation. The licking and grooming is soothing and pleasurable for both cats when it is welcome.

However, sometimes a cat may over-groom or lick to the point of irritation. This can lead the groomed cat to bite or swat the other cat away. Setting boundaries with grooming is a normal social behavior for cats. As long as the interactions remain playful and not aggressive, lick-bites during allogrooming are usually harmless. Proper introductions and monitoring play between cats can prevent overstimulation.

[1]“Why Do Cats Lick & Groom Each Other? 6 Reasons Why” AmeriVet (2022) https://amerivet.com/blog/why-do-cats-lick-groom-each-other/

Overstimulation

Overstimulation is a common cause of sudden lick-bites in cats. When a cat is being petted, their nerves can reach a threshold where the sensation goes from pleasurable to unpleasant. According to the Wisconsin Humane Society, overstimulation occurs when a cat finds petting or handling to be too much. The cat may seem like they are enjoying the attention at first, but eventually the stimulation becomes aversive.

As explained by the Dumb Friends League, when a cat reaches this overstimulation threshold, their first response is often to give a gentle nip or lick as a warning. If the petting continues, the cat may then resort to a firmer bite or scratch to get the human to stop. This is not an act of aggression, but simply the cat’s way of setting boundaries when they have had enough petting.

According to the Humane Society of Huron Valley, any cat can become overstimulated, but some cats have a lower tolerance than others. Understanding your cat’s unique sensitivities and limits can help prevent overstimulation during petting sessions.

Playful Biting

Licking before playfully biting is very common in cats. Cats have an innate desire to hunt and will often view human hands and feet as prey during play. The licking is thought to be an imitation of the killing bite to the neck that cats do on their prey. It seems to be a signal that what comes next is play, not aggression.

According to pet experts, when cats lick you affectionately, it releases endorphins that arouse them and get them worked up for play. The licking essentially gets the cat excited and ready to playfully “attack” with paws, teeth, and kicking. So in this case, the licking stimulates their prey drive. Even though it’s play to us, part of their brain still interprets our hands and feet as prey during these play sessions.

The best way to avoid painful bites after the licking is to recognize when your cat gets overstimulated and redirect them to appropriate toys instead. Cats should not be allowed to treat human hands and feet as toys during play. Provide plenty of enrichment so they can satisfy their prey drive in a healthy way.

Petting Aggression

Petting aggression, also known as “petting-induced aggression”, refers to when a cat suddenly bites or attacks their owner while being petted or stroked. This behavior stems from fear or anxiety caused by the petting itself. Even though the cat was enjoying the attention at first, they eventually become overstimulated and lash out defensively (How to Stop Petting Aggression in Cats).

Some signs of petting aggression include the cat tensing up, flattened ears, dilated pupils, twitching or thrashing tail, and growling or hissing during petting. The bites are often inhibited, without breaking the skin. It seems contradictory because the cat often purrs and rubs against the hand before biting. However, this still indicates overstimulation. The best way to prevent petting aggression is to watch for these warning signs and stop petting before the cat gets overwhelmed and bites (Petting Aggression: How to Handle a Cat that Bites When Petted).

Redirected Aggression

Redirected aggression is when a cat directs their aggression towards another object or animal, rather than the initial trigger. For example, your cat sees another neighborhood cat outside through the window. Frustrated that they can’t reach the other cat, they then turn and attack you or another pet in the house. According to felineengineering.com, redirected aggression occurs because “the arousal state persists after the trigger is gone” (source).

This type of aggression is not actually aimed at you, but rather is a displaced reaction to the initial stressor. Cats don’t understand that you are not the cause of their frustration. Anything nearby when they are already aroused by another stressor can become a target. This is why redirected aggression often presents as sudden, unprovoked attacks.

To manage redirected aggression, try to calmly separate your cat from the trigger if possible. Allow them to calm down in another room before reintroducing them to the environment. Medication may also help lower their overall arousal levels. Treatment will focus on identifying and avoiding common triggers whenever feasible.

Medical Causes

Sometimes a cat’s tendency to lick then bite can stem from an underlying medical issue. Dental problems like gingivitis, abscesses, or broken teeth can make a cat’s mouth sore and sensitive. The pain may cause them to bite after grooming an area, even if they were not intending to bite down initially. Ear, skin, or joint issues can also cause generalized pain that may lead to bite reactions. Inflammation, infections, tumors, arthritis, and other conditions affecting nerves or tissues can make cats extra sensitive, lowering their tolerance for touch. A vet exam is recommended if lick-biting develops suddenly or increases in frequency, to rule out a medical cause. Treatment for the condition often resolves the behavioral issue.

Preventing Lick-Bites

There are some things cat owners can do to try to minimize lick-biting behavior:

  • Trim your cat’s nails regularly to keep them blunt – this will make any bites less painful.
  • Distract your cat when they start licking you intently by redirecting their attention with a toy or treat.
  • Give your cat plenty of outlets for playtime and stimulation to curb overstimulation.
  • Set boundaries and gently stop interactions if biting starts – ending play sessions teaches cats biting ends fun.
  • Give your cat appropriate surfaces for scratching to minimize redirected biting.
  • Make sure your cat is spayed/neutered – intact cats are more prone to petting aggression.
  • If it happens at night, close your door so your cat can’t access you while sleeping.

With time and consistency, lick-biting often decreases. But it’s important not to punish cats for this instinctive behavior.

When to Seek Help

In some cases, a cat that licks then bites may need professional assistance from a veterinarian or animal behaviorist. Here are some signs that additional help may be warranted:

Aggression that causes injuries. If the biting escalates and consistently breaks the skin, causing bleeding, puncture wounds, or other injuries, seek help from your vet. Aggression that results in harm could indicate an underlying medical issue or serious behavior problem.

Sudden behavior changes. If the lick-biting starts happening out of nowhere in a cat that previously showed no aggression, have your vet examine your cat for potential medical causes. Dramatic behavior changes can signify disease, pain, or cognitive decline.

Failure to respond to redirection. If you are unable to redirect your cat when lick-bites occur, or the behavior persists despite your prevention efforts, seek advice from your vet or an animal behaviorist. A professional can assess the situation and offer targeted guidance.

Stress-related symptoms. If you notice your cat excessively grooming, vocalizing, hiding, or eliminating outside the litter box when lick-biting occurs, these stress signs suggest your cat needs support to manage their anxiety or compulsion. Consult your vet.

Though occasional lick-bites during petting are normal cat behavior, repeated aggressive biting signifies a problem requiring attention. Don’t hesitate to enlist help from professionals to get the issue under control.

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