Why Do Cats Bite and Then Lick You?

by K Marie Alto May 12, 2022 10 min read

Why Do Cats Bite and Then Lick You?

Has your kitty 😺 ever been on your lap licking you and then seemingly out of nowhere nips you?  Don’t worry, you’re not alone.

As I’m sure you are aware, cats have limited ways to express themselves, with some of the most common being meowing, purring, licking, and well, biting. 

But why would they combine licking, a positive seemingly loving gesture with a nip – an undesirable behavior?  The simple answer is they may be trying to communicate something.  

What? Well, the short answer is nobody knows with certainty. That’s the million-dollar 💰 question.

The truth of the matter is that unless you went to Dr. Doolittle’s University or somehow you can speak cat 🤭, it is virtually impossible to know exactly what every cat means with their biting-then-licking or licking-then-biting behavior. 

Given that this behavior is very dependent on both the situation and you individual cat's purrrrsonalty, all we can do as their pet parents is to try to observe their bite-then-lick cues and try to make sense of them.

Overtime, hopefully you will develop the ability to understand what they mean in every situation. In this blog post I discuss my experience with this behavior along with my own interpretation in 9 different scenarios. I have also included a great educational video 📽️ on over stimulation. This is a must watch.

Granted, keep in mind that every cat is different, and they also speak different cat dialects. 😊 Two cats living under the same roof will use the bite-then-lick to communicate different things. So, you may find that some of the reasons and situations below may or may not apply to your individual cat.

Full disclosure, I’m no cat psychologist or behaviorist but I do have over 20 years as a cat Momma raising 4 precious kitties and my goal with this blog is to share my experience observing this behavior for over 2 decades.

For pet parents looking for more cat care guides, make sure not to miss the read further section. My blog is packed 📚 with resources.

It's Play Time

Probably the most common situation for an unexpected nip is during play time – but perhaps you didn’t know it was playtime. Picture this: You’ve just gotten home from work and finally sit down to relax a bit.  Your kitty jumps on your lap and licks your arm sweetly then nips you!  What was that for!?

While you’re tired after a long day, your cat has been home likely sleeping.  Now that their favorite person is home it’s time to use up that stored energy to play!  It’s kind of a welcome home, now come play with me response.

What I've found with my cats was in that scenario that nip meant hey, get off your butt and play with me! 

Playing With Cat Image by Toe Beans

Pro tip: If you’re trying to avoid the lick-nip combo, keep a laser pointer or a wand toy nearby so you can sit and entertain your kitty at the same time.

The licking and nipping combination can also occur during playtime.  It’s not uncommon for a kitty to do this with a toy they’ve captured.  If you’re trying to retrieve said toy, you may get some licks and/or bites too.

A word of caution: start play sessions before the nip occurs. If you let snuggle, nip, play become a routine, your kitty will associate the order with how to get what they want.

Showing Love

Have you ever watched a litter of kittens all snuggled together? Have you ever noticed how they lick and nip at one another? Those little nips are what you’ve frequently heard of as “love bites.”

Similarly, cats might have the same behavior towards us pet parents. The only difference is cats have tougher skin, so a nip isn’t painful to them like it is to us.

Cat Showing Love Image by Toe Beans

"This show of love from your kitty can prove to be a bit painful... [but] your cat really doesn't understand her love bite isn't always pleasant for you." - Dr. Karen Becker

While you’d likely prefer just the lick and not the bite, unfortunately we don’t get to pick and choose which of the many ways your kitty shows you affection.

When the bite is light and doesn’t break the skin, it’s just a slightly more aggressive way to show their love.

Grooming and Bonding

Do you ever watch your kitty during a full grooming session?  Have you ever noticed how they lick a lot and then nibble in certain areas? 

Something similar could be inferred when they groom you. I’ve met cats that will have a field day grooming their human’s hair. Unfortunately, their hair styling techniques tend to leave you more disheveled in the end.

Bonding With Cat Image by Toe Beans

For cats, grooming is a way in which they bond with one another. Doing this to you might also mean they want to bond with you. 

I remember times where my Moosie cat would let me rub his belly and then those rubbies would turn into a formal grooming session of my arm.

The problem is a cat’s tongue is like sandpaper so it’s not easy as a human to be groomed in the same spot for any length of time.

When the licking got to be too much, I would try to pull my arm away, which inevitably resulted in a little nip with continued licking. Oh, the price we have to pay for a kitty that loves us. 😊

Marking You

Cats, like many other animals, rely on scent a lot more than we humans do. For us, scent is mostly an accompaniment to taste, and while we can get a general bit of information from it (something smells good or bad), we don't get identities, marked locations, or other meaningful information.

Your cat, on the other hand, is much more driven by scent. When they rub their face against you, when they nibble at and lick you, they're marking you with a bit of their scent.

This is perhaps their way of ensuring that any other cats in the area know that you've been claimed as a member of their family.  

Cat Marking Human Image by Toe Beans

Marking is usually done with facial scent glands rather than biting or licking, but all three can be involved. So don’t be surprised if your cat is rubbing their face on you and they alsogo in for a little lick and nibble.

You Taste Good

Ok this may seem a little silly, but nibbles and licks can also indicate that you just plain taste good.

Maybe it's a bit of salt on your skin from sweating after exercising or working in the garden. Or maybe it's some flavoring or chemical in the hand lotion you use. Perhaps you just made a sandwich, and your kitty can still smell and taste the cold cut you handled.

Cat Tasting Hand Image by Toe Beans

While you might taste good, this can be tricky situation if your cat keeps nibbling and licking you. If you just put on lotion for example, you need to consider the things your cat might be ingesting.

Handling plain cooked meat is fine, but chicken seasoned with garlic and onions is dangerous.

A hand cream or lotion might include ingredients that are toxic to your furry friend and the last thing you want is for them to get sick after giving you a lick!

Be mindful of what you’ve touched and if you’ve been handling substances dangerous for your kitty, wash your hands before snuggling up.

Attention Seeking

Cats can seek attention for any number of reasons and how they do it can vary. Perhaps you decided to sleep in on the weekend and you’ve missed your kitty’s normal breakfast time. 

You might be awakened by your furry alarm clock meowing.  Or maybe they come to snuggle and gently lick you awake.  If you still don’t get up they may move on to a little nip.

While many cats might just sit and stare at you with a dirty look, the lick-nip combo is pretty common when you’re not responding in a timely fashion.  Remember you’re the servant. 😉

Telling You to Stop

Up until this point we’ve talked about positive or playful reasons you kitty licks and bites.  But these actions aren’t always a good thing.

Probably the most common reason for a nip to follow licking is when they are giving you a warning.

Cat Biting Hand Image by Toe Beans

Overstimulation

Many people aren’t familiar with reactions of an overstimulated cat.  I’ve only ever met one kitty that gets overstimulated and that’s my parent’s rescue kitty, Tiki.

Overstimulation refers to a cat's normal response to being touched in areas or ways the cat finds uncomfortable, or that have gone on for too long. Many cats exhibit overstimulation or petting-induced aggression. Maddie’s Fund

A little background - Tiki is a healthy young adult cat and when he first joined the family he didn’t know how to play with toys and was a little unsure of how to interact with people.

When he settled on my lap I gave him lots of rubbies which one minute he loved and the next he did not – CHOMP. I was surprised to learn he did this regularly with my parents. It was clear Tiki was being overstimulated.

While Tiki enjoyed the petting, at a certain point it flipped to being overwhelming for him. Some cats will just hop down when they are done being petted, while others will react more negatively.

A similar ‘STOP where you are’ warning might come from you petting or scratching an off-limits area.  Getting kisses when you’re scratching your kitty’s cheeks can quickly turn into a nip if you move to their belly and it’s a no-touch zone.  You might be familiar with the belly trap!

Check out this video on cat overstimulation:

It’s important to recognize the subtle changes in your kitty’s body to avoid reaching the point of overstimulation.  I’ve learned when I visit Tiki, even if he jumps on my lap, headbutts, and licks me, a nip will come if I pet him continuously for more than a minute or two.

If you suspect overstimulation to be the cause of the lick-bite combo, keep an eye out for signs of agitation, like their tail flicking around or their ears laying back. If your kitty gets squirmy, it’s time to back off.

Stress and Frustration

If your furry friend is stressed, anxious, frustrated, in pain, or suffering from some illness, they might lick or even bite at you to express it. 

It's pretty similar to how we humans might get snappy or yell or sullenly throw off attempts at affection. Your precious feline may be suffering in some way, and they're expressing it the only way they know how.

Stressed and Frustrated Cat Image by Toe Beans

Sometimes this can be as simple as frustration that they're hungry and want food and you're not giving it to them. Sometimes it can mean they have some kind of ache or pain that they can't deal.

Look for patterns of behavior to gain insight, then chat with your vet to make sure there are no health-related issues at play.

Pain

During a regular petting session your kitty may purr with delight and reward you with some licking. But what does it mean when they suddenly turn and bite the hand that’s been stroking them? If your kitty is on the older side, it’s very likely due to pain.

Remember, cats are experts as hiding illness and pain, it’s a survival mechanism.  You might think your cat is fine but they are just masking the weakness.

If you get nipped while you’re petting your kitty pay attention to where your hand was when the nip occurred. It could be as simple as your kitty doesn’t like their paws touched or something more serious like arthritis in their spine.

My 18-year-old calico Sosa has given me warning nips before when I’ve been brushing her. One minute she’ll lick at the brush and the next she’ll jerk around and nip toward me. 

I quickly realized the sensitive area is on her right hip.  While she checks out fine at the vet, she clearly has something going on in that area that I’m irritating when brushing.

If you suspect your kitty is in pain, talk with your veterinarian.  There are medications that can help and even natural pain relief treatment options such as acupuncture, the Assisi Loop or CBD tinctures for dogs and cats.

Understanding Cat Behavior

"Cats have their own language they use to communicate and we need to learn that language to be good companions ourselves.”  - Aaron Archer - Ontario SPCA

Your cat can bite and lick you when they want you to stop doing something, but, they can also bite and lick you when they want your attention and want you to play with them. 

I know It can be confusing. So, how can you tell the difference? A lot can be inferred by learning their body language.

To help figure out an underlying message, pay attention to how your kitty’s body is responding.

  • What is their tail doing? If it's up in the air, odds are your cat is chipper and ready to play. If it's down and twitchy, they're probably a little more agitated.
  • What are their ears doing? If they're perked up and forward, the lick-bite probably means they want to play. If they're laid down and back, it's time to back off.
  • What else are they doing? If they nibble at you and jump around, particularly pawing at a toy – or even bringing the toy to you – they may want to play. If they try to get away and hide, it's time to leave them be.

Misinterpreting these signals is one of the biggest reasons why people think cats are aloof and difficult to handle. The behavior of the bite and lick combo is shared between both affection and warning, and not paying attention to other signals can end negatively.

Learning to recognize any early warning signals will help the bond between you and your kitty grow stronger.

Are you having any trouble figuring out why your furry feline friend is biting and then licking you? Do you have any potential questions regarding the situation? If so, please feel free to leave a comment down below, and I'd be more than happy to assist you with your situation however I possibly can! 

Read More Cat Care Guides

One more thing, if you are feeling like getting a little special something for your fur baby that is unique, made right here in the USA (or anywhere but in China) , 100% pup and cat safe, USDA certified organic and brought to you by a US company, check out Toe Beans online pet supplies store!

K Marie Alto
K Marie Alto

K. Marie is an animal lover, wife, kitty mom, dog auntie, writer, and co-founder of Toe Beans, a proud American family-owned online boutique pet supplies store focused on the improvement of the life of furry family members via pet parent education, better products, and advocacy. She has over 20 years of experience as a pet momma. She loves sharing her personal journey and experience as a pet parent via her blog and Facebook page where she currently has more than 22K followers (@furrytoebeans) and counting :-).


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