Cats engage in some pretty peculiar behaviours: they have an almost insatiable itch to scratch, they love kneading things (and even people!) with their claws, they sleep through a very large portion of each day, and they purr – which is adorable, but still a very strange behaviour when you really think about it.
Like with almost any cat behaviour, and frankly almost anything to do with cats in general, the cat behaviour of biting then licking, or licking then biting, is a bit of an enigma.
This isn’t just because cats are hard to understand and we haven’t yet studied them quite as well as we should have yet. It’s also because the things cats do sometimes mean one thing, while other times they mean quite another.
Take purring for instance. Yes, purring signifies a cat’s happy – but that’s only true most of the time. It’s not a hard and fast rule.
There are actually plenty of other reasons cats purr besides to indicate or as a result of happiness, and if you assume when your cat is purring, it’s because he or she is happy, it can be problematic.
Your cat could in that moment be purring because he or she is stressed, for instance, and if you’re petting away quite aggressively assuming your cat is still enjoying the snuggle session, you’ve got quite another thing coming if you don’t realize your cat wants you to become gentler in how you approach him or her.
Getting an accurate picture that explains why your cat bites and licks you needs to encompass multiple possible reasons as well.
It’s up to you to determine whether, at any particular moment, your cat means one thing or some other through your cat’s behaviour – because sadly, cats can’t communicate with you in any human languages to let you know what’s going on at any particular moment.
So reading a cat’s body language is essentially the only option.
The issue when it comes to the particular behaviour of biting then licking? Cats will use it to mean nearly polar opposite things sometimes.
Some cats will use it to mean one thing, others will use it to mean the polar opposite, and still others will use the same behaviour in different situations to mean one thing sometimes, and another thing other times.
I do feel there are tell-tall signs, however, that should help you determine which message your cat is trying to send with his or her biting or licking behaviour in that moment.
So I’ll get into those as much as I can to help you pick apart your cat’s behaviour and ideally, get to the root of what he or she means when the biting and licking, or licking then biting, happens.
If you have any stories, experiences, or advice to share for other pet parents who have this experience with their cat, by the way, please take a moment to leave your thoughts in the comments down below!
There’s bound to be plenty I didn’t mention in this article that your comment could really help expand on. Even just stories and examples could really help other pet parents out in their quest to understand their cats more.
Thanks in advance for helping us learn more about kitties by sharing your thoughts and experiences in the comments!
Without further ado…
Why Cats Bite Then Lick, or Lick Then Bite
Option #1: It’s a love bite! Your cat is showing you affection.
In a typical self-grooming session, a cat will sometimes gently bite his or her fur first, in order to remove something hard to get off or to untangle fur, then lick to finish off the cleaning process.
Obviously, if a cat is grooming another cat, it will often do the very same thing.
This is pretty evident when you watch mamma kitties groom their little kittens.
There’s no malice at all in the bite, it just helps them pick out dirt, debris, and anything else that may be caught in the kitten’s fur or elsewhere on the kitten’s body.
Cats who are not mother and child will often allogroom (groom each other) as well, though this is a complicated behaviour that has quite a lot to do with dominance.
Still, cats aren’t going to go around grooming cats who aren’t in their clowder, cats who aren’t in their social group.
Even if there’s a dominance element, there’s still something to it that indicates cats who allogroom understand they are part of the same group, and maybe even love each other, maybe in a mother-and-kitten / caregiver-and-caretaker or older-wiser-sibling-and-kid-sibling hierarchy kind of way.
If your cat bites then licks you, this could simply be part of the grooming habit cats develop from childhood or are born knowing, and the equivalent of simply licking you to get you clean as though you were a cat in their clowder or their baby kitten.
Cats definitely bite as part of this licking routine, but it seems to me cats also do sometimes gently bite to show affection – as a love bite of sorts.
And I interpret this as being a sort of message, “I know bites hurt, and I know I could bite you in a way that would hurt you, but I’m not biting to hurt you. I won’t. I’m being gentle on purpose.”
To me, this translates into, “I’m showing you I care and don’t want to hurt you.”
Licking, too often signifies affection, as when a cat grooms another person or cat, it’s usually a sign that he or she is comfortable and happy enough with that individual to groom him or her.
As stated, cats don’t just go around grooming random cats.
Only cats they recognize to be in their own group, in their clowder, are ever allogroomed by them.
Hence, I ultimately feel it’s completely plausible that the only reason your cat is biting then licking you, or licking you then biting you is because he or she is showing you affection.
If your cat doesn’t seem bothered at all by anything that’s currently happening (sitting close together, petting, etc.), a message of affection may be the only message behind the licking-and-biting combo action.
How You Can Tell If It’s Just an Affectionate Love Bite
If you continue to do what you were doing before the bite and the lick happened and your cat shows no signs of increased aggression or agitation, chances are high you’re just being given a little love bite.
But if there is some increased aggression after the bite, you’re likely looking at either option #2 or option #3 as the explanation behind your cat’s current bite-lick behaviour.
Option #2: Your cat is telling you it’s done with physical attention.
Since cats can’t communicate with us using words, they find other ways to communicate with us through the actions they take.
If your cat is done being stroked and pet, one of the easiest ways he or she can communicate this to you is by giving you a gentle little bite to signify he or she needs a break.
Of course, there’s that little lick accompanying the bite, too, but this is probably meant to dull the blow. A way of saying, “Yeah I want you to stop now, but I still love you!”
How to Tell If Your Cat Is Done With Physical Attention
If you happened to be petting your cat when he or she licked you, and you notice your cat is a little aggressive if you continue to pet him or her after the lick and bite, chances are high you’re looking at this as the most likely explanation for the bite-lick/lick-bite behaviour.
Once you stop petting, if your cat makes an effort to get your attention, however, it’s more likely option #3 describes your cat’s current behaviour…
Option #3: Your cat is in a playful mood, and bite and licked to ask you to play with him/her.
Again, communication through words just isn’t on the table for a cat. When your feline wants to play, he or she’s got to come up with a non-verbal way to tell you.
Some cats whine. Other cats pounce or even scratch at you. Some cats will sit staring until you approach them.
There are so many ways cats can try to communicate to us they’re ready for playtime, and certainly, the bite-lick combo including the play bite can be one of them.
How to Tell If Your Cat Is Trying to Ask You to Play
If your cat is using the bite lick combo to ask you to play, the easiest way to test this theory is to try playing with your cat immediately after the bite and lick.
Feather wands, by merit of being so many cats’ favourite toys to engage with because of how attractive feathers are to them from a hunter’s standpoint, are also incredibly good toys to test with.
Just get up and grab the nearest one and give it a whirl to test.
Basically you take the pillow-looking kick toy and press it to a cat’s body, or tease him or her with the feathery looking end until your cat grabs it, presses it to his or her body, and kicks away to get rid of excess energy.
If you try playing with your cat and he or she seems happy to see you making the effort to play, and/or if your cat actively engages in playtime straight away, your cat was almost certainly trying to convey the message “I want to play” with his or her bite-then-lick action.
Cat indifferent to your effort starting playtime? If there was aggression from your kitty after the bite, you’re looking at option #2 instead.
No aggression whatsoever after the bite? Your kitty was probably just giving you a little love bite of affection and not wanting anything to change at all.
Cat Behaviours That Relate to Licking Then Biting
There are quite a number of feline behaviours that have to do with licking or biting – and I really do mean quite a lot.
I haven’t managed to write about all of the ones I’ve heard about before, but I’ve done my best to cover as many of the topics as I could and will continue to discuss more on this blog over time.
Some licking related feline behaviours I’ve written about include:
- Licking their humans’ faces,
- Licking human hands and fingers,
- Barbering, or excessively licking/over-grooming, &
- Licking/grooming other cats, also called allogrooming.
Some biting related cat behaviours I’ve discussed include:
- Biting their humans while being affectionate,
- Bite human feet, toes, and ankles,
- Chew on human fingers, &
- Nibble on humans in general.
Does your cat happen to do any of these licking and biting related behaviours as well? Which ones does your cat engage in?
Has Your Cat Ever Done the Bite + Lick Combo On You?
Have you ever had a cat who bit, then licked you, or licked, then bit you? Which order did he or she do it in, or was it a different order each time?
Did you ever discover what your kitty meant by this behaviour? Was it one of the ones listed above?
Do you think a cat could mean something besides the three options listed above by this odd behavioural sequence?
Would love to hear your thoughts in the comments!