Cats may not chew their food, but they certainly do seem to chew a lot of things besides.
Take plastic, for instance. A lot of cats really like to gnaw and chomp on a variety of things made of plastic – from plastic shopping bags to pen butts, even plastic toys sometimes end up being used for chewing and gnawing.
Then there’s that common, but confusing behaviour where some cats lick then bite their owners, or do the same in reverse.
It’s similar to purring insofar as there isn’t one simple explanation behind it, since cats can perform this same action, but by it mean many different things.
The reason adult cats and young kittens bite, chew, nibble, and gnaw on human fingers is also the same.
There are a variety of reasons that explain away why cats choose to nibble or nip their humans’ digits.
While it may be a bit of a mystery knowing how to interpret your particular cat’s behaviour at first, there are simple ways of figuring out why your cat – in the moment – is choosing to give you a little nibble or bite, then simple ways to change this behaviour in case you’d prefer it to stop.
Some cats will bite and/or nibble fingers for multiple reasons, others for the same one over and over, and many adult cats (especially if trained as kittens not to bite) will pretty near never do it at all.
Here are the explanations behind why cats sometimes bite or chew their owners’ fingers, and how to test which reason is leading your cat to chomp.
Why Adult Cats & Kittens Chew, Bite, Nibble, & Gnaw on Fingers
1. Your cat enjoys the sensation of chewing your fingers.
As I mentioned, a lot of cats really like the sensation of chewing plastic, and who can blame them when chewing on the butt of a pen or the back of a pencil is pretty enjoyable for a large number of humans, too?
When it comes to nibbling on our soft, fleshy fingers, it would make a lot of sense that this sensation is likely one many cats would enjoy.
How to tell if this explains your cat’s chewing:
Right when your cat starts nibbling on your fingers, give your kitty a nice little chew thing to nibble on instead.
If you hand over a chew toy, yet your feline continues to gnaw away at your fingertips, especially if it’s more than a quick bite, chances are reasonably good your kitty’s a chompin’ because it feels nice to gnaw on your fingers in particular.
Can I change this?
Need to train your cat to stop chewing on you? Shout, “No!” or “Ow!” – immediately take away your hand, showing your cat you’re in pain visibly when he/she bites.
This way your cat will understand his or her action is causing physical harm, and isn’t just an okay-for-you, okay-for-them kinda deal.
Once you shout “No!” to express your physical pain, try to replace the bad, undesirable habit of biting your fingers with a good habit – gnawing or chewing on cat toys.
You can do this by immediately handing over a chew toy (here’s a bigger list of options).
Your cat should begin to make the connection that chewing is not the problem – it’s chewing your fingers or essentially, what he or she is chewing, that’s the issue at hand.
Hopefully, he or she will begin to turn to the chew toys on the floor on his or her own the next time the urge comes up, rather than going straight to your hands for a gnaw or nibble.
2. Your kitten is teething.
Kittens absolutely do teethe, just like tiny humans. We all know how nice it feels for a baby who’s in pain due to teething to chew on a pacifier when the pain gets really bad.
If your kitten’s chomping away at your fingers, there’s a good chance your fingers are acting in place of a binky.
How to tell if this explains your cat’s gnawing:
If your kitten is getting quite busy biting at things all over the place, and just so happens to use your fingers as one of the things he or she gnaws on when it’s available – chances are pretty darn high your kitten’s hankering to bite is plainly down to teething.
Have a baby’s pacifier lying around the house? Try offering it up to your kitten.
Have a piece of cardboard or some other okay-to-bite object lying around that you know your cat likes to chew on (maybe as evidenced by bite marks that exist already?).
Offer that up, and if your cat is happy to chomp away at any other object besides your fingers, you’re really likely to have a teething kitten on your hands.
Can I change this?
Just like with cats who enjoy chewing – to train your cat to teethe on appropriate objects, grab a chew/teething toy or two, preferably one in every room your cat spends a lot of time in.
Them, whenever your cat gives you a little chomp on a finger, shout “No!” or “Outch!” and pull your hand away to show you’re hurt.
Finally, hand over the nearest chew or teething toy so that your kitten learns – it’s perfectly fine to chew and bite – just not on your finger!
A few repetitions of this process and your teething kitten’s sure to get the picture: bite the toy, not mom or dad.
In my experience, kittens aren’t all that fussy about which toys you choose to hand over for them to nibble on.
My kitten, Cleo’s, two favourites were probably the KONG Hugga Wubba (Cleo loved grabbing hold of the legs and bunny kicking them, then gnawing away) and the Kong Bobble Mouse Cat Toy (she loved biting on the ears of this thing, especially if I held up the ears to her mouth).
Though being honest, I’m sure even if I grabbed a bit of cardboard or a random catnip toy, it would have done the trick.
She really loved playing with the Kong Kitten Kickeroo as well, and would grab it, hold it, and simultaneously bite and kick it if I held it up to her body.
Again – just based on my experience – it does take a while longer for kittens to learn to stop bad behaviours than adult cats, probably because they’re so young, but also likely because they have so much energy, and they need to be in a calm state of mind (in my opinion) for them to be able to actually choose their behaviour instead of acting on instinct and hyperactivity alone.
Be patient. I know how frustrating it can be with kittens who are ridiculously high energy.
Check out these top kitten toys and these excellent high energy cat exercise toys to play with your cat with if he or she is really hyper (these get out energy better than others since they require a lot of physical movement to play with).
They also include toys like the Petstages Tower of Tracks and the Ethical Pet Cat Spring Toys, two of Cleo’s favourites which are fantastic options to always have around because they don’t require human intervention to play with – cats can play with them on their own, getting some of that energy out without your help needed.
Looking for more like these? Check out this massive list of home alone toys cats can play with on their own.
3. Your cat can’t resist a nibble when your fingers smell of food.
Now, you may think your fingers no longer smell of chicken or tuna just after you washed them, but your cat may know better.
Cats have a very strong sense of smell and many can’t resist lusting after a bite even if the faintest of food smells lingers.
How to tell if this explains your cat’s chomp:
If the only time your cat takes a nibble on your fingers is after you’ve cooked or eaten, there’s a strong chance your cat’s simply unable to resist a bite whenever you smell edible.
Can I change this?
It may be a good idea to grab a scented hand soap for situations such as these.
While you may not be able to get the smell of tuna completely off your hands in a wash, covering that smell up with the scent of lavender – or even better – the smell of citrus like orange, mandarin, or tangerine, which cats typically dread – may be enough to keep kitty off your digits after you’ve eaten an appetizing meal.
While I don’t have a cat who bites or nibbles my fingers all that often, one of my cats, Bjorn, actually went so far as to lick the bar of soap we had in the bathroom – we’re guessing because it tasted like animal fat, which he’d obviously love the taste of.
Our resolution was to switch to liquid hand soap that’s lavender scented, but then after some time, we found a strong-smelling orange scented bar soap and tested him by having him take a whiff before leaving him out.
Definitely a no go – full on backed away from the smell, so we left it out and haven’t had the problem since.
This is why I think the strong smell of citrus scented soaps might work out well enough to cover up food smells to the point where kitties don’t want to take a bite out of your finger, even after you’ve handled some strong-smelling, hard-to-completely-get-off-your-hands-type-smell, delicious food – like chicken wings!
4. Your cat is giving you a love bite – showing affection.
You ever take a look at a cute, chubby baby’s adorable rounded cheeks and want to give them a gentle little pinch or bite?
Apparently this is whole shebang of wanting to bite cute things is a completely normal psychological phenomenon called “social biting” – and as I’m sure you’ve guessed – it’s common amongst humans and animals.
It’s not really like biting to eat at all. It’s more or less a sassy show of trustworthiness:
The researchers think the monkeys may be testing their social bonds, sending the message, “I’m so trustworthy, you can stick your finger in my mouth.”
Pretty hilarious message if you think about it!
How to tell if this explains your cat’s nibble:
If you offer your cat a chew toy after a love bite and he or she doesn’t seem to be interested in chewing or nibbling it, you probably just have a love biter on your hands.
Other ways of telling if this is your cat? If kitty only seems to give you a nip when you’re snuggling, cuddling, being affectionate, and if he or she’s being petted.
Bonus points if your cat is also indicating he or she wants to continue to be petted, because that rules out the next option (#5).
Can I change this?
If your cat’s being aggressive about his or her love bites, or you want to nip this habit in the bud because you’re worried about escalation, you may want to use the word “Outch!” then dramatically take away your hand after a love bite.
Your cat should begin to understand that he or she is hurting you, even with a gentle nip, and that you’re not a fan. Your cat is likely to quickly learn not to bite as a sign of affection anymore.
You can definitely escalate to using the word “No!” with an especially loud voice if you need to, especially if the love bite happens to really hurt.
5. Your cat is giving you a warning bite – because of over-stimulation.
Cats get overstimulated relatively easily if you’re petting them intensively or aggressively.
As much as they may love their cat massages, they still need a break from back rubs and petting every once in a while.
If your cat feels like he or she needs a break from the petting, and you haven’t picked up on that yourself, he or she’s likely to give a gentle bite to tell you to stop.
If you continue to pet past this, you might get a harder bite.
How else could they explain the urgency? Typically, by walking away. So if you see this pattern often, chances are they’re give you a little chomp to communicate they need a break.
How to tell if this explains your cat’s nip:
If your cat gave you a nip while you happened to be petting him or her, then immediately appeared to be done with cuddle time, chances are very high your cat was telling you, “Okay, I need a break now.”
Remember your cat may very well have loved the petting up until that point, but sometimes the physical affection gets to a point where it’s too much for cats, which is why you should never take a warning bite as an insult or any sort of indication your cat didn’t enjoy the snuggles prior to the bite.
Can I change this?
If you want your cat to stop giving you warning bites, say “Outch!” or “No!” loudly, take away your hand, and look very displeased.
Your cat will likely try other ways to show you he or she’s had enough, like showing you his or her teeth instead of giving a full on bite.
Be sure to look out for signs your cat’s getting a bit too overstimulated, so you’ll be able to slow down or stop cuddle sessions before your cat even needs to tell you he or she’s had enough.
Have tips or advice on how to tell if a cat is beginning to be overstimulated? Please leave them in the comments below!
6. Your cat is asking you to play.
Sometimes cats just wanna have fun. Cats may sleep for the vast majority of the day, but their laziness, followed by a seemingly paradoxical short burst of crazy high, intensive energy, are a completely healthy part of their natural prey drive and hunting behaviour.
Essentially, felines hunt in bursts, as you’re likely to have noticed watching documentaries about lions on Discovery Channel as a kid.
How to tell if this explains your cat’s bite:
If your cat bites then suddenly runs away from you – or looks like a hyperactive child ready to torment you until you’re happy to play – chances are real good your cat’s intention was to say, “Okay, I’m ready – play with me!”
Need another test? Try playing with your cat right after he or she bites. If your cat very quickly engages, you almost certainly have a kitty who’s using bites to tell you it’s time to play.
Can I change this?
Not pleased about your cat’s nips when he or she demands playtime? Say “No!” and take away your hand when your cat gives a bite.
Your kitty’s likely to try different ways of getting your attention.
My Avery will whine or will give me a swift “tap” then sprint away like a madman to tell me he’s ready to have some fun.
Let me know if your cat does something different, as it’d be interesting to learn a bunch of ways other cats have to communicate they’re ready to play.
Make sure you play with your cat regularly so their aggression levels don’t rise.
Cats need to get their energy out or it ends up building up, which can lead to behavioural issues like consistent meowing or destructive scratching, amongst many other frustrating behaviours.
The best way to help your cat get energy out? Using high-intensity exercise toys, in regular intervals.
You should be playing with your cat as often as he or she needs – for most cats, this is around 20-30 minutes a day, broken up into as many little play sessions as you or your cat prefers.
You can also try grabbing a slew of toys cats can play with by themselves to scatter around the house in case your cat gets a burst of energy and you don’t happen to be around or your cat is happy to play on his or her own.
Your Thoughts on Cats Chewing & Biting Fingers?
Has your cat ever chewed or bit your finger? How often did it happen? Did you ever figure out why your cat did this?
Which possibilities do you think are the most common amongst cats? Which do you think are the least frequent to explain away finger bites?
Love to hear any and all thoughts you have on the topic down below!