A lot of pet parents have cats who bite them or lick them frequently enough that these curious behaviours seem habitual. Some have cats who bite feet or bite fingers regularly. Others have cats who enjoy biting then licking, or vice versa, or alternate between the acts of licking and biting repeatedly within the same sitting. Some cats lick fingers considerably often, while others nibble on their humans.
A lot of cats nibble on their humans’ fingers in particular, though I’ve heard of cats who nibble on their humans’ ears and toes before. Many of these behaviours happen while cats are feeling calm, happy, and affectionate toward their pet owners, and are not hard enough to hurt a human in any way at all, which makes them even more fascinating.
These behaviours are also not exclusive from one another, they’re often interchangeable. Many cats will have overlaps, having multiple, or all of these similar behaviours, alternating between them. Some cats seem to strongly favour one type of licking/biting behaviour over others. Others do a little bit of everything.
It doesn’t seem to be hard in any way to find cats who like to engage in biting and licking their humans, and since so many cats seem to engage in behaviours like these – even exclusively within the context of being happy and affectionate – I do think there’s something very feline about them.
The theories I’m going to discuss in this article are just that – merely theories. None of them are scientifically backed, let alone proven in any way, shape, or form. Some theories I’ve come up with on my own or I’ve seen others suggest across the net. I’ve pulled ideas from forums, question sites, the comments section in other articles I’ve written when I haven’t come up with the theory myself. Personally, I feel these theories do a good job of explaining why cats nibble on their humans, but let me know in the comments if you feel they’re lacking or don’t explain your cat’s behaviour.
To my knowledge, there haven’t been any studies on cats biting and licking their humans, let alone nibbling on humans in particular. Do let me know if you know of any that are related to that topic in the comments section below. Perfectly fine that we only have theories and no solid answers; after all, scientists have more important things to work out when it comes to felines, like discovering the perfect nutritional diet for cats. Still, I do think some of these theories may be on to something, and who knows, may be proven correct in the future when scientists begin to delve deeper into human-cat relationships. Combined, I think the theories do well giving a fuller picture of why cats might like to nibble on their humans, even though it may seem like an incredibly odd behaviour to us.
A lot of times, it’s exceptionally endearing when a cat nibbles on you, and so long as the nibbling stays gentle and harmless, so long as you don’t mind that it’s done to you, and so long as the nibbling doesn’t escalate into aggression or harm, I think it’s safe to say it’s totally okay for you to let it happen or even encourage it. If it hurts, if it bothers you, if it begins to escalate into aggression or harm, I feel strongly that you should discourage it, but in ways that aren’t too brash for the cat. Don’t yell or hit, or anything along those lines, ever, but especially, especially in this case since it’s highly likely (in my opinion) your cat is using the nibbling to show you care and affection.
If you’re trying to train your cat out of the behaviour, merely move the body part away that your cat happens to be nibbling on, even going so far as to replace, let’s say your fingers, with a cat chew toy or a cat-proof slipper to gnaw on. You can also say “No,” gently before moving your fingers or giving the replacement chew toy, as this may help your cat understand better. You removing your hand will make your cat eventually understand you’re not a fan of this type of behaviour, and if you give your cat a chew toy to use instead, he or she will begin to understand it’s not the act of gnawing and nibbling that’s problematic, but when he or she does it on you. Keep this in mind even if you currently have a cat whose nibbling you don’t mind, in case things escalate or you eventually become uncomfortable with the act.
Now let’s get into the theories – and if you have more, or think a few are better explanations than others, do let me know in the comments below.
11 Theories That Could Explain Why Your Cat Nibbles on You
1. Your cat may physically enjoy the sensation of nibbling in general, including on you.
If your cat happens to like nibbling on things in general, the fact that your cat gently bites and gnaws on you may be an extension of this love for biting. I strongly recommend grabbing a cat chew toy or two for your feline if this sounds like your cat, something like the Kong Hugga Wubba, which my kitten Cleo loves, or the Petstages Plaque Away Pretzel, which my adult cat Avery adores, as if this is a source of pleasure for your cat, you’ll want to use this to your advantage when selecting cat toys you feel your cat will actually want to play with.
Stimulation is important, especially for keeping indoor cats happy and helping them not stay bored for too long. Grabbing a few different types of chew toys your cat might be interested in could make for an easy win when you know for a fact your cat already likes to chew.
2. Your kitten is teething and enjoys nibbling to relieve the teething itch.
Kittens teethe just like human babies, and as a result, your kitten might be nibbling on you to relieve the itch to bite. Your kitten could grow out of this behaviour when he or she is an adult and no longer feeling the teething itch, or it may become habitual, sticking around long after he or she grows up.
3. Nibbling could be a behaviour leftover from kitten-hood.
Kittens do like to bite and nibble. To my knowledge, as soon as they start to have playful interactions with their mothers they begin biting and nibbling on them, usually a leg or an arm, a part of their parent that moves and looks like it might be fun to play with. This could be a part of what’s at play in adult cats nibbling on humans they’re close with as well. The act of nibbling could have been a behaviour from their kitten-hood that stayed with them as an adult, why?
4. Cats nibbling on their humans may be a form of self-soothing & stress relief.
There may be something to the act of nibbling that forms some sort of self-soothing stress relief. Either because, like kneading and scratching, the act (due to both these leading to stretching) has physical side effects that lead to less tension, or because it’s a habit, like a human baby sucking on his or her thumb, that is associated with feelings of calmness and happiness.
Picture from post This One
5. Biting is a part of grooming for cats, and so your cat may nibble on you because they’re grooming you.
Sometimes you’ll see a cat biting and nibbling on themselves in between licks while cleaning, and this is because biting helps them to get dirt and debris stuck in their fir loose, so they can remove it from their furry coats.
If your cat bites and nibbles on you, it may be because he or she is essentially grooming you in a similar fashion to how they would groom themselves. Why would they do this?
6. Cats groom other cats in their colonies. Your cat may nibble on you as a form of socialization.
Cats will often lick, clean, and groom other cats in their colonies. This act – called allogrooming – is a form of socialization to some extent, and stress relief to another. Cats who nibble on you may be doing so because they think of you like you’re their feline family members – feline family members who they would groom by biting, licking, and nibbling on. There’s another reason cats seem to allogroom, however, which brings me to my next theory…
7. Your cat may be showing dominance over you with his or her nibbles.
Cats who begin and do most of the grooming during allogrooming sessions are typically dominant cats. At the “receiving end” of the grooming are subservient cats who are lower on the colony hierarchy. As a result, when a cat grooms another cat, they are usually to some extent showing their dominance over that cat. This may not be a hard and fast rule, especially if cats seem to switch dominant roles, but overall dominant cats do more of the grooming to more subservient cats.
While it’s not likely done in any sort of negative way, your cat allogrooming you with his or her gentle nibbles may be a sign that he or she thinks of you as a lower rank “cat” then him or herself – essentially your cat may be showing he or she thinks they’re dominant over you.
Would any of us be surprised if this turned out to be true? I mean, who would even bother to deny a lot of times we’re the ones owned by our cats rather than the other way around.
8. Your cat’s nibbles may be a form of scenting, marking you as their territory to show other cats you’re theirs.
Cats use their scent to mark things as their territory, and while I’m not 100% certain of this, I do think the act of nibbling on you might help them get their scent on you. Behaviours like rubbing their face or their noses on you gets your scent all over them, which no doubt helps them feel more relaxed as they’ve marked you as their own territory. It would make sense (to me at least) if nibbling, maybe through the saliva left on you, also marked you as their territory.
9. Your cat may be nibbling out of playfulness.
A lot of cats seem to get play and affection tangled up quite easily.
If you’re petting my cat Bjorn on his belly, there comes a point after quite a lot of strokes where he begins getting hyper and playful. He’ll turn to you, teeth showing, with his paws out, try to catch your hand, possibly try to bite, and unless you stop the stroking you’re almost sure to get a completely well-meaning scrape on your hand with a claw.
I can tell when he does this that the physical attention I was with him stimulated him in terms of making him feel happy and loved, then when it got to be too much, made him playful and hyper, feeling the need to attack in a fun-loving way. It’s almost like he hits a boiling point after a while and once that line is crossed he’s in wild-cat mode, when before he would’ve been in cuddly-sleepy mode.
Your cat may be nibbling on you for a similar reason, out of playfulness, and wanting to have fun and “attack” but not in any sort of way that’s harmful to you, just in a way that’s engaging and stimulating for him or her.
10. Your cat may be trying to get attention with nibbling.
A lot of cats have pretty unique ways of showing you they want attention, and if nibbling has worked before in getting yours, this may be a method your cat is using to get a hold of yours.
Nibbling lead to cuddles, pets, and or play time? Maybe you’ve essentially trained your cat to nibble on you for the reward he or she really loves and craves.
11. Cats may nibble on their humans as a form of showing affection.
Saved the best for last, and one most of us have probably felt when we’ve had a cat gently, completely painlessly, nibble on us while being in a calm, happy, attention-loving mood.
No, there may not be scientific evidence backing this theory up quite yet, but it sure does seem the most powerful and likely case from an experiential point of view.
Picture from post Spending Time with Sammy
Your Thoughts on Cats Nibbling Humans?
Have you had a cat nibble on you before? Is this a behaviour multiple cats you’ve known have done? Do the cats who nibble on you do it frequently? When is it usually done (say, during cuddle time, after a tummy rub, etc.)?
Why do you think cats nibble on humans? Are there any theories you have or have heard of that aren’t in my list?
Which theories do you think are more or less likely to be true?
Really looking forward to your thoughts & to hearing about your experiences in the comments down below!
I have four cats and only Bootsy nibbles my ankles or calves (if I have shorts on) when I am getting their breakfast!
One of my two cats, Boo, will curl up in my lap during morning coffee time. He insists I give him 100% attention by biting anything I have in my hand such as my phone. Then he settles down and gently nibbles my arm as I am petting him. It’s probably bossy, but it’s sweet too.
Mary Bragg says
My cat, Pretzel, likes to get up in my lap then starts rubbing against my chin. She will then gently latch on and gently bite my chin then close her mouth and drag her teeth along my chin as she closes her mouth. Then she curls up in my lap and starts kneading and purring then settles down for a nap.