Cats form complex bonds with people as well as other cats, but cats aren’t people. Cats don’t speak English, and most people don’t speak ‘cat’. Purring is an indication of in-moment contentment and cats, like people, can quickly change their minds. It’s therefore important that you stay focused and pay attention to these changes in your cat’s demeanor as otherwise your cat may just haul off and bite you!
When a cat bites you during a purring-and-petting session, seemingly out of nowhere and for no apparent reason, it’s usually because the cat has been saying (in cat language), “Enough with all the petting already!” but you haven’t been listening. This is often described as ‘over-stimulation’. Afterward, the cat will usually leap off your lap and run away.
Perhaps the cat is overstimulated. Or, perhaps cats don’t like being petted after they’ve had enough anymore than people like being hugged to the point where it gets awkward. Cat society has its own rules of propriety and learning to ‘read’ a cat can take quite a long time.
Their ways are not our ways. Don’t punish your cat when it nips at you during a petting session. The way the cat sees it, you are the transgressor, not the cat.
When your cat is ready for more affection, it will be right back, asking you for some, just as if nothing ever happened.
I Love You so Much I Could Eat You up
Cats give each other ‘love bites’ to show affection and to set boundaries, and sometimes your cat with do the same to you. Usually, these bites will not break the skin. You cat isn’t trying to hurt you, it’s trying to tell you that whatever you were doing right before the bite is getting a bit too intense.
In other words, your cat might be having a spectacular time; too spectacular. In the end, it doesn’t matter if your cat is saying, “You are the best,” or “Dial it back,” your part in this is to dial it back. Bites given during play are often like this. The cat is having fun but is having fun with teeth involved.
You don’t want to encourage that. So just stop, take inventory, and don’t get upset about it if you can help it. Eventually, you’ll get a good sense of who your cat is and what it likes and doesn’t like.
I Purr, Therefore I Bite
Many people believe that a purring cat is a contented cat, but cats purr for lots of different reasons. Sometimes the cat purrs because it is trying to calm itself down. Sometimes the purring is territorial; the cat purrs to say, “This is my spot, I like it, stay away.”
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When a new person comes to visit, a cat may purr to telegraph both territoriality and a warning. Purring can indicate impending aggression. This kind of purring tends to be loud and obvious.
Does it seem that your cat’s inner life and outer messaging sometimes approaches incomprehensibility? Cats get labeled mysterious and fickle for a reason. Cats live by cat rules of etiquette and affection, and you aren’t likely to ‘train’ them into human ones.
Cats are not randomly trying to perplex and upset you with their purring, nipping, and ambiguous communication style. If your cat honestly doesn’t like you, it just won’t come near you. Instead, your cat is including you in cat society.
You and your cat are having a relationship. You are learning to understand and respect each other.
In one study, researchers applied human personality traits to cats and came up with five basic cat types: Neurotic, extroverted, dominant, impulsive, and agreeable. Getting a sense of which personality type most closely matches your own cat can help you get along better and prevent unwanted biting.
Neurotic cats are the ones that run and hide at the drop of a hat. Let your cat do that if that is its personality. In fact, provide some fun hiding places like cat tunnels, padded enclosed houses, cardboard boxes, paper bags, and other creative spaces, and don’t push your cat into interactions with humans it hasn’t requested.
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Once your neurotic cat learns your home is safe and so are you, you will see the cat more often.
Curious and sociable, extroverted cats show up whenever anything new is happening, and need to check it out. Your extroverted cat is the one that will jump onto the lap of the one person in the room who is terrified of cats and try to change her mind. Provide your extroverted cat with lot of toys and enjoy.
Dominant cats scare the dog and hog toys and food. If your cat displays this personality, make sure it has its own toys, its own food dish, and plenty of your attention. The dog may not ever get over it, but you can’t have everything.
Impulsive cats are anxious cats. Impulsive cats may be reacting to a stressful environment, so think about your living space and the cat’s daily life and adjust downward. Some cats just can’t take a lot of hustle and bustle, so don’t try to force them, and don’t shout at them because it will only make things worse.
Agreeable cats adore people and just want to be loved and fussed over all the time. Most cats will become more agreeable the longer they have to adjust to a household. Also, cats tend to ‘age out’ of troubling behaviors and become more sedate as they mature, so any cat can grow in agree-ability the longer it lives with you.
Kids and Cat Bites
If you have small children and a new cat, the question is not if they cat will bite them but when. Make sure your children understand that the cat is not a toy, and keep a close eye on them whenever they are handling the cat. Cats will let kids know when they’ve had enough and may just go hide until the kids are outside or at school.
Emphasize that the more the kids sit back and let the cat come to them, the more often the cat will be happy to be come be their friend. Some cats will happily let small children carry them all over the house, but most won’t. Discourage this kind of play.
If a cat bites through the skin, disinfect the wound right away and review what happened right before the incident. Cats usually don’t bite that hard. The cat may have been physically hurt by something the child was doing.
Purring and Biting as a Sign of Illness
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Loud purring followed by frequent biting can signal the cat feels unwell and is trying to calm itself down. If biting becomes a frequent problem and your cat seems lethargic, depressed, or if it isn’t eating and is losing weight, it’s time for a trip to the vet. The cat may not be seriously ill, but catching a problem early saves money and suffering and gets your cat back on track.
Cats benefit from regular visits with the vet every bit as much as dogs do, even though many people have a more casual attitude toward cats. Some of the problems a vet can address that will affect your cats personality and cause it to bite are ear mites (very common in cats), dental problems (cats with bad teeth hurt just like humans do), and urinary tract infections (common in older male cats and often food-related).
If your cat suffers chronic pain, of course it will bite more. Since the cat can’t tell you what is wrong, a trip to the vet is the best course of action. Healthy cats are happy cats.
Cats Gone Wild
Cats in the wild use bites and nips in many situations humans might not expect. Male cats fight with claws and teeth and do serious damage in the process. Your cat may seem docile and sweet, but if it wanted to really hurt you it could.
The fact that your pet cat likely will only nip you without breaking the skin actually shows the cat respects and cares about you.
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Cats bite during mating as well. The male cat grabs the female cat at the back of her neck and holds on tight; none too gently either. This causes her to go reflexively limp, insuring some kittens will be the result of the union. This is why your vet or vet tech will ‘scruff’ a nervous cat when handling it; grabbing it firmly by its neck skin causes this reflexive relaxation and the cat calms down.
Of course, mama cats carry babies around by the scruff of the neck as well. Don’t make a habit of trying this at home though: your cat won’t appreciate it and it is rarely necessary.
Cats also use their teeth when play with toys and with one another. You’ve probably seen your cat bite into a toy or another cat and kick its back legs against the playmate. This is a normal cat behavior.
Cats bite when they kill, but if you’ve ever had a mouser, you know the cat plays with the mouse for a long time before killing it. Don’t let your cat eat mice; they’re full of germs and worms. Take the mouse away as soon as you can safely do so.
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People don’t bite each other to convey messages. Cats do. The stereotype of the cat as a fickle loner, aloof and separate from society is wrong. Cats in the wild form complex societies that foster strong bonds with other cats.
When a cat lives with a human, the cat wants to get along. Cats speak a different language but they do speak. Learn what your cat is saying when it purrs or nips or runs away, and rest assured your cat will appreciate you, deeply.
Product data was last updated on 2023-06-06.
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"In ancient times cats were worshipped as gods; they have not forgotten this."
-- Terry Pratchett
6 thoughts on “Mixed Signals: Why Do Cats Purr and Then Bite You?”
Fit my Abbi to a T
Just found you but I WILL be following
because…cats are not DOGS!
dont like being touched so much!!!!
I have read many articles but so far have never read about why a cat will stalk a person, just like his wild ancestor we see on wildlife videos. I can understand the behavior but never heard complaints of cats doing this and if it was common I would think it would be one of the topics in your article also. I have unexpectedly been snarled, hissed at, hit in the back of the legs. He will not bite but is a miniature of his wild ancestor. This car normally adores me to the point of being a pest. Anyway it would be interesting to see this behavior addressed.
You answered a lot of my questions. A very good article. Thank you!
Very good reading, I understand now
Adopted OSCAR from a cat shelter and was warned that he would bite. I thought with a lot of love and kindness HE
would stop biting (first time I have had a TOM cat).
I’ve had him for six months and he still bites … do you have any ideas how to correct his behavior ? I love him … but he especially likes to bite legs and I had an infected leg. Very expensive !!!