This is a difficult question to answer without knowing the kind of biting you are asking about. But a quick answer, if you are petting them and they seem to enjoy it then give a turn and bite, that’s ok… it just means that they don’t know what to do with all that over-stimulation/energy (the “feel-good” feeling from petting) and dish it out as a bite!
In most cases, they will bite (not hard usually) and then give a lick (kiss) to say sorry.
But the long answer:
There are so many scenarios on why a cat might bite while being petted. (or if the cat is kneading)
Let’s look at that issue first of the kind or types…
There are kinds of cat biting?
Well yes, there are different kinds of bites for different reasons and you need to sort those out in order to confront the issue.
I will explain what I mean and we will address one very common cause of biting, but first, a couple of notes about cat physiology.
First, they are loose bags of flesh; second, they have no thumbs.
Loose bags of flesh without thumbs?
These facts are actually very important, and I will explain why.
First, cats are loose bags of flesh.
Take a look at a picture of an Egyptian hairless cat and you will see what I mean. Seriously, stop reading and go Google that.
They look like they are wearing skin too big for them, which is all wrinkly and loose.
Holding one of those cats can feel decidedly odd – cats have a warmer body temperature than humans (between 100.5 and 102.5 degrees Fahrenheit) so when you have one of those cats in your arms, you feel that they are hot, loose bags of flesh.
Sensation-wise, it is a very weird feeling.
The Egyptian Hairless I had the privilege of knowing was named Professor Kushami, and he had permanent upper respiratory issues so another acquaintance dubbed him Professor Kushami, the Snot Tsunami which I am afraid stuck.
He was a very interesting cat, and certainly the first one I’d ever seen naked.
Since then, I’ve seen a lot of cats with some or all of their fur shaved for medical treatments, and you may be surprised to learn that their skin markings in no way correspond to their coat patterns.
Indeed, most cats have random spots on their skin, no matter what their fur color or pattern.
Under all that fur, most cats are wearing polka dotted underwear.
So back to the bags of flesh part.
Cat’s skin isn’t stretched tightly over their frame like a human’s skin is. That looseness helps with everything from their leaping and climbing acrobatics to them being able to slip from the grasp of a bigger predator.
It is an amazing survival mechanism!
The flip side to this is that cats pretty much think of us as other cats.
When they play with us, they play with us like cats.
When they play with each other, they can wrestle and grab and bite and their skin kind of slips around so they can play pretty roughly.
Our skin doesn’t work like that – it stays in one place – so what would be a playful non-injurious WrestleMania move with another cat can actually hurt us. They just have not yet figured out that our skin doesn’t slip around like theirs.
And the thumbs part?
Well, the obvious part is that cats don’t have thumbs.
Why this is important is because if we want to play with something – throw a ball, for instance – we grab it with our hands and use our thumbs to hold it.
Do some cats have opposable thumbs? Yes!
They are called: Polydactyl Cat
But normally, they have pretty flat hands which are great for gripping onto a flat surface (like a tree) or smacking something flat (like a mouse) but they’re pretty useless for grabbing onto something and holding it without perforating it.
Below is a cute cat video of a thumbs up!
When cats do try to grab something, they do one of two things:
- They grab it with both paws, using one paw in opposition to another (as in opposable, like opposable thumbs) to grab and hold things between the paws.
- They grab it with their mouths since their jaws work like our opposable thumbs. Cats tend to use the two paw method when playing far more than dogs – dogs pretty much just use their mouths to grab and chew on things.
So, in play cats can bite you roughly sometimes because:
1) They don’t know that your skin is a weirdly tight and it won’t slip and slide when they play with you and…
2) They’re trying to grab you and they either use two paws or their mouths for that. Think of how you’d wrestle or play when you were a kid – you’d grab with your hands a lot.
Cats grab with their mouths.
The secret to changing this behavior is a little counterintuitive.
Many people react to a bite by smacking a cat, and that’s totally the wrong thing to do.
First and foremost, you should never hit an animal…
but secondly – look how cats play with each other as well as how they fight: they smack each other.
They play smack each other around to start a wrestling match, and when cats fight it usually starts with smacking each other upside the head.
As a matter of fact, male cats tend to fight this way a lot.
They have actually evolved a compensation for it; male cats grow fat pads under the skin but on top of the skull to cushion their head from these fighting blows.
It is like a little football helmet under the skin.
Male cats who grow to adulthood without neutering develop these big round heads because of this padding.
Female cats or males neutered before adulthood keep their pointed faces.
So, if you see a neighborhood cat with a big, round head it is most likely a tomcat.
So, when cats play they smack each other.
When cats fight, they smack each other harder.
If you respond to a too rough bite with a smack, then the cat will think you are either:
1) trying to play more or
2) starting a fight and will smack you right back.
Smacking them just says game on!
So how do I address rough play biting?
You deal with this issue almost the same way you treat a puppy to not play rough and bite.
With a puppy, you yelp like a wounded puppy every time they mouth you, down to your shoelace, and they learn that you are a thinned skinned puppy and they can’t use their mouths on you.
It feels a bit silly yelping every time a puppy gets a little aggressive, but it does teach them that you are fragile (and against an adult dog’s teeth and jaws, your skin is indeed fragile).
Cats are less vocal than dogs – they don’t communicate with each other with sound really – so you don’t have to do the yelping part.
You can try to teach them a word like a firm “No!” when they are too rough, but the key thing is to immediately end play.
Don’t keep engaging, stop the activity and step away.
You can come back in a minute or two and try again, but you need to make sure there is a clean break in the action, is clear that you have stopped playing with them.
You can teach them that if they bite or play too roughly, you won’t play and they will learn that they have to be gentler if they want to play with you.
Cats are smart and will learn this if you are consistent with it. (not all are being aggressive)
They will adjust their behavior because cats love playing more than almost everything.
(Except naps…and food…and sleeping in the clean laundry).
But seriously, playing is way up there for them – it’s the main form of stimulation that plays to their instincts and gives them needed socialization – and they will learn to adjust to gentler play if you are consistent with this response to the unacceptably rough play.