Behavioral problems

Why Does My Cat Bite Me Gently While Purring?

Eduarda Piamore
By Eduarda Piamore, Expert in canine and feline psychology, education and training.. January 16, 2023
Why Does My Cat Bite Me Gently While Purring?

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We may be aware that cats have different vocalizations, but each sound they make can have more than one interpretation. For example, meowing can mean they are petitioning for something they want, but it may equally be a simply expression of affection. With purring, we usually think of it as a sign of happiness or calm. While this is true, it means when they start biting us at the same time, it can appear like mixed messaging. While feline communication is different to our own, they still need to express themselves. As guardians, it is our responsibility to understand what they are trying to say to us.

At AnimalWised, we ask why does my cat bite me gently while purring? We look at the different reasons for this biting and purring behavior in cats, as well as find out when it means we need to take action.

  1. Play or exploratory behavior
  2. Premature separation from their mother
  3. Poor education or training
  4. Stress or discomfort
  5. Call for attention or help

Play or exploratory behavior

The first thing we should know about why a cat purrs and bites at the same time is that it can be completely normal behavior. This is especially so with kittens. Cats do not have hands like we do and will need to use their mouths for much of the interactions with their environment. While biting is a part of a cat's predatory hunting instinct, they also use biting to explore and convey meanings to those around them.

Since cats and kittens will bite for various reasons, we need to look at the context of this behavior. For example, a kitten nibbling the arm of their guardian while playing is different from a cat biting aggressively when they feel cornered. For this reason, the fact that a kitten will purr when biting helps us to better understand why they are doing this.

When kittens are born into a litter, they will start learning very quickly about how to survive. They will learn lessons from both their mother and other siblings, as well as eventually learning interactions from their human guardians.

A cat mother will purr when it is time for her kittens to feed, something which is helpful since newborn kittens do not open their eyes immediately. Kittens will then respond with purring to show both desire to feed and indicate they are satiated. They learn that purring is an important tool for communication and they will also use it when they want their mother to know they are scared or do not understand a situation.

Kittens use their mouths for exploratory behaviors. Play behavior is not only a way to have fun, but it is an important part of this exploratory behavior. When they are playing with their siblings, they will bite and attack to simulate hunting for prey. Since their siblings are not play, they need to learn bite inhibition so they do not harm them. They will also use purring as a way to both encourage play and communicate they have had enough.

If your kitten nibbles and bites you gently during play, they are simply trying to learn. However, if we see they are showing signs of fear, it is important to know that purring may indicate they want a play session to end. Since adult cats retain many of their behaviors of kittens, if your adult cat purrs when biting, it can mean the same thing. This is especially the case with domestic cats.

Premature separation from their mother

As we have explained above, a kitten learns many fundamental lessons from their mother and siblings. For this reason, it is very important a kitten stays with their mother for a minimum of 8 weeks, but ideally up to 12 weeks. After this time, the mother will have completed the period of weaning her kittens and naturally start to send them out on their own.

When a kitten is removed from their mother prematurely, the lessons and boundaries explained above are not learned. Instead, the kitten has a much more difficult time knowing when their behavior is inappropriate and they have crossed a boundary. Prematurely separated kittens are much more likely to bite and scratch without proper inhibition. They are more likely to resort to aggression when they don't understand a situation.

Generally speaking, these are not situations where the cat purrs and bites you gently. They may be purring because their intentions are to play and have fun, but they will likely bite too hard. For this reason, it is very important we help a cat to learn these boundaries through training and positive reinforcement. If you have found kittens which have been abandoned or removed from their mother prematurely, read our guide on caring for abandoned kittens.

Why Does My Cat Bite Me Gently While Purring? - Premature separation from their mother

Poor education or training

A cat's mother and siblings are not the only individuals who will help them to learn how to interact with their environment. Once adopted, their guardians become their main reference figure. This makes sense since it is their guardians who provide for their needs and give them a sense of security. Unfortunately, not all guardians make the best reference figures.

When a kitten or cat enters the home, it is important they adapt to their new environment. This needs to be done in a way that makes them feel comfortable and secure. If we do not introduce a cat to the home properly, it can set a bad precedent from which it is difficult to recover. This is especially the case if we have other pets, children or any other stimuli which make cause the new arrival to become fearful.

Our training takes many forms, some of which are more subtle than others. For example, we may think that the education we provides ends once the cat is litter trained, but how we feed them is a form of education. For example, if we don't feed the cat at regular intervals, the cat may learn that food is not a secure resource. Providing a consistent feeding routine helps the cat learn they will be fed and be less insecure.

If we see our cat bites us and purrs a lot, it might be due to poor education. If they bite us hard instead of gently, this is particularly likely. It can happen a lot when we are playing because we have not providing them with the proper boundaries. For example, when we play with a cat, we should not tolerate them biting us. If they try to bite us, we should provide them with a toy to bite instead and give them positive reinforcement when they do so.

If the cat does not learn to stop biting inappropriately, we should stop the play altogether so they know they won't be able to play if they don't follow the rules. It is just as important to avoid negative reinforcement. Shouting at and scolding a cat is not only ineffective training, but it make the situation worse.

Learn the best course of action with our guide on how to play with your cat.

Stress or discomfort

We may think of purring as only a sign of comfort or happiness, but the reasons why cats purr are diverse. It is also a noise cats make when they are feeling stressed or uncomfortable. When we are petting our cat, we may think they are purring as a sign to encourage us, but they might actually be trying to tell us they have had enough. It is for this reason a cat may be purring and then suddenly bite you aggressively.

Although such behavior may seem like it has appeared out of nowhere, it is possible we simply did not register their signals of communication. While purring and biting are types of communication, body language is perhaps their most important.

If a cat is purring with their eyes closed and face in an expression of serenity, it is likely they are comfortable and calm. If they are purring, but their eyes are open, their ears are band and their body is raised, it is likely a sign of stress and discomfort. It is important for us to learn and recognize the body language of cats so we can best interpret what they are trying to communicate.

When a cat purrs and bites us regularly, it could be a sign of some other stress in their lives. We will need to assess their situation and find out what might be causing our cat such stress. Once we do, we can both try to remove the stressor and provide encouragement to the cat. If we are unable to know why this purring and biting behavior occurs, take them to a veterinarian. They can rule out a physical reason and help us to better make our assessment.

Call for attention or help

We have already explained that adult cats retain some of their kitten behaviors. Although they know we are not actually their mothers, we represent a mother-like figure to cats. This is understand when we consider the fact we meet their needs, respond to their call and provide them with plenty of affection. For this reason, purring and biting us gently is often explained by the following contexts:

  • Purring and biting to get your attention: in these cases you will probably hear a regular and vigorous purr that may be accompanied by the cat gently nibbling. These may also be accompanied by specific requests for food, especially if we are eating at the time.

  • Purring and biting to ask you for help: if your kitty is in pain or feels bad for some reason (diseases, injuries, accidents, etc.), it is possible they are purring loudly to ask for help. If we have seen a cat that has just been in an accident, it is common for them to purr loudly, in addition to other signs of pain in felines. Do not hesitate to take them to a veterinarian immediately.

Now we have explained why a cat purrs and bites both gently and aggressively, you know how important context is to the situation. Not only should be look at general forms of feline communication, but we need to get to know our individual cat's behaviors. This way we will be able to know if they are behaving abnormally as a sign that something is wrong.

While it is not always a problem, not purring can also be a sign we need to take action. Learn more with our article on why my cat isn't purring.

If you want to read similar articles to Why Does My Cat Bite Me Gently While Purring?, we recommend you visit our Behavioral problems category.

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Why Does My Cat Bite Me Gently While Purring?