We Asked A Veterinarian: Why Do Dogs Nibble On Cats?

dog nibbling a cat

There aren’t many things cuter than seeing a cat and dog cuddle or even simply live in harmony. But sometimes these interactions look a little…confusing. Like when your dog nibbles your cat. It’s a question we’ve heard a lot before with some very funny descriptions of the type of nibble pet parents are seeing but it usually involves a nibble with the front teeth like you would bite on your fingernail.

So what’s going on here? We sat down with one of Not A Bully’s Advising Veterinarians Dr. Joseph Menicucci and here’s the quick answer we came up with:

Dogs often nibble on cats as a form of grooming, play, or communication. When done gently, it’s usually a sign of affection and bonding. Dogs may lightly nibble with their front teeth to groom the cat, similar to mutual grooming or “allogrooming” seen within species. More enthusiastic nibbling with grabbing can indicate play, as both species use their mouths during play wrestling.

However, intense nibbling may signal anxiety that requires veterinary attention. Dogs might also bite and hold the cat’s neck to stop unwanted behavior or prolong interaction. While normal if done gently, neck biting can be aggressive from dogs with high prey drives or poor bite inhibition. Owners should supervise dog-cat interactions, intervene if the cat appears stressed, and separate them if aggression is shown. Training the “leave it” cue and providing other outlets for the dog’s energy can help curb unwanted nibbling.

That’s the quick answer but we’ll take a much closer look with everything you need to know to figure out which explanation makes sense for you pooch and feline.

Reason 1: Grooming

When you see your dog lightly nibbling on your cat, it is likely because your dog is grooming the cat.

Grooming is not only a way for dogs and cats to keep clean, but it also acts as a bonding experience. Both cats and dogs engage in what is called mutual grooming, or “allogrooming”. While some species of animals only groom others of the same species, cats and dogs have been known to engage in mutual grooming with animals of another species (including people!).

When your dog is nibbling gently on your cat, you may also see them licking the cat over their entire body or sometimes just around the head and neck area.

Reason 2: Play

If your dog is being a little more enthusiastic in their nibbling, or if they are also grabbing at the cat lightly with their entire mouth, it might also be because they are trying to initiate play with the cat.

Both dogs and cats utilize their mouths when playing, and this includes nibbling and biting. As long as the dog is being gentle with the cat and the cat does not seem stressed, it is likely that your two furry friends are just engaging in a relaxing wrestling match with their mouths.

You may even see your cat return the favor and nibble or lightly bite back at your dog!

Different Types of Nibbling

While you are watching your dog nibble at your cat, you may see them apply different amounts of pressure, use specific parts of their mouths, or they may also include other behaviors at the same time they are nibbling at your cat.

Front Teeth Only

Dogs will nibble with just their front teeth when they are grooming, generally when grooming for bonding rather than cleaning.

It is a light, gentle nibbling rather than a pinching motion (though an enthusiastic dog may still pinch!) and the dog may use it on any part of the cat’s body.

Some dogs will also use this light, front-teeth only nibbling if they are feeling anxious and want to calm themselves.

Noisy Nibbling with Licking

If your dog is really interested in a good grooming session with your cat, the nibbling might be much more audible and be accompanied by periods of licking in-between some very enthusiastic nibbling.

Your dog may use all of their teeth for this type of grooming, or just their front teeth. This type of noisy nibbling is generally much rougher than the nibbling typically seen in bonding sessions, but it should still not be painful for the cat.

Grabbing & Holding Cat Still

When your dog is interacting with your cat, you may notice them occasionally grab your cat by the head or neck and then both animals go completely still.

The pressure is very light and is generally either a warning by the dog for the cat to stop what they are doing, or the dog may be preventing the cat from moving away so that the dog can finish whatever they are doing with the cat (either grooming or playing).

Unless your dog has poor bite inhibition, you see other predatory or aggressive behavior at the same time, or your cat is older or has a health condition, this type of “grab & hold” is not something to worry about and is a normal part of communication between the two species.

Take Action If Your Dog Is Shaking Your Cat

If you’re seeing this behavior, we’ve moved past nibble into dangerous territory.

Dr. Menicucci explains that “this behavior can be dangerous and should be prevented at all costs. Owners should intervene immediately if they witness their dog attempting to grab and shake a cat as it indicates a much more dangerous situation than a nibble.”

Grabbing and shaking is an instinctual predatory behavior, and your dog can cause severe damage (or even death) if he grabs a cat by the head, neck, or body and vigorously shakes it. If your dog has any history of reacting in a predatory way towards any small animal, you should always supervise them when they are around your cat for safety reasons.

Is It Normal For My Dog To Nibble On My Cat?

It is completely normal for your dog to nibble on your cat! If your dog and cat have a good relationship with each other, you will probably frequently see them both nibbling at each other during bonding sessions, grooming sessions, or during playtime.

Similarly, if your dog never nibbles or grooms your cat, that’s totally fine too. Some dogs are just not interested in forming that kind of relationship with a cat, or they do not feel as comfortable about being around the cat.

Should I Stop My Dog From Nibbling On My Cat Or Biting My Cat’s Neck?

If your dog has good bite inhibition, is being gentle, and your cat does not appear stressed or in pain, then it’s probably OK to leave them alone.

If at any point your dog becomes too rough with the cat, or the cat indicates it is stressed or in pain, or just seems a little too focused on your cat then you should separate them.

If you notice your dog reacting in an aggressive or predatory way towards your cat, you should separate them immediately and never leave them alone together unsupervised.

If your cat has any kind of injury or topical flea or medical treatment on them, you should also prevent your dog from nibbling and biting at your cat’s body. Your dog may accidentally ingest whatever treatment is on the cat, or further injure the cat if they are already recovering from an injury.

Young puppies should also be monitored as they are still developing good bite inhibition and they may accidentally injure the cat. However, that doesn’t mean you should completely separate a puppy and cat. Dr. Menicucci points out the importance of still supporting your puppy through this essential socialization period which includes meetings cats!

How Do I Stop My Dog From Nibbling On My Cat’s Neck?

If you do need or want to stop your dog from nibbling or biting at your cat, there are a few things you could do.

You could work on training the “leave it” cue with your dog to inform him when he should stop nibbling on the cat, or you could teach him to avoid the cat completely so no nibbling or biting ever occurs.

If you do not want to train your dog or you have a dog and cat duo who do not really get along, then you can prevent access to the cat completely by either keeping the two separated at all times using baby gates and door blocks, or by allowing the cat plenty of areas where they can jump up and away from the dog.

If you have an enthusiastic dog who nibbles and bites at your cat due to high energy and play levels, then providing other outlets for that energy is wise. Using puzzle toys, playing games such as Tug of War, or just going for long walks or runs are great ways to help get that energy out.

For aggressive dogs or dogs who have high prey drives, it is best to prevent any access they have to the cat completely unless they are under close supervision. You can also speak to an experienced dog trainer or veterinary behaviorist for additional help with your dog.

Closing Thoughts

For the most part, if you catch your dog nibbling at your cat or biting at your cat’s neck, it is merely harmless fun or an act of bonding.

Rarely would it be due to aggression issues, but if you are concerned about your dog injuring your cat (accidental or otherwise) then it’s probably best to keep them separated.

If your dog and cat seem to have a good relationship, though, then feel free to leave them be!

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