Petting induced aggression seems to happen out of the blue, with no warning or provocation. You might be enjoying a warm, Zen moment — gently stroking your cat as she relaxes on your lap or next to you, when unexpectedly she bites. It isn’t a friendly, loving bite. It can be painful and may break the skin — definitely not a Zen moment.
Why it happens
Although it may seem the aggression is sudden and unexplained, there are understandable reasons for the behavior.
Tender spots and painful conditions, caused by arthritis, injuries, tummy aches, and other medical problems can cause cats to become irritable. They can’t help it. If they’re experiencing pain or discomfort, felines will do whatever is necessary to stop hurting. Sometimes the quickest way to get relief is to attack the irritant, which often is the loving hand of an owner in the midst of Zen-petting moments.
- If this sounds familiar, ask your veterinarian to thoroughly examine your cat in order to rule out painful medical conditions that may be causing the aggression.
Sometimes petting styles can be problematic — causing temporary sensitivities and overstimulation. Cats may seem to first revel in the caresses, purring and rubbing their owners’ loving hands. Suddenly, their moods switch and instead of the characteristic signs of pleasure, they bite. The petting may become annoying or painful — their people may be stroking with too heavy of a hand or repeatedly in the same spot, or the session may be too long. Although all cats can become irritable when overpetted, some react quicker and more intensely than others.
- You can avoid being attacked by being aware of how and where you’re stroking your kitty as well as her response. Be mindful of her sensitivities and at the first subtle sign of displeasure, stop touching her.
- Hands off
Every cat is unique. Some cats love to be caressed and handled, others prefer a hands-off approach. Many of these aloof kitties have their own unique ways of showing affection that might not include copious touching. Although they may love napping on the couch next to people or even resting on a warm lap, they don’t enjoy being stroked or fussed with. If their initial attempts at communicating displeasure are overlooked and they cannot easily retreat, they resort to a blatant approach that can’t be ignored.
- Easy to startle
Some cats are sound sleepers. It takes more than a faint sound or subtle movement to wake them from their catnip and mouse dreams. These little ones, when startled out of a deep sleep by loving caresses, sometimes bite or scratch.
- If your kitty startles easily, warn her with a soft sound and be certain she is aware of you before petting her.
Recognize the signals
People sometimes are bitten or scratched when they ignore their cats’ protests. Biting usually gets the hands-off message across. You can stop the aggression before it begins by paying attention to the following cues:
- Tail movements
Annoyed kitties often use their tails to convey displeasure, swishing their tails from side to side or thumping them. The more irritated they are, the faster and more exaggerated the movement.
- Ear positions
Unhappy cats sometimes rotate their ears to the side or back, or flatten them against their heads when they’ve had enough strokes.
- Skin twitches
Another subtle cue that shouldn’t be ignored is felt with the hand. The kitty’s skin may twitch and ripple as she is stroked. This indicates that it’s time to stop petting.
- Acoustic clues
Cats often vocalize their displeasure through hissing, growling, or other strident vocalizations. The opposite is also a clue. Those who suddenly stop purring while being caressed are making a statement. It is time to stop.
- Head positions
After all the other communications efforts fail, the cat will turn her head quickly and look at the loving hand caressing her. At that point, it’s usually too late to stop the inevitable. She has made every reasonable attempt at conveying her desire to not be touched; it’s not her fault her wishes are ignored.
Zen actions and non-actions
You can avoid attacks by being in the moment, mindful of your cat’s moods and communiqués. At the first hint she’s had enough, take action through non-action. Stop petting her.
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Got a cat behavior question for Marilyn? Ask our behaviorist in the comments below and you might be featured in an upcoming column. If you suspect a behavioral problem, always rule out any possible medical issues that may be causing the behavior by first having your cat examined by a veterinarian.
Marilyn, a certified cat behavior consultant, owner of The Cat Coach, LLC, solves cat behavior problems nationally and internationally through on site, Skype and phone consultations. She uses positive reinforcement, including environmental changes, management, clicker training and other behavior modification techniques.
She is also an award winning author. Her book Naughty No More! focuses on solving cat behavior problems through clicker training and other positive reinforcement methods. Marilyn is big on education—she feels it is important for cat parents to know the reasons behind their cat’s behaviors. She is a frequent guest on television and radio, answering cat behavior questions and helping people understand their cats.