It’s so common it’s almost a joke – the cat that you can pet exactly 3 times before “chomp”!
When cats go quickly from enjoying petting to swatting or biting, we call it “petting aggression” or “overstimulation”. This behavior is distinct to cats that have this love/hate relationship with petting. A cat that consistently tries to avoid touch may be fearful while a cat that bites during play is said to be “playfully aggressive” – both are different issues not covered here.
Petting aggression can seem random because it appears that the cat has suddenly, and for no reason, changed their mind about the situation. In reality, most cats give some type of warning that they are no longer enjoying the attention. While they initially enjoyed the petting, they have shifted to finding it irritating or uncomfortable.
Consider two human examples:
Example 1: You like your coworker and have no problem with the occasional quick hug when something goes well. But sometimes the hug lasts a little too long or happens in front of clients. At those times you don’t appreciate it and avoid contact. Your coworker expresses confusion at why you are so “hot and cold”.
Example 2: Lightly rub your finger back and forth on a small spot on your arm for a minute. At first it doesn’t bother you but I bet you don’t last the whole minute before it feels very uncomfortable.
In one example there are specific factors of the situation that cause you to react “randomly” (your relationship with your coworker, the length of the hug, the presence of clients). In the second example, you see how the same physical sensation can go from fine to not with just time. For your cat, both of these reasons can result in an aggressive response.
Why Is My Cat Like This?
Petting aggression can understandably be a frustrating situation for owners. Especially if you’ve never had a cat that is sensitive to petting, it can feel like a very personal attack when your cat bites you for just trying to provide love.
Cats that enjoy petting up until they don’t are simply communicating with you in the only ways they have. Every individual (humans included) has specific preferences about what they like and don’t. These preferences can be due to early experiences, more recent experiences, or just a part of their basic makeup. And every individual has a different level of tolerance for things that they don’t like.
There are some medical conditions that can cause a cat to react poorly to touch. Pain or illness can cause sensitivity, as can some diseases. If your cat hasn’t been to the vet recently or this behavior is a change from normal, make an appointment for a check-up.
The nice thing is that, to a point, most cats can learn to be more comfortable with petting and to express their discontent in more appropriate ways.
Life With A Sensitive Feline
See It Coming
If petting aggression is your cat trying to tell you that they don’t like what you are doing, then the best way to manage it is to learn to see your cat’s more subtle signs and stop petting before they scratch or bite.
There are many body language cues you can watch for:
In addition to body language, becoming aware of other factors that may predict petting aggression can help you avoid it. Think about if any of the following are related to an increased reaction:
Considering potential triggers and watching your cat’s body language will help you take the randomness out of their petting aggression.
Petting Minus the Aggression
Often petting aggression can be minimized by adjusting where, how, and how long you are touching your cat.
Most cats prefer petting around their face. When cats instigate petting, they typically do so by rubbing their face on their person. On the flip side, touching at the base of the tail, along the tail length, or on the belly is more likely to cause a negative reaction. Every cat is different though so pay attention to what your cat enjoys rather than just tolerates.
Long strokes with gentle, even pressure typically get the best reaction. Hard, quick scratches may get a less positive response.
When first working on your cat’s petting aggression, start by keeping petting sessions very short. Pay attention to when your cat reacts and try to pet for a shorter time. At first, you may only pet them a few times and then take a break. Over time though you’ll be able to build up.
If you see any warning signs, give your cat a break immediately and see if they actively ask for more petting. Cats that walk away or don’t rub back against you are telling you they are ready for the break. If your cat isn’t the “walk away” type, grab a toy and give them something else to do.
By ending petting at the first sign of overstimulation, you are listening to what your cat is saying and giving them a chance to cool down before they escalate. This is teaching them to give you that warning (because you will listen) and not to jump straight to biting you.
Stimulation for the Overstimulator
Ironically many cats that “overstimulate” are actually under stimulated by their environment. Excess energy and boredom can cause a cat to be amped up and irritable, leading to more reaction when you go in for a cuddle session.
Regular interactive play and mental stimulation (try food puzzles!) are a good way to help your cat relax and feel calm. Burning that excess energy and letting your little hunter use their brain can pay off with greater tolerance and better behavior.
Give It Time
If your cat is new to your family, they may need time to get to know you better. Even social cats will have a lower tolerance with people that they don’t know and trust yet. Make it easier for them by letting them set the pace. If your new cat needs to spend more time exploring the house instead of sitting on your lap, that’s okay. With time, they’ll get used to everything else and come to you for fun.
As you’re getting to know your new cat, try interacting with them in other ways along with petting. Interactive play is great and also helps build confidence. Or grab a few treats and teach them a cute trick!
Punishment: Part of the Problem
You want to punish your cat for biting you but punishment is a poor solution to petting aggression and, unfortunately, can be part of the problem.
Punishment (including flicking, scruffing, or spraying water) when your cat tells you to stop petting them doesn’t teach them how to communicate their needs. In your cat’s mind, they’ve probably given you several warnings already and now you’ve forced them to make themself heard. If you punish them, you may end up teaching them to go straight to scratching or biting instead of warning you because that’s the only thing that works. Or you may cause them to avoid you or become aggressive out of fear.
If you follow all of these steps, will your cat soon learn to happily enjoy petting whenever you want and for as long as you would like? Probably not. Every cat has their own preferences and some may never love a long cuddle session. But by meeting your cat’s activity needs, learning to pet them in a way that they enjoy, and respecting the signs that they need a break, you can love on your cat and still avoid being bitten. As your relationship grows and your cat learns to communicate with you, they will generally tolerate, and even enjoy, more attention.
If your cat continues to bite during petting or at other times, consider scheduling a private behavior consultation.