Many of us have had the pleasure of petting our cat, when all of a sudden; the cat bites your hand and runs away. This is called petting induced or overstimulation aggression. It’s a common behavior in many cats, and is something that can be both frustrating and frightening until you learn how to manage this behavior with your cat.

What causes this behavior?

Cats are normally not as social as dogs, nor do they have as much physical contact with others of their species. They may groom each other and sleep close to each other, but have few other contact behaviors. Petting is something outside of their normal instinctive behavior. There are multiple theories regarding the cause of petting induced or overstimulation aggression.

Sensitivity threshold: The cat enjoys the human contact at first, but then the repetitiveness of the petting becomes irritating. The cat turns and bites as a way to say, “I’ve had enough.” An analogy to human behavior can be made. If someone pats you on the back, it feels good. If they continue to pat you, it becomes annoying and you will either move away from them or ask them to stop.

Pain: If a cat has a painful medical condition, your touch or even the cat’s perception that he may be touched in a painful area could cause the aggressive behavior.

Control: The cat is attempting to control the situation – when the petting starts, and when it stops.

How can petting related aggression be managed?

Have your cat examined by a veterinarian. It is important to find out if your cat has a medical condition that may cause pain when he is being petted. For example, arthritis in the neck, back or hip joints, or a sore tooth or ear infection may be painful. Petting may cause the pain to worsen or the cat to become anxious that you may touch a painful area.

Realize some cats just do not like to be cuddled. Each cat is unique. Some cats enjoy human contact, love to be held, and never seem to get enough petting. Others, for whatever reason, may enjoy human closeness (sitting on your lap) but not necessarily human-initiated contact. Understand that you will not be able to change the basic personality of your cat and need to accept him as he is.

Know the warning signs. Some owners will report that their cat suddenly turns and bites them. However, if the owner is very observant, certain clues will often become apparent:

  • The ears may go back
  • The skin or tail may start to twitch
  • The pupils may dilate
  • There may be a low growl
  • The claws may become unsheathed
  • The body may stiffen

If you see any of these signs, stop all movement and allow the cat to leave. You can toss a treat or toy off of your lap to direct him away before he becomes tense and tries to bite. It’s best not to pick him up to move him off of your lap, redirection with a toy or food motivator is the safest way to remove him from your space.

Predict the time. Once you are aware of the warning signs, you can start to time how long your cat likes to be petted. If the warning signs start about two minutes after you begin petting the cat, then never pet the cat more than a minute and a half. (But still watch for warning signs!)

Change the way you pet the cat. Some cats may prefer to receive short small strokes, similar to those they would receive if another cat were grooming them. Some cats prefer to be scratched under the chin or between the ears instead of receiving whole-body strokes. Try using one finger to pet gently on the face and cheeks, nowhere else. Let them rub on you, often cats are happy just to rub on their person and don’t need extended handling at all.

Do NOT physically correct the cat. Do not give your cat any physical correction if he does turn and bite, since it may cause him to be more aggressive. Allow the cat to retreat or run away. Scolding him will make no difference, cats don’t require approval from humans and yelling or using other reprimands won’t have an impact on your cat.

Use counter-conditioning. You may be able to relieve your cat’s petting-related aggression by offering a reward for not biting. For example, after each stroke, offer your cat small bits of cooked chicken or other food he really likes. Repeat this several times a day, giving only a few strokes each time so you do not approach his threshold of intolerance. (Stop if your cat shows any signs of irritation.) In time, your cat may start to relate the petting to something very enjoyable (a food treat).

Increase play time. Sometimes this overstimulation is due to frustration from boredom. Make sure that your cat gets a good play session with you daily. Keeping your cat active and engaged is a good way to reduce frustration. Overstimulation aggression often stems from frustration, if we can provide a good outlet for that energy, we can sometimes overcome sensitivity threshold issues.