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Petting-induced aggression and overstimulation

It’s hard not to feel hurt: you were simply stroking your lovely new cat, when she suddenly clamped her claws around your arm and bit you!  What in the world would make your sweet cat behave this way?

In a word, we would!  We love to touch and stroke and hold our cats, but they are not (by nature) close-contact animals.  As feline behavior consultant Pam Johnson-Bennett notes, “Some have low thresholds for how much touch they can tolerate before pleasure turns to discomfort” (Think Like a Cat, p.144).  Understanding feline body language can help us avoid overstimulating our cats and maintain a pleasant relationship.

  1. Be aware of your cat’s warning signs.  Tail lashing/thumping, shifting of body position, twitching of skin and direct looks from the cat are all indications that she has had enough petting.  If the petting continues, she will likely scratch or bite.
  2. Stop petting if you notice these signs.  If you see a lashing tail, stop petting right away.  Do not try to interact with the cat in any way; just leave her where she is.
  3. Try not to reach the cat’s warning phase again.  You don’t want your cat to learn that the only way to get his message across is to hurt you!  If your cat becomes overstimulated after four minutes, for example, stop petting after two minutes.
  4. Respect a cat who doesn’t like petting.  It may sound strange, but some cats simply don’t enjoy strokes down the back.  If yours is one of them, simply allow him to sit on your lap or beside you on the couch.  Not petting him will actually build trust, and allow him to feel safe around you.  You might try scratching his chin or the back of his head, starting with just a few seconds.  Cats vary tremendously in what kind of contact they prefer: take the time to find out which kind your cat enjoys.
  5. Avoid rubbing your cat’s belly.  Yes, some like it, but many don’t!  Exposing the belly typically means one of two things: defensive aggression (allowing use of all four sets of claws, plus teeth) or relaxation.  Even a relaxing cat can become defensively aggressive when his belly is touched.  Avoid it!
  6. Supervise all child-cat interactions.  If you have small children, encourage them (only under supervision) to let Kitty sit in their lap and pet once or twice if none of the above warning signs are visible.  Do not allow them to chase, grab, pick up or carry the cat, as this could result in serious injury.  Older children can be taught that cats are not playthings but living, sensitive animals; young children simply won’t understand this, and must be closely supervised.

This material is copyright of Animal Humane Society and can only be used with written permission.