Petting-induced and play aggression in cats

Cats aren’t close-contact animals by nature, and some cats tolerate less touching and playful interaction than others. Understanding your cat’s body language can help to avoid aggression caused by overstimulation.

Tips to prevent injury

Be aware of warning signs

Description: Tail lashing/thumping, shifting of body position, skin twitching, and direct stares are indications that your cat has had enough petting. If the petting continues, he will likely scratch or bite. Stop petting if you notice these signs. Do not try and interact with the cat in any way and leave him where he is.

Stop before you reach your cat’s warning phase

You don’t want your cat to learn the only way to get his message across is to hurt you. For example, if your cat becomes overstimulated after four minutes, stop petting after two minutes.

Avoid rubbing your cat’s belly

If your cat exposes his belly, it typically means one of two things: defensive aggression or relaxation. Even a relaxing cat can become defensively aggressive when his belly is touched. Avoid it!

Respect a cat that doesn’t like petting

It may sound strange, but some cats simply don’t enjoy being pet. If your cat is one of them, allow him to sit on your lap or beside you on the couch. Not petting him will 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.

Supervise all child-cat interactions

If you have small children, don’t let them 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 might not understand this and should be closely supervised around cats.

Curbing aggressive behavior

Avoid teasing with your hands or feet

Cats can quickly learn that hands or feet are toys if you roughhouse with them. Allowing them to chase and pounce on wand toys is a great alternative to interact with them.

Avoid punishment

Punishing aggressive behavior verbally or physically can actually increase instances of biting or scratching. Some cats perceive punishment as play or attention, which will only increase their arousal. Other, more fearful cats, can become extremely stressed by punishment, and will exhibit defensive aggression.

Provide mental stimulation

Cats, like all animals, need mental stimulation. This is especially true if you own a young, playful cat and are gone most of the day. Cats are hunters by nature so you can replicate this behavior in your home by hiding your cat’s food around the house or feed them kibble from food dispensing toys.

Rotate toys

Another way to prevent boredom is to only leave out a couple toys, rotating them every few days. This will add some variety to their usual routine.

Set a defined play time

Choose at least one scheduled, 20-minute play session during the day. It’s best to pick a time right before you feed your cat, since cats typically follow a routine in the wild of hunt, eat, groom, and sleep.

Remove yourself if they bite or scratch to solicit attention

You may also put the cat in a separate room for a five-minute timeout. This will teach the cat that biting or scratching removes your presence.

Consider adding a second cat

Cats who have a lot of playful energy may benefit from another cat, who can effectively teach them how to play. For this type of cat, you’ll want to look for a playmate of similar age, with preferably a less-reactive temperament.

Need more behavior help?

If you have additional questions or your cat is struggling with these tips, contact our behavior pet helpline. For more helpful tips and resources for training and managing your cat's behavior, you can also visit our behavior resource library

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