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Why Does My Cat Bite When It’s Being Pet? Dealing with Petting Aggression

Most cat owners have had the following experience during some time in their lives shared with a cat: You are petting your cat, maybe she’s even purring, when out of the blue, she whips her head around and bites you on the hand or arm! Your friendly, domesticated kitty is suddenly acting like a wild, feral animal! But why?

There are many theories to explain what animal behaviorists have called “petting-induced aggression” in cats. Cats who experience this type of aggression are usually not actually aggressive and are not intending to hurt the person who’s petting them.

Reasons Why Your Cat Bites You When Being Petted

Full-Body Petting
If you are petting a new cat that you just adopted, or a friend’s cat whom you’ve never seen before, don’t start by petting the cat’s whole body. Many cats don’t like full-body petting, and you therefore should work your way up to being able to do so. Concentrate on petting the cat around the face, head, and the back of her neck. Cats are especially sensitive near their tails (often indicated by sticking her butt in the air when you pet her near her tail). If a cat does this, stop petting her in that area before she bites you.  If you don’t stop petting her, whatever happens next is on you. Remember, she warned you!

Sensitive Spots on Body
This goes along with the reason why cats don’t like full-body petting. Many cats seem to have ultra-sensitive spots on different parts of their bodies (the base of the tail is a common one). To them, petting those spots can be equivalent to a human being tickled in a particularly ticklish spot. Your cat wants to tell you to stop petting her there but can’t verbalize this request. So, she bites you. Message sent and received.

Status-Induced Aggression
Some cats are “control freaks,” just as some humans are. They want to be in control of a situation and will let you know when to pet them by rubbing up against you.  In this type of situation, a cat might bite the hand that pets him because, although the petting feels good, he didn’t ask for or agree to being pet and wants to take back control of the situation. Biting you, although it may seem harsh to you, is the only way he knows of to take that control back.

Negative Neurological Stimulus
Animal behaviorists have theorized that if a cat of is pet for a long period of time, a negative neurological stimulus might be activated. Longer petting sessions can trigger this response, which results in biting the hand that pets them.

I’ve Had Enough!
No matter what the reason for your cat biting you when you pet her, the meaning is the same – your cat is telling you she’s had enough. Some cats have a low threshold when it comes to petting. After being pet for what your cat determines is “too long,” she’ll let you know she wants you to stop, often by biting you.

Signs That Your Cat Might Be About to Bite While Being Petted

Tail

Your cat doesn’t normally wag her tail when she’s happy like a dog would, right? Usually, just the tip of a cat’s tail will flick to indicate happiness and contentment. So, when your cat starts flinging her tail back and forth wildly, that’s a warning that she’s had enough. Stop the petting now before she bites. You’ve been warned!

Eyes
The pupils of your cat’s eyes should be narrow when she’s calm and relaxed. Dilated pupils, however, indicate just the opposite – that she is too stimulated, maybe over-stimulated, and might be about to bite you if you continue to pet her.

Fur
The fur on the top of your cat’s head and along the ridgeline of her back might suddenly stand up. This is a clear indication that your cat is over-stimulated and is warning you she’s done with whatever you’re doing to her, even if that happens to be petting her.

Ears
When a cat is happy, her ears will be relaxed. When she is in fight or flight mode, however, her ears will be flattened back against her head. This is a clear sign that she is about to attack.

How to Correct Petting Aggression in Cats
Unlike dogs, cats don’t respond to behavior modification and traditional discipline techniques.  You can’t simply swat a cat, spray her with a water bottle, or tell her “no!” when she bites you and expect her to learn from her “mistake” (because her biting you is not really a mistake – it’s a triggered response to a negative stimulus). If you have a cat that displays petting aggression, there are some things you can try to change that behavior:

  • Watch for the warning signs above and stop petting her before she’s over-stimulated. If she’s on your lap, don’t touch her to get her off your lap, just stand up and let her jump down. If she gets down without biting you, give her a treat.
  • If your cat bites you during a petting session, stand up, let her jump to the floor, and ignore your cat. Don’t make eye contact with her, don’t touch her, just totally ignore her.
  • Some cats recover quickly from over-stimulation. If your cat gets back up in your lap and wants pet again soon after biting you, let her get in your lap and start over with the petting session. If she bites you again, do the same thing- stand up, let her jump down, and ignore She should soon associate her negative biting behavior with the “time-out” you are giving her.
  • Try a calming pheremone spray. Two of the most popular are Felisept and Feliway. These can be sprayed directly on your lap, or on a blanket that your cat sits on while you are petting her.
  • Don’t try to hold or coddle a cat whom you know displays aggression. Just pet her when she wants it and let her go when she’s done. My cat is very friendly and loves to rub up against me and sit beside me so that I can pet her – but only when it’s her idea. She is not a lap cat, and anyone who tries to pick her up will find this out- she will give them the message through using her claws or teeth. Listen to and understand your cat’s messages and you will be able to live in harmony with your cat.

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