How to Cope With and Correct Petting Aggression in Cats

petting-aggression-cat

One of the most frequently asked questions I get from cat parents is “why does my cat bite me when I pet her?” A cat seems to be perfectly happy being petted, when all of a sudden, she whips her head around and bites the hand that was petting her. Of course, from the cat’s perspective, nothing ever happens for no reason. As humans, it’s up to us to understand why petting aggression happens, and what we can do to prevent and correct it.

What causes petting aggression?

Petting aggression can have a number of causes. Petting aggression can sometimes be an indicator that a cat is in pain. Some cats may have been poorly socialized when they were kittens. Single kittens who did not grow up with litter mates often exhibit petting aggression. Biting during play is normal among kittens, and kittens learn from each other or from their mom when to stop. Kittens who did not have much interaction with humans may also respond with aggression to petting. Some cats simply have a lower energetic threshold to being touched than others. They may enjoy being petted, but only for a short period of time, or only in certain places. Biting is their way to say that they’ve had enough.

How to prevent petting aggression

The biggest culprit in causing petting aggression is to allow your cat to play with your hands. What may be cute in a tiny kitten is not so cute in a large adult cat. Once cats associate your hands with being a toy, it’s going to be more difficult to correct the behavior.

How to correct petting aggression

Take your cat to the vet

Ruling out any physical issues for your cat’s aggression should always be the first step. Your cat may be in pain from arthritis, an injury you’re not aware of, or dental pain.

Know the warning signs

Even though it may seem that your cat is attacking out of the blue, there are always indicators that she’s getting ready to bite or scratch. Learn to read your cat’s body language. Tell tale signs include

  • cessation of purring
  • twitching skin along the back
  • changing position or stiffening
  • a swishing or thumping tail
  • ears go back toward the head (airplane ears)
  • head turns toward your hand
  • growling
  • dilated pupils

Stop petting your cat at the first of these warning signs. If you have a cat who tends to be petting aggressive, you need to be aware of and watch for these signs at all times. Once you know the signs, you’ll also be able to gauge for how long you can pet your cat before she starts exhibiting these signs. Always stop just before the first signs (but continue to watch for signs.)

Learn which parts of his body your cat likes to be petted on, and which parts are off limits

A recent study showed some surprising results of where on their body cats like to be petted, and which areas are off limits. Of course, this is also a very individual choice. Learn where your cat likes to be petted, and stick to those areas when petting her.

Use counter-conditioning

You may be able to correct your cat’s behavior by rewarding her for not biting. In order to do this properly, you need to stop petting her long before she usually shows you warning signs. Reward her with a treat after each stroke, and repeat several times, then stop petting her.  In time, your cat may enjoy longer intervals of  being petted.

Some cats don’t like to be petted or cuddled

Accept that some cats simply don’t like to be petted or cuddled for long periods of time. Trying to make your cat into someone he’s not will only damage the bond between the two of you.

Never punish your cat

It goes without saying that you should never yell at your cat, or hit or chase her. Punishing only ever accomplishes one thing: it will make your cat afraid of her, and make her more aggressive. It will also ruin your bond with your cat.

Allegra was petting and play aggressive when I first adopted her, and it took a few months of working with her to correct the behavior. My highly sensitive girl still has a low threshold for being petted, but I’ve learned to read her signals and stop long before she might want to nip at my hand.

21 Comments on How to Cope With and Correct Petting Aggression in Cats

  1. Connie
    February 28, 2017 at 10:10 am (2 months ago)

    Our cat Bubbles has never liked too much petting. Never on her tummy either. If you pet her too much she will bite or scratch or both! We have had her since 2008 when she was a kitten. She is an outdoor cat as we live rurally, when she wants feeding she comes and sits on the kitchen window ledge. However, this summer I was hanging out the washing when she suddenly attacked my leg and bit me. It wasn’t that hard and did not draw blood, but it was not usual behaviour for her and it wasn’t as if I was too close to her that she had felt I might step on her or something and it had been a warning from her, she was at least a couple of metres away sitting on the path. Nothing happened since until yesterday, now into March, when she came to me near the summerhouse, I petted her and we both walked away. She took a short cut across the patio and I followed the path to the back door when I suddenly felt her attack me from behind again. This time it really hurt! I shouted out ‘Oww!’ I think the whole road heard me! I went indoors and burst into tears, mainly with shock I think though it really did hurt. I lifted my jeans to see that I was bleeding and I could see where her teeth had travelled for an inch under my skin. On the side of my leg there were bleeding claw marks where she had grabbed me. I must admit, if this was a dog I would be considering having her put to sleep because I have children to think about. Is it really that different just because it is a cat. Don’t get me wrong, I am incredibly fond of Bubbles despite her aggression, but if she attacks one of my children like she has me, what should I do?

    Reply
  2. Mary Snook
    February 12, 2017 at 5:13 pm (2 months ago)

    We rescued a one month kitten, got her over her fleas and coccydia, played with her a lot and handled her a lot. I never played with her with my hands. She used to always nap on my chest or my lap. Around four months old she gradually stopped snuggling. She still has play aggression to my hands and will bite if we try to pet her. She will allow us to pet her her in the bathroom while she nurses on the rug and while eating. Anything other than that she bites. She has an older sister to wrestle with. I’ve tried most of the tricks but will have to try the rewards for letting us pet her. She just was spayed so I’m hoping that might help. I really thought I was raising a cuddly kitten. : (

    Reply
  3. Connie
    August 18, 2016 at 11:48 pm (8 months ago)

    We have had our tortie about two or three weeks lost track of the time. Sophie is a kitten. Her best friend is our dachshund puppy. In fact I told the puppy this is your baby kitten and they play and play. If puppy is out side Sophie waits at the door for him to come back in. Kitten will get puppys attention and off the go chasing each other. When I got the kitten I was hoping the puppy and kitten would be friends. I just liked the color of the kitten didn’t think of it was tortishel. Didn’t know anything about them. Fell in love with the pore kitten smaller then the others. Either way Sophie has us we are her family and no way is she going anywhere so as a family we will bare with each other no matter what we will stick together. We love her as I do believe she kinda fond of us too. Lol

    Reply
  4. chris
    June 11, 2016 at 1:51 am (11 months ago)

    Does petting aggression also include when she sits near me, she sometimes bites my arm even if I’m not touching her? Also, in the middle of the night, sometimes she starts purring and jumps up on the bed and wants to nuzzle our face but starts biting us while we are sleeping! She bites our chin or arm while we’re sleeping without being provoked, but all while purring. Very confusing! Any advice?

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      June 11, 2016 at 5:37 am (11 months ago)

      It sounds like she has an excess of energy, and biting is her way of discharging it, Chris. She may benefit from some structured play therapy to help her burn off some of that excess energy. Try two or three sessions a day, 10-15 minute each, and really get her tired out. Have the last session just before you go to bed. That may be enough to tire her out so she won’t try to wake you up during the night.

      Reply
  5. John
    April 9, 2016 at 7:19 pm (1 year ago)

    Executive summary: do not annoy the cat!

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      April 10, 2016 at 5:44 am (1 year ago)

      I think that sums it up right there, John! 🙂

      Reply
    • Marci
      April 10, 2016 at 11:56 am (1 year ago)

      Short and to the point!

      Reply
  6. John
    April 9, 2016 at 7:16 pm (1 year ago)

    Thanks for your blogs; only recently saw your “tortitude” comments and couldn’t stop nodding in recognition.

    Cleopatra, our affectionate 6 yr old tortie, loves cuddles and leaps into your lap, especially if you’re reading or holding a device. She can be quite changeable, however, and while sometimes she rolls on her back for a tummy stroke, mostly that is a no go zone, inviting a cautionary nip or paw grab.

    Davros, our 5 yr old grey tabby, dislikes cuddles, but loves neck rubs. He enjoys vigorous ruffling of his tummy fur, just don’t pick him up unless you wrap him snugly in your arms and rub his neck, or he will launch off into space!

    Reply
  7. Angela Gosselin
    April 8, 2016 at 1:19 am (1 year ago)

    This info was so helpful for me with our Cody Bear. Everytime we pet certain parts of his body such as his belly he bites really hard. You would think that would be enough to NOT pet him in the belly. Our other kitties let us and seem to enjoy it. I think petting in the belly is my confort zone. but it’s not about me. I realize i make him unconfortable and i should respect the fact that he doesn’t like it. I’ve noticed he really enjoys the scruff of his neck rubbed. and he reacts in a positive matter where he gets all lovey and wants more pets. we have been enjoying more cozy time together thanks to your article. Thank you Ingrid

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      April 8, 2016 at 5:26 am (1 year ago)

      I’m so glad this was helpful, Angela.

      Reply
  8. Marci
    April 4, 2016 at 6:29 pm (1 year ago)

    My Lucy would occasionally nip at me when being petted. I would touch her nose with one finger and say “no”. Very soon, she stopped doing it. I do not consider this punishment and have learned that she responds properly to a calmly but firmly stated “no”. Not shouted. She is not an aggressive cat so this works with her… And me. She is the sweetest baby! ” I Love Lucy”!

    Reply
  9. Bernadette
    April 4, 2016 at 9:22 am (1 year ago)

    It is so common, and hard for people to believe that something they enjoy, and think their kitty enjoys too, is actually stressful and sometimes frightening, and it’s very confusing when the reaction isn’t immediate but builds up over time.

    Reply
  10. Jackie
    April 4, 2016 at 8:43 am (1 year ago)

    Excellent article!! My one cat Mikey would never let anyone touch him. I adopted him from a good friend who does rescue. He was rescued at about 4 months and missed some socializing time. Mikey loves to play so I would pet him with the wand part of the toy for a little bit..each day when we played I petted with the wand..then the wand and my hand…then when he started to rub on my legs, I tried my hand. After some time of doing this I can now pet him when he is on the floor…not when he is on the cat tree. When Mikey has had enough, he does turn his head around, and that’s when I stop!

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      April 4, 2016 at 3:27 pm (1 year ago)

      That’s a creative way to get him to associate being touched and petted with something fun, Jackie. I love it!

      Reply
      • Jackie
        April 4, 2016 at 4:31 pm (1 year ago)

        Thank you Ingrid:)

        Reply
  11. Janine
    April 4, 2016 at 7:57 am (1 year ago)

    I have one cat that barely likes to be touched except when she wants to be brushed or if she wants the spot on her back right next to her tail scratched.

    Reply
  12. Sue Brandes
    April 4, 2016 at 7:20 am (1 year ago)

    Wonderful post.

    Reply
  13. Sometimes Cats Herd You
    April 4, 2016 at 5:49 am (1 year ago)

    Pierre can be petting aggressive. Or I sometimes call him “contact aggressive,” since it’s too much body contact in general that can set him off, including sitting in my lap or on my shoulders. Great tips, especially not yelling, which is a human inclination when you’re bitten.

    Reply
  14. shelley
    April 4, 2016 at 5:30 am (1 year ago)

    Great Article!

    Reply

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