Petting Aggression in Cats: Biting the Hand They Love

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Guest post by Harry Shubin

This stuff always seems to come in clusters. This post  wasn’t going to be about petting aggression, not even after I spent some time counseling the first foster about why his cat was biting him. This post wasn’t going to be about petting aggression, even after I spent more time counseling the second foster. This post wasn’t going to be about petting aggression, even after I worked with the adopter, having the same issue. It finally took Jackson Galaxy’s My Cat From Hell on Animal Planet doing an episode where every cat bit his or her person, for me to see the, ah, cat scratches on the wall. Or bites on my arm.

How does petting aggression happen?

Let’s start with full disclosure – I have a cat with “petting aggression.” “Aggression” isn’t really the right word, though that’s what it’s generally called. It’s not really aggressive – nor is it mean, nor is the intent to actually hurt someone.

Most people know how sensitive a cat’s whiskers are, and wouldn’t be rough with that spot on their faces. What people don’t realize is that while the muzzle contains the greatest number of whiskers, cats actually have them all over their bodies, on their paws, head, back… They’re smaller and finer, so not as easily seen, but if you look closely, they’re there.

Just as some people aren’t ticklish, some cats aren’t particularly sensitive about their whiskers, or about being touched. For some cats, however, their whiskers are ultra sensitive, and not just on their faces but everywhere. Imagine that you were incredibly ticklish, and that someone – for the sake of argument, someone you even liked a lot – wouldn’t stop tickling you. You’d be screaming “stop, stop,” right? Well, imagine now that you only spoke Urdu, but your tickler spoke only French. And because he didn’t understand, he wouldn’t stop. Eventually, what would you do – if he weighed 10 times what you did and you couldn’t get away? Right. You’d bite him, or hit him.

Those not-very-ticklish cats, they’re the exception. Those are the ones you can roll over and give belly rubs to. I have one of those, also. He’s a limp dishrag when you handle him, and he loves it. The extremely ticklish cats, they’re the exception, too. Most cats fall somewhere in the middle. The ones that exhibit petting aggression – they’re usually the friendly ones, the ones that seek out petting. And it’s not surprising that fosters and owners are surprised when the affectionate cat suddenly snaps and takes a bite out of the hand they love…

One of the intriguing things about cats is that they’re not dogs. You can pet a dog, all day, and he’ll only bite you if you stop. Cats… the sensitive ones… have a threshold. And, you have to understand how they tick, if you’re going to change their behavior. Dogs, they’ll modify their behavior because they want to please you. Cats, on the other hand, to change their behaviors, you have to convince them that they want to change. And that’s another difference between the species – discipline that works on a dog – is the wrong approach for a cat.

Understanding how cats communicate

Before we talk about changing feline biting behavior, though, you need a little Urdu to French translation. When a cat becomes overstimulated from petting, she is actually telling you that she’s had enough – if you speak her language.

The most obvious sign is the tail. Dogs beat their tails back and forth when they’re happy. Cats give a slow flick of just the tip of the tail. When the whole tail becomes involved, swishing back and forth – that’s a warning. Also, watch the eyes, A calm, relaxed cat’s pupils will be narrow. When they dilate, the stimulation tank is full. Watch also the fur along the back and the back of the head. If a ridge stands up – or her skin ripples – the cat is also telling you, in cat-speak, she’s done. It’s like someone one time said to me after watching the Amityville Horror – you know, when your house tells you “get out…” Get Out! When the cat tells you she’s done – leave her be. If she’s on your lap, stop touching her.

When you do touch her, concentrate on her head, the sides of her face, and the back of her neck. Stay away from full body petting – you may get there eventually, but don’t try it in the beginning. Many cats get more sensitive toward their tails – you may have seen a cat who would stick his rump in the air if you petted him at the base of the tail – that’s a high stimulation spot. Also, the closer you are to the back of the head, the harder it is to whip around and bite you.

Correcting petting aggression

Now, that’s behavior modification for you – but I know that you want to change her behavior, too. It can be done.

Now that you know what to watch for, end the petting sessions before she’s had enough. Send her to the floor – but don’t touch her because she’s building up to a snap. Gently, slowly stand up and she’ll leap down. Then, give her a treat. If she does go too far and bite or swat, put her on the floor – again, by gently standing up. Don’t push her with your hands, and totally ignore her. Don’t push her off, don’t scold, don’t make eye contact, just totally shun her. Especially, don’t use a spray bottle, don’t tap her nose. Those techniques may work to discourage other behaviors, but retraining aggression with aggression is doomed to fail. You’re speaking French again, not Urdu, when you do that.

Don’t be surprised if she wants right back up fairly soon – cats recover quickly, and the petting aggressive ones seem to be the ones that want the contact to begin with. Let her back up and start over. At first, she won’t quite know what she did wrong – but she will quickly make the association between biting, and a “time out.” You may be able to help establish a calming atmosphere which will increase her tolerance by using a pheremone spray such as Feliway, or a flower essence such as Spirit Essences. Try spraying on a small blanket or towel, on your lap.

The last thing to consider is to embrace what the cat brings to you. She’ll sit with you, she’s affectionate – she just isn’t a cat that can be held, or excessively petted. The house is telling you, “get out” — don’t hold her.

I have a cat with petting aggression – but I haven’t been bitten in a long time. Working with the cat, understanding the cat – goes a long way toward producing desirable behaviors.

Harry Shubin is the newsletter editor for the Feline Foundation of Greater Washington. Harry’s entire family is involved in cat rescue: daughter Rachel writes the blog We Have a Situation, where she shares stories of her cat-related life.

Photo by Jay Davenport

267 Comments on Petting Aggression in Cats: Biting the Hand They Love

  1. Dino Frangos
    November 16, 2017 at 8:03 am (1 week ago)

    We have a fully grown cat (had him for just over a year now. He was obtained through the local cattery and originally, the cat was a stray cat) and he is always biting and scratching when we pet him (not enough to draw blood however, he can really dig his claws in sometimes so you have to watch how you withdraw your hand away otherwise it will draw blood!).

    He’s not a very affectionate cat, he does his own thing and is 100% not a ‘lap’ cat (he’ll jump off within 30 seconds of putting him on your lap). He’ll even bite and scratch when you go to stroke him on his body for the first time on any given day (so in the morning, when I go downstairs to feed him, before he follows me down the stairs, he’ll be lying on the landing upstairs. If I go to stroke him before we go down, he’ll take one or two strokes before biting my fist and going for my hand with his claws, all the while whilst still purring loudly?!?). He’s been like this since the day we got him…..!

    Reply
  2. Joze
    November 16, 2017 at 6:54 am (1 week ago)

    My cat just came up for a pat. Put his face to my hand. I pet her head twice then she bit me hard while simultaneously scratching me and ran off. No time for tell signs.

    Reply
  3. Lynette
    October 28, 2017 at 8:44 pm (4 weeks ago)

    I do foster care for cats and the new one perplexes me. He is a hug flufft 10 year old cats. Had been an indoor neutored cat, but owner had started forcing him outside. He was part of a largs cat population. He loves to be petted then attacks the petter and draws blood. One bite sent me go the doctors. I have him isolated and safe. Not sure if we can salvage him. Any suggestions?

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      October 29, 2017 at 5:22 am (4 weeks ago)

      Since you don’t know his history, it’s hard to tell what’s causing the aggression. My guess is that he was pretty traumatized by being forced outside and having to live with a lot of other cats. You may want to consider working with a feline behaviorist.

      Reply
    • Kristin
      October 29, 2017 at 6:51 am (4 weeks ago)

      Lynette…First off, THANK YOU for being a foster mom to senior cats. We have adopted seniors and like you – we know some but not all of what they have been through in their lives. Imagine that, being forced outside and be part of a cat “population”. I too had to go to an urgent care with a bad cat bite from our rescue. We followed the suggestions in this original article…so helpful. After we both got bit (not nipped, BIT) we shifted to a small amount of hand petting (pet pet pet, that’s all you get) each visit into her space, then built it up over time. If she wanted more love…we used a brush and were ever mindful of her clues – and where our hands were. We kept her in a bedroom with frequent human visits for two months (we figured compared to her cage at the rescue – it was heavenly…bed, window seat, fleece blankets, toys, visits, Feliway) then introduced her to the house and our other cat. It has taken her some time to build up trust…but now she is a lover and quite settled in. It’s worth the effort and time. You’re doing something not many folks do. So many want to foster or rescue kittens. So again, I thank you…keep up the good work.

      Ingrid – do you know if Harry Shubin reads these?….I know you do. Maybe he could do a followup. There seems to be so much need!

      Reply
  4. Jane
    October 16, 2017 at 7:36 am (1 month ago)

    I know this is an old post but just came across it today and thought it might shed some insight. My 3 year old female cat bites me. It is never aggressive or violent and she never draws blood but it is becoming very frequent. The type of biting is exactly the same as this article with one very glaring difference- im not petting her when she bites. Clear example; the other morning my partner and I were lying in bed having a well earned lie in. We were both semi sitting up watching TV. I was lying with my head on his shoulder and arm across his chest. Our cat came and sat on him and sat with her bottom towards his legs and head towards his chest. He didn’t stroke her and neither did i because we were eating breakfast at the time. She sat there for 5 minutes then just bit my arm that was across his chest. No petting involved. She then just went to sleep. My boyfriend sat up causing her to slip down the bed and jump off. What can i do to prevent this? This is a common occurrence of me not touching her but her being close to me then just nipping at random. Another example was when I was working at my desk. She came and sat on the bookcase next to my desk and without warning or any physical contact lent over and nipped my elbow. I’m not touching her she’s getting closer to me then biting me. Any ideas how i can discourage this or what i might be doing that aggravating her?

    Reply
      • Kristin
        October 29, 2017 at 6:52 am (4 weeks ago)

        Oooo….that’s a great idea! I look forward to reading Mike’s responses!

        Reply
    • Tina
      November 1, 2017 at 12:57 pm (3 weeks ago)

      Hi Jane, your cat is probably nipping to get your attention! Biting from being over stimulated carries very different intentions, and usually it’s more apparent when that is the case. The bites from over stimulated cats tends to be more intense vs. a little love nip. Nips are usually to get your attention or ask for pets or even just a little hello. You can try ignoring the nipping to see if she stops/looks for other ways to get your attention. But really it’s the fact that she comes to you and closes the distance that makes me think she just wants attention. My cat also nips me, but she’s also an oddball because I’ll pet her a little and then she’ll nip me to tell me to keep petting her. How do I know she wants more attention? Proximity mostly. She gets in my face and nudges at my hand and headbutts me. It’s just about learning their individual signs.

      Reply
  5. Cassy
    October 15, 2017 at 10:54 pm (1 month ago)

    My cat has been the sweetest most loving and affectionate cat in the world . She is almost 3 . The last year she has progressively been getting more “petting aggression” it never draws blood and at first I thought she was play biting cause it didn’t hurt.. she always wants attention and we give her so much. But the last 2 or so weeks she started to swat at my husband as he walks by .. so he will pet her and she will our and be happy. But she has begun to be more aggressive with him when he doesn’t give her attention (he works at home a lot so he can’t spend the whole day petting her) I do spend more time with her when I am home but she gives us almost equal snuggles. She has swat at me once or twice when I walk by but usually him. I don’t like that she is being so demanding with her attention and I am worried her swats and aggression will get worse. She is sooo sweet and loving it just don’t want her to be mean.. I always thought she was just a bit moody but I came across this article and she is the perfect time definition.

    Reply
  6. Wanda Tucker
    September 21, 2017 at 12:48 pm (2 months ago)

    What a great site! I have an old (17 years) orang, male cat and for the past several years he does this biting thing, seemingly randomly, while I pet only his head. So, this article is helpful. However, I genuinely believe my cat just has a bad, mean attitude. He frequently hisses and will sometimes reach out and scratch me or anyone else, simply for walking past him. He will also walk in front of you and stop, daring you to try to get by him. He does this to my dog, too and was very mean to my lab who recently passed. He would just go up to her and swat her nose and my lab never, ever showed any sign of aggression. Back to Cecil the cat from hell…when I need him to move, he ALWAYS will bite, drawing blood, usually holding the bite to make it hurt me more. I frequently am bruised as well. His attacks are quite violent. So, to get him to move off the bed or couch where he knows I sit – it’s my spot and that’s where he’ll go as if to taunt me to dare him to move – I’ll have to get a pillow and gently bring it up to him, coaxing him in the direction I want him to go. He wasn’t always mean. Just since he got old. I also have little grandkids over about once a week and am terrified he will seriously hurt him. I love him, but hate him, also. Ready to put him down. He also pisses on beds, rugs and has costs me thousands of dollars in replacing items. I detest his behavior but there is one person in the family who doesn’t want me to put him down. Any suggestions? Thanks. I’m t wits end.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      September 21, 2017 at 3:55 pm (2 months ago)

      I doubt that your cat is mean, Wanda. From the cat’s perspective, there’s always a reason for behavioral issues, it can just be extremely challenging to figure out, and it sounds like you’ve been through a lot with him. Since you mention that he only started doing these things since “he got old,” I’m concerned that there is a medical reason for his behavior. He may be in pain, and he’s lashing out because it’s the only way he knows how to cope. Has he been checked out by your vet to rule out any medical issues since this behavior started? If not, I’d take him to a vet as soon as you can. I would also urge you to consider working with a feline behaviorist. If you can’t find anyone local to you, I can recommend Mikel Delgado http://www.felineminds.com/ and Daniel Quagliozzi https://gocatgosf.com/ Both offer remote consultations.

      All my best,
      Ingrid.

      Reply
  7. Cassie
    September 19, 2017 at 10:30 pm (2 months ago)

    Thank you!!! This is amazing, it describes my cat. He’s super loving with me and will actively seek out attention. However, when he does bite during a petting session he kind of latches on and bites. Like not a nip or anything, full on bite, find a new spot do it again. I’ve noticed he does this mainly when I try to pet him on his head with the palm of my hand kind of on top of him. Or when he lays down and shows me his belly during a pet session. It hasn’t happened often but it does hurt (thankfully no blood). Not sure if it’s really this petting aggression or if he’s trying to “play” as my dad will play with him with his hands.

    Reply
  8. Lena
    August 16, 2017 at 5:14 pm (3 months ago)

    Hi, I’ve thankfully just found your website and this article is completely spot on about my 2 year old female cat. I had started to read the signs myself but couldn’t understand why she was biting until I read your article and now it all falls into place, particularly as she hates the brush and behaves exactly as you have described when petting. She is very unpredictable in that the length of petting can vary immensely from a few seconds to quite a long session before an attempted bite. I am quite good about moving my hand in time but she recently attacked my mother (after petting) and my mother needed hospital treatment as a result. I also have two young children and am worried about them being bitten as they cannot read the signs as well as I can. I have recently started considering re-homing the cat after the bite on my mother but before doing so – as we are very attached to her – in an attempt to bring out her maternal side, we have just bought a ragdoll/persian mix who is the complete opposite and loves to be petted. I introduced them very slowly and carefully and now my 2 year old has become less interested in human interaction but, my new concern is that her ‘playful’ biting with the kitten is now also teaching the kitten that biting is OK. When they are playing the kitten is clearly being bitten and occasionally squealing but, she is the one seeking attention from the 2 year old and going back for more! I break them up and separate them in different rooms when it gets noisy though there hasn’t been any hissing since their very early interactions which were chaperoned closely. My cat also loves licking the kitten so I can’t tell if this is just rough play or she is genuinely harming the kitten when she bites her. However, the last thing I want is for the kitten to learn that biting is OK. Up until now the kitten has been more than happy being petted and has never bitten when being petted but she has bitten (gently) when we have picked her up during a ‘play’ session. Your advice would be greatly appreciated!

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      August 17, 2017 at 5:24 am (3 months ago)

      Some rough play between cats is normal – the way to be able to tell is to watch for other signs: are their tails up in the air when they chase, are their ears straight up instead of flat against the head? I doubt that the rough play will teach your kitten to learn that biting is okay – if anything, it will teach the kitten that biting hurts and is not a good thing to do.

      While the play between the cats is a great way for both cats to burn off excess energy, I would also try structured play therapy for both cats. Play with them two or three times a day, 10 to 15 minutes each. Use interactive wand toys, and really get them tired out. This will also help them discharge energy.

      Reply

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