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.

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

  1. i have a rescue cat i adopted a year and a half ago. she is 6 years old she has had aggression the majority of the time. i have noticed lately she will be super affectionate and then attack. she doesn’t exhibit any of the sign. she even purrs during the attack. i will notice a look in her eye right before it happens tho and try to arm myself. she does have more aggression when i play with her, so i’m not really sure how to get in under control. i took her to vet last year and didn’t see anything wrong, gave her prozac for awhile, but that was intensely hard. everything is intensely hard with her. i’m really trying, but i’m tired of constantly being covered in scratches.

        • My cat, 10.5 years old, stray for 6 years, at a rescue for 4 years, was adopted a couple months ago and is very similar. The rescue is a free roam that I had volunteered at and frequently visited so I knew him for a couple years prior to adopting (did once I was able to) and he had a bond and trusted me. However, he does still have a very similar petting aggression to yours. He will initiate it by jumping in my lap, head butting me and forcing his head into my hand, but will attack after a few pets. He then will leave and repeat it a few minutes later and it’s quite confusing since it’s so sudden and the warning signs are there for 5 or so seconds beforehand. It also doesn’t matter where I pet him either, just does it. I don’t mind but I am starting to get scars from the scratches and so my family and friends are a bit worried. I’m also worried about him and how he is doing emotionally. He does have trauma that he is working through so I’ve always wondered if it’s due to that, I know some of it but he was a black cat on the street so I doubt what I know is everything – sorry for rambling my point is my cat is very similar so I’d love to share information on how to help our cats !

  2. New rescue female neutered cat.she is approaching for affection,but suddenly attacks with teeth and claws.Her sister cat is not like this.

  3. I’ve been reading so many articles now about this issue and it’s all been very helpful except nowhere it mentions what to do when you have children. Our newly adopted cat Lily is a two year old (possibly) Siamese cross. We adopted her 3 weeks ago from a cat rescue shelter. She’s very energetic and very playful, she likes to be involved in everything and follows us around, very vocal and chats to us a lot. All these were the qualities why we chose her from the shelter. And she responded well to our two children, ages 5 & 2, she showed no fear or hesitation. Everything was going so well but then we noticed that she play fights with our hands and the next step was petting aggression. She comes to us for petting and loves it and then bites us. It’s very upsetting for the children. Especially our 5 year old had hoped they would be best of friends. I just don’t know what to do, how to change this. Lily is such a sweet girl otherwise but the children are hesitant to touch her at all anymore. And they can’t read the signals. I’m not sure though that if it’s Lily’s way of saying that she wants to play rather than petting, she’s so playful almost kitten like. I’m quite upset over this situation, any advice what to do? All of us so desperately want this to work out!

    • The best advice I can give you is to play a lot with Lily so she can burn off all that excess energy. At two years, she’s barely out of the kitten stage. Play with her to the point of getting her really tired out – several sessions, 10 to 15 minutes each. You can also teach your 5-year-old to play with her with a wand toy. That way, you child can interact with Lily without having to be afraid to get bitten, and interactive play is a wonderful way to bond with a cat. Also, make sure that you have an enriched environment for her: plenty of cat trees and perches to look out windows, hiding places, and scratching posts. This will give her stimulation and ways to burn off energy when you can’t play with her. You may also want to try puzzle toys for her.

  4. I have a tuxedo cat and he is the sweatshirt thing in the world. My sister and I resently went to the lake and we’re gone for three days. When we came back my mom was petting the cat and the cat bit my mom having her to go get it looked at. Now when I wanna pet my cat I am nurvous that it will bit me as well. What should I do? Should I play with him and mabey he needs to loose some energy?

    • Most likely, your cat smelled something on your mom that caused the aggression – possibly, another cat. Extra play to burn off energy is always a good thing, but also be conscious that your cat may be supersensitive to external scents.

  5. There’s a cat that has been coming around my home so I started to feed him. He comes by every night. While here he allows me to love (pet) him & purrs very loudly. Loves his cheeks & jowl rubbed. Well tonight while petting him one minute he was loving it, the next he hit me with his paw which cut me. I ignored him for a bit but when I went to feed him, he was all lovey dovey again. He did not display any of the warning signs given so I am at a loss at what set him off. Perhaps too much stimulation? I just don’t want this to beconeta habit for he’s been coming to my house every night for the past three months & I am really fond of him. He’s a huge tom that if he wanted could really put a hurting on me if he wanted. Can too much petting which he loved set him off? Meaning, is that why he struck me? I’m very confused yet now leery of how much is too much petting? Hope this makes sense & hope to get some feedback. Thanks!

    • It probably was a reaction to overstimulation. With some cats, the warning signs are extremely subtle. Keep your petting sessions shorter than you had been. Instead of petting him or more than a few strokes, maybe just sit with him and let him come to you.

  6. 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?

  7. 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. : (

    • I know this comment is old but I have two theories about your kitty and I’m curious to know if I’m right

      My first theory is that she has what is called single kitten syndrome. Litter mates help one another to learn when biting is ok-such as in play-and also how hard of a bit is too hard by screaming in pain. This is one of a few reasons why adopting two cats is easier than adopting just one.

      My second theory is that a fairly sudden change in behavior like this might mean there is an underlying medical issue that is causing pain her pain. Did the vet do a thorough head to toe examination when she was spayed?

  8. 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

  9. 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?

    • 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.

  10. 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!

  11. 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

  12. 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”!

  13. 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.

  14. 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!

  15. 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.

  16. 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.

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