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.