My Cat Suddenly Bites Me When I’m Petting It!

Lots of highly affectionate cats will enjoy a nice head rub, and then after a while decide to start playing with your hand and gnawing on it. A cat that has been taught appropriate play can often modulate their biting so that it does not hurt. This is not what we are talking about here, though, is it? What we want to know is why your cat will sometimes, after seeming to enjoy being petted by you, will suddenly snap at your hand and bite you very hard. Or, she will swipe at your hand, or both. Cats often send what seems like mixed messages. But in truth, they communicate a lot, we just have to learn their language. But, why do cats bite when being petted?

It seems confusing that the same cat who actually comes up to you and wants you to pet her will purr for a few moments while basking in your affection, and then suddenly snap at you like an alligator. But if you understand cats (at least a little), it isn’t strange at all. It is very common for cats to become overstimulated while being petted, get annoyed or otherwise keyed up, and then react by lashing out.

Veterinarians, cat behaviorists, biologists, and other assorted cat experts call this petting intolerance or petting induced aggression, making it sound as if your cat has a serious psychological problem. If you cat was intolerant to petting, you would have learned not to pet him long ago, so these terms can be a bit much. Certainly some cats never want to be petted, but if you don’t pet them, then you need not fear any petting induced aggression. You wouldn’t have the cat you want, necessarily, but if you had an aggression problem, well, it would’t be fear to pin the blame solely on your cat while also pinning him with a fancy clinical sounding label. However, the question this article concerns is probably not something that could be thus labelled.

Even when a cat wants to be petted, it doesn’t mean they are giving you carte blanch to pet for hours, or to pet them in any way you want, on any area of their body. Some cats, may only want a few strokes and then expect you to stop. They also may expect you to pet them in jut the right place! Just the right place, is usually on the head, between the ears, under the chin, or even the sides of the mouth.

Problem Petting Areas in the Cat

The right place is not on the belly, and most cats do not like to have their backs and sides stroked too much (although the same cat may love being brushed). Besides the belly though, the hips and feet are two common problem areas, and you’d do well to avoid these in general.

Why Such a Drastic Response?

When your cat suddenly bites you, she is saying “that’s enough of that!” But, why go so far?

Usually, by the time your cat snaps at you or bats at you with paws or claws, she has already been sending you signals to let you know that she is becoming overstimulated, agitated, and stressed. When she snaps at you, it is because you failed to heed the signs. This same cat may then stalk away angry, but she is not trying to attack you and she hasn’t gone crazy. She’s just irritated. Other times, if the bite makes you stop, she will calm down and seem to forget all about it.

Did the Cat Ask to Be Petted?

One way to know that your cat is ready for some serious petting is that she invites you to show her affection. If she jumps on your lap and rubs on you, or rubs against your legs, or your body while you’re sitting on the sofa, she’s probably telling you that she would like to have a massage. You still need to be aware that she has her limits, but at least she has initiated things, and in these cases, you can probably pet for longer.

Ears up, eyes closed, pushing head into hand. Yep, this cat is enjoying his head rub!

Was the Cat Just Minding His Own Business?

Cats are not like dogs. Just because I cat sits or lies near you doesn’t mean they want to be handled. Cats like to be near their humans, but they may want to relax and be left alone, just being in your proximity. If you think about it, it’s not too much to ask, is it? When you sit near someone you care about, it doesn’t mean you want them messing with you!

So, although you still can probably pet your cat at these times, chances are this is when she is more likely to bite you, and will tolerate a lot less rubbing than when she initiates things.

See the ears going down? The eyes wide and pupils dilated?
This is not a cat who is enjoying being petted.

Signs of Overstimulation While Petting

  • Tail lashing: Tail lashing is always a sign that a cat is stressed, aggravated, overstimulated, etc. They will whip their tail around and hit is on objects, or you. The tail fur may become slightly puffed.
  • Shivers: Your cat may “shiver” up and down his fur. This is not a shiver of pleasure. It’s a good sign of overstimulation.
  • Ears flat: Your cat may flatten her ears, a sign of stress.
  • Pupils dilated: This may be hard to notice, but if your cat’s pupils become dilated while your petting, it’s time to stop. When a cat’s pupils are dilated, its eyes will have a big black circle. When the pupils are fully dilated, almost the entire eye will appear black. 

Any of these signs in isolation, or a combination of any of them, mean it is time to stop petting. Of course, if your cat growls, you know things are not good. If you don’t react to these signs, the cat may take the next communicative step, a bite.

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, and some cats will bite or lash out with claws with no warning whatsoever. At least, they will show no signs that are visible to a human being. You have to do your best to learn your cat’s threshold and also avoid her problem areas.

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