Many of us who are parents to cats notice that when we pet them, they sometimes turn around a bite our hands. Why do cats do that? Dog parents smugly state that their dogs wag their tails, pant and lick their hand. They claim that dogs don’t bite the hand that pets them. While this is not a competition between cats and dogs, I’ll give the dogs this one. I had a beautiful dog for many years (she passed away at 12) and she never bit me when I petted her. However, each and every cat (except one) has nipped at my hand.
So, why do cats bite the hand that pets them? As usual, I decided to do a little research to see if I can find the answer. From what I can tell, it looks like experts do not agree on the reasons for this pet-then-bite behavior, therefore many theories abound regarding what is called petting-induced aggression.
One theory is that unlike dogs, which are more social, petting may be something outside of a cat’s normal instinctive behavior. A suggested remedy is that cats need to be socialized to people as very young kittens. Even 5 minutes of human contact each day of a cat’s life up to 7 weeks of age will produce a much more trusting cat than those cats that did not have human contact until they were older than 7 weeks. However, this remedy does not explain all petting-induced aggressive behavior since properly socialized cats can still display this behavior. And this remedy does not help those of us who adopted adult cats.
Some experts theorize that a cat may bite once the petting exceeds her sensitivity threshold. While the cat enjoys the human contact at first, the repetitiveness of the petting becomes irritating and the cat turns and bites as a way of saying “Enough”. Another theory is that the petting not only causes irritation but that it may also cause static electricity or actual pain because of the cat’s nervous system. Or, sometimes the cat may have a pain in a particular area and your touch or even the belief that you will touch that area may trigger the aggressive behavior.
Sometimes cats may find petting so pleasurable that they actually fall asleep (with open eyes). If they wake up suddenly, they may not recognize that they are being petted and may believe that you are trying to confine them. Instinctively they may bite and run before they are fully aware that they were being petted. The final theory I found is one of control. Some cats need to control the situation where they determine when the petting starts and when it stops. What is perceived as petting-induced aggression is a way for the cat let you know who is in charge. I think behavior is more in line with my experience.
No matter the reason for the petting-induced aggression, there are some things that you can do to decrease the chance your cat will suddenly bite you while being petted.
It is important to find out if your cat has a medical condition that may cause pain when he is being petted, therefore take him to the vet for a thorough examination. Petting may cause the pain to worsen or the cat to become anxious that you may touch a painful area.
Like it or not, we just need to realize that some cats simply do no enjoy being petted. Cats are unique and while some cats enjoy human contact, love to cuddled and petted, others do not like human-initiated contact. These cats may enjoy some human closeness like sitting on your lap, but they don’t want to be picked up and petted. We need to understand that just like you cannot change the basic personality of humans with whom we interact, you will not be able to change the basic personality of your cat and need to accept him as he is.
While we may miss the warnings, cats seldom suddenly turn and bite. An observant cat parent will notice the following clues before the aggressive behavior starts:
• ears may go flat or back
• stiffening of the body
• twitching of the skin or tail
• dilated pupils
• a low growl
• unsheathing of the claws
If you see any of these signs, stop petting immediately and allow the cat to leave.
Once you are aware of the warning signs, you can begin to predict your cat’s petting tolerance level. Begin by timing from when you begin to pet your cat to the first instance of the warning signs. You can do this over the course of a week or so. Then, the next time you pet, make sure that you do not exceed this time limit. However, while timing may provide a good guide you still need to watch out for the warning clues.
You can also change the way in which you pet your cat. Some cats may prefer to receive short small strokes; others prefer to be scratched under the chin or between the ears. Not all cats enjoy whole-body petting. Try to pet you cat using the different methods. It should become pretty clear very quickly which methods are tolerable and which are not.
If your cat does bite during petting, please do not physically correct her as this may cause more aggression. However, you can reward your cat for not biting; you can give your cat a treat after each stroke she tolerates. Over time, your cat may associate the petting with treats and, barring any pain, may experience an increased petting tolerance threshold.
In the end, only you know your cat and while you can try all of the suggestions, you may have a cat that simply does not like to be petted. While it is hard to resist that fuzzy little belly, chin, neck, etc., you may simply have to find another more mutually enjoyable way of expressing your affection to your cat.