Petting is very enjoyable to humans but less enjoyable to cats. It relaxes us, but it stresses up some cats. If a previously friendly cat suddenly starts biting or scratching, take it to a vet to make sure that it does not have some injury. It may be a hidden abcess etc. which means your touch is painful.
The Petting and Biting Syndrome, sometimes called Petting Intolerance, when the cat responds to petting with aggression, is also common (Amat et al., 2009). Some cats have sensitive areas, like their tummies, which they do not like being touched. Many cats prefer short sessions of petting to long ones. Some cats have conflicted feelings about petting. They want attention but they fear it too. A cat may enjoy a little contact and love, but after a certain time it gets frightened. At this point it bites or scratches. If you count the number of strokes the cat will tolerate, then you can do those and no more.
This seems sudden to us, but if we were better at reading cat body language, we would see it coming. Watch out for the following signs that aggression is on its way – ears flat back not forward; twitching then lashing tail; twitching or rolling skin; dilated pupils; a mini-freeze when the cat is suddenly absolutely still for few seconds. Stop before the bite or scratch starts. If the cat is sitting up and lifts a paw, that is a warning sign not a sign it wants to shake hands!
This switch of behaviour, from affection to fear, may be the result of a unsocialised kittenhood and this kind of cat’s desire for space should be respected. Some stray cats, however, have had good kittenhoods but then have suffered at the hands of man while they lived in the street. These cats, after months in a safe new home, may accept petting more easily. But never, never hurry them. Any form of punishment will make them more aggressive.
Many cats have sensitive areas — tummy and hind parts — which produce aggression. Avoid these! Cats usually groom each other on the head and neck so they prefer being petted round the head rather than on the backside and tail (Soennischsen & Chamove, 2002). Long haired cats may have been roughly groomed in the past and be extra likely to bite or scratch if they feel threatened. Read how to help them accept grooming on this website.
If you want to try to change your cat’s petting and biting, wait for your cat to solicit affection (Crowell-Davis, 2007). Only pet it in areas it enjoys. Only pet the cat when it is in a position from which it can get away — ie with no enclosed arms and probably not on a lap. Do not pick it up. Try stroking only the head and down the back. Stop before the cat reacts. Always let the cat remove itself when it has had enough. If you are patient, and couple petting sessions with treats, the cat may learn to tolerate slightly longer sessions of petting (Curtis 2008).
Develop your relationship in other ways, not just petting. Non-cuddly cats will enjoy play. Have regular play sessions with string, fishing rods etc. The other way to develop a relationship is to use food treats to train a cat to do simple tricks. Greedy cats really enjoy these and will actually solicit training sessions! To train a cat to do tricks requires patience, no punishment whatsoever, no forcing (ie: putting into position). Keep training sessions short. Get a book and consult www.clickertraining.com
Read Safety and Cat Aggression on this website.
Amat, M., de la Torre, J. L. R., Fatjo, J., Mariotti, V. M., Wijk, S. & Manteca, X., (2009), ‘Potential risk factors associated with feline behaviour problems,’ Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 121, 134–139
Crowell-Davis, S. L., (2007), Human Feet Are Not Mice: How to Treat Human-Directed Feline Aggression,’ Compendium, 29, 483-486.
Curtis, T. M., (2008), ‘Human-Directed Aggression in the Cat,’ Veterinary Clinics Small Animal Practice, 38, 1131-1143
Soennichsen, S., & Chamove, A. S., (2002), ‘Responses of cats to petting by humans,’ Anthrozoos, 15, 258-
These notes are my copyright. I am also usually happy to have the exact words reproduced on websites, in return for a link, my name, and if permission is asked beforehand. I like to check the websites where it might be used. Email me via this website for permission which will usually be given. Organisations wishing to use them in print should contact me via this website. Copyright © 2007 Celia Haddon. All Rights Reserved.
All normal safety precautions should be taken when dealing with animals. The advice in this section should be taken only at the owner’s own risk. All sick animals should be seen by a vet.
General advice of the kind found in this website is no substitute for an individual consultation with a vet or qualified behaviourist working on a vet’s referral.