New Mexico's Pet Resource FALL 2005


Love Bites

by Nancy Marano

Sammy is the gentlest, most loving cat I’ve ever had as a companion. When he walks next to me, he gives an excellent demonstration of the “Heel” command. You’d think he’d been to doggy obedience class. His purr revs up to Mach 1 speed if I even look at him, and he waves his tail aloft at full plume all the time. But my perfect cat has one slight flaw. He bites. I don’t mean the chomping down on your hand, drawing blood type of bite. But this cat, who loves nothing more than being noticed and petted, will nip if you pet him a nanosecond too long.

At first I thought this was some weird quirk Sammy had because he wanted to show his dominance. Now that I’ve done a little more research I find this isn’t such an uncommon behavior after all. This behavior is called “petting-induced” aggression, a fancy name for your cat saying, “Stop petting me, NOW.”

There are several reasons cats might demonstrate this behavior.

Some cats have a tolerance threshold for physical contact. The scene may play out this way. Your cat is enjoying a nice snooze in your lap while soaking up your attentions. Then his tolerance threshold is reached. The petting and stroking doesn’t feel good to him anymore. Quickly his head comes around and he sinks his teeth in your hand. Then he jumps off your lap, sits down next to you and calmly grooms as if nothing has happened. His grooming is a strategy to regain his composure after this confusing episode. Unfortunately, your hand still bears the marks of this encounter.

Another reason your cat might bite you while you stroke him is that he gets overexcited. He’s curled up in your lap totally relaxed in mind and body. Suddenly the petting leads to sensory overstimulation. His energy is then re-channeled, to your hand in this case, and his actions become destructive. According to Pam Johnson-Bennett, a well-know feline behaviorist, this happens more frequently in male cats.

Some cats do not like close contact with humans. Your cat may be relaxed and dozing in your lap one minute. Then he wakes up and feels your hand on him. He may confuse this with confinement so he immediately goes into protective mode and bites as a defense mechanism. In this case it is best to let him be in your lap and enjoy being close to you. But don’t pet him, difficult as that will be for a cat lover.


It’s likely your cat sent you a signal before he took a chunk out of your hand, but you might have been too busy to notice. It pays to learn some elementary cat body language to avoid a bite in the future.

When your cat is close to his tolerance threshold, watch for one or more of the following signs.

o Restlessness

o Twitching tail

o Change in ear position – either moving them back and forth or putting them flat back against his head

o Shift in body position

o Turning his head toward your hand

o Ceasing purring or starting a low growl

If you notice any of these signs, stop petting the cat. Let him stay in your lap or leave, whichever he chooses. The one thing you don’t want to do is punish the cat for this behavior. Punishment does nothing except reinforce his feeling that petting is not a good thing.


All is not lost here. You and your cat may still be able to enjoy petting sessions. You might need to make the sessions shorter, but that’s preferable to never enjoying the closeness and satisfaction that petting a cat brings to you and the cat.

The cat who gets overstimulated, or who has a petting tolerance threshold, almost always gives you a sign before biting. You need to learn the signs that your cat gives and watch for them. Sammy turns his head to look at my hand. I know that means stop petting or risk becoming a cat treat. When you are petting your cat, pay attention to him. You can’t get distracted watching the television or reading a book. Your cat demands your attention and you had best heed that.

If you want to try prolonging the petting sessions, you can offer a cat treat, perhaps a tiny piece of chicken or tuna, before your cat shows any signs of displeasure. As you give your cat the treat, continue petting him but do so more slowly and softly. When you start to see the warning signs, stop petting him. Each time you do this exercise make the session a little longer so that the cat begins to associate petting with something pleasurable.

Sammy and I have worked out a rhythm to our petting sessions. I know when he’s had enough, and he doesn’t bite me. Sometimes our sessions run longer than others, but we each respect the others’ needs in this matter.

Petting-induced aggression is a difficult thing for cat owners to understand, though, because the cat seeks human attention and seems to enjoy every minute of petting you lavish on him. You just need to be aware that a cat can get too much of even the best thing. If your cat demonstrates this behavior, you will have to learn to be aware of your cat’s body language and what he is telling you. Then work out a compromise that satisfies your need and his.

Nancy Marano is an award-winning writer who lives in Albuquerque and is owned by two cats, Sammy and Rocky, and a Westie named Maggie May.

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