Petting Aggression: Don’t be a Bite Victim!

Ahhh, kitty cats. So cuddly, so soft, so cute. These adorable little floofs have got us wrapped around their tails because we will seemingly do anything for a tiny bit of their affection and love. And why wouldn’t we – cats are the best!  But beware – our furry little feline friends are also predators; wild, carnivorous predators with a well-armed beastie that lurks within. Sometimes when you pet her she seems to enjoy the affection – she purrs, she stretches, maybe even gives a contented little meow.  But in an instant, it’s as if a flip gets switched and the predator within her pounces out!  All of a sudden she latches on to your hand and chomps down on you with her teeth…hard.  She may even wrap her paws around your hand and “bunny kick” your arm with her back feet, raking her hind claws against your skin.  Ouch!  How can a cat be so sweet one minute and such a ferocious ball of fury the next?

You’ve fallen victim to what’s known as petting aggression, my friend. Not all cats exhibit petting aggression, as there’s a continuum of tolerance that cats have when it comes to being touched. Some cats are very tolerant and will let you do anything to them because they love being petted, any time, anywhere!  But others will hiss if you simply raise a hand to pat their head.  What gives?  Petting aggression can be triggered by two things:  WHERE the cat is touched, and the DURATION of that touching.

First, cats vary in their preference for where they like to be touched – just like people, yes?  However, most people will simply avoid an interaction if they don’t want physical contact – we avoid that hug or settle for a simple handshake without the goodnight kiss. Cats, unfortunately, are often in situations where they are not given the opportunity to avoid physical contact that they don’t like.  Think about it – have you ever force-cuddled a cat who didn’t want to be cuddled (squirm-city, if you’re lucky)? Or run after a cat wanting to pet them, but who desperately wanted nothing to do with you (I JUST WANT TO LOVE YOU!!!)?  While some cats are able squirm or run away from an uncomfortable situation, others are (or do) not. Therefore, they end up giving us a more obvious message – one that can result in pain and hurt – if we’re not careful to pay attention to what our cats are trying to tell us. And because felines can be feisty, their idea of what is pleasant and enjoyable one moment may change quite suddenly from one second to the next. Again, think petting location, and petting duration.

Let’s take a look at petting location as it pertains to petting aggression.  Favorite spots to be touched varies cat to cat. Take the lovely Lola and Sasha from our friends at 2 Blogging Cats, for example:

Lola and Sasha Petting Zones(Zoe, Lola and Sasha’s guardian, put these diagrams together for her cats’ petting zones and I love them!)

Both cats (and most cats in general) enjoy their heads being rubbed.  However, Lola doesn’t like her feet and legs being touched, whereas Sasha doesn’t mind these areas being petted. Sasha isn’t crazy about her stomach being petted, but Lola apparently loves a good tummy rub. So, it’s up to you to figure out where your cat enjoys being touched, and then abide by that map – stay away from areas your cat doesn’t want to be touched, or risk being told (sometimes painfully) that the action is not welcome!

Next, there’s petting duration. Some cats can enjoy hours of being stroked, whereas other cats are good after just one or two pets and they want you to stop.  Most of us enjoy petting our cats and it’s frustrating when we find that our cats don’t like that kind of interaction. The best thing you can do is use desensitization and counter-conditioning to increase your cat’s tolerance for petting and show her that petting can be rewarding for her, too.  How do you do that? It takes time and patience, but here’s the general plan:

  1. Start by finding a treat your cat REALLY loves. This could be a commercial cat treat, a piece of chicken breast, or a small piece of cheese (make sure the treat doesn’t make her tummy upset, though). If she doesn’t care for treats, you’ll use sweet talk to encourage and reward her for good behavior.
  2. Determine whether your kitty is in the mood to be petted. Your best bet: she’s relaxed, laying down, and wants to interact with you. Avoid times when she’s active and/or playful, or completely asleep (I know I get grumpy when woken up from a good nap!).
  3. With your cat sitting next to you (or wherever she likes to lay comfortably), stroke her on her head or back once, lightly and gently. Give her a treat. Did she like it? If so, pause, then continue…
  4. Stroke her twice, then give her a treat. Is she still relaxed?  Go for three strokes, and give her another treat.  Continue until you want to stop (keep these sessions short at first), or stop when you see signs that she might start to become uncomfortable. You may see her pupils dilate, or her ears turn back, or her body shift away from you, or her tail start to flick or swish. Being observant of body language is VERY important! These are all signs that it’s time to stop!
  5. Always end on a good note. Stop before your cat decides enough is enough and tells you on no uncertain terms that the petting session is over. Again, pay close attention to body language to you can tell when the petting session is over before your cat tells you it’s over!

It will take some practice to learn where your cat enjoys being petted, and for how long. However, by paying attention to the signals that she gives you, you’ll become tuned in to what your cat likes and doesn’t like. Here are a few additional tips to help reduce petting aggression:

  • NEVER use your hands to play with your cat. If you do, you could unintentionally be training your cat to play rough. If you use your hands to play with your cat, your cat is learning that your hands are toys…and she makes no distinction between that catnip mouse that she can chomp on and your fingers, which belong to you and can feel pain. So, make it a rule to NEVER use your hands or feet or any other body part as a toy!  Always use a wand toy, or some kind of inanimate object to play with your kitty.
  • Less is more with sensitive cats! When in doubt as to whether or not your cat is enjoying an interaction, simply stop.  It’s ok to leave your cat wanting more, and not going overboard with your cat (beyond what she enjoys) will help build trust between you.
  • When petting, be gentle. Don’t pet roughly or with a lot of pressure (at least until you know whether your cat likes that or not). Start slowly and try not to overstimulate her
  • If you do get attacked, try to go limp and move your hand SLIGHTLY towards your cat (this is very difficult and does take practice). Resist the urge to yank your hand away, which can cause more injury. If your hand goes limp, the cat will often wonder what has happened and stop. If your cat does not let go, GENTLY blow on her nose.  Do not yell or hit the cat, but you might say firmly, OUCH. When you are untangled, get up and walk away.

Not all cats have the personality to be affectionate lap-cats, and that’s ok!  They all have different personalities, just like people.  With patience and time you should be able to build trust with your cat and teach her that short petting sessions can be enjoyable and rewarding for both of you. Petting aggression doesn’t have to come between you and your pet if trust and acceptance are keystone elements in your relationship. Respect your cat’s personal space and limitations, and you’ll be one step closer to having pain-free interactions with your kitty, even if there is a little predatory beastie that hides inside that cute, fluffy exterior.

Petting Aggression

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Phone: 503-927-1107
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Marci and Abbey

Dr. Marci L. Koski, CFTBS, CFTPB

Certified Feline Behavior & Training Consultant


LeeAnna Buis, CFTBS

Certified Feline Behavior & Training Consultant

Fear Free Certified Animal Trainer

Fear Free Certified Animal Trainer

Winner of the Women in the Pet Industry's 2017 Advocate of the Year Award

Marci Koski

Dr. Marci is a certified feline behavior and training consultant, with specialized and advanced certificates in Feline Training and Behavior. She started Feline Behavior Solutions to keep cats in homes and out of shelters as the result of treatable behavior issues. She believes that the number of cats in shelters can be greatly reduced if guardians better understand cat behavior, and learn how to work with their cats to encourage desired behaviors instead of unwanted ones. Dr. Marci’s family includes her four feline companions and her very patient, understanding, and supportive husband.