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Why Petting Can Make Some Cats Aggressive

Your cat goes from loving friend to angry feline.

Key points

  • Known as petting-induced aggression, your cat responds to petting with growling, scratching, or biting.
  • This occurs because the petting was too intense for the cat or it went on for too long.
  • Here's how to read their body language to help prevent such aggression.
Khomenko Maryna/Shutterstock
Source: Khomenko Maryna/Shutterstock

Petting-induced aggression is a common problem for cat guardians. You want to show your kitty some affection, and maybe it even starts well and your cat seems to be enjoying the fuss. But all of a sudden they are scratching, biting, or growling at you. What can you do?

It helps to understand that this is a common reaction. Most likely your cat is getting too excited and finding the petting too intense. Here's how to recognize the signs that your cat no longer finds the affection pleasant.

Know how your cat likes to be petted

Always give your cat a choice of whether or not to be petted. Start by calling them over or waiting until they approach you, which is better than walking to them or picking them up. If they come and rub their head or body on you, that’s a good sign that they might like to the attention. If they don’t, or if they go away, respect their choice.

Stick to stroking your cat in places they like to be petted. For most cats, this is going to be around the head and face. You don’t even necessarily have to do much: often, if you hold your hand up, your cat will come and rub its head on your hand. Maybe that’s exactly what they would like. Cats generally prefer not to be petted in the tummy and tail area. Of course, there are always exceptions, every cat is an individual, but typically it’s best to avoid touching these areas. If your cat rolls over and shows the tummy, they are not inviting you to touch it; petting the tummy, in particular, can easily lead to biting.

Cats prefer short but frequent petting sessions. Don’t think you can aim for a long period of petting and then consider the job done for the day. Instead, try to keep each petting session short, and repeat often throughout the day.

Keep the strokes short too. Instead of trying to pet your cat from head to tail, stick to short strokes with your hand.

Learn to read your cat’s behavior

Your cat’s body language will help you to understand if they are enjoying the petting or not. In particular, look for signs of arousal and stop right away if you see them. For example, look for a tail twitching, enlarged pupils, the ears pulling back, or the skin rippling. All of these may be signs that your pet is finding the affection too much and may attack to make it stop. There may also be changes in the sounds they make, from stopping purring, to meowing or even growling at you.

If this is a change in your cat’s behavior, get your cat checked at the vet. Pain from arthritis, dental problems, or other conditions can understandably make cats grumpy; it’s worth asking your vet’s opinion.

Stress can also make your cat less tolerant of being petted. Changes in the household—from new furniture to new family members or someone moving out—can make your cat feel stressed. In turn, this may make them feel less inclined to be petted, or only tolerate shorter sessions. Again, respect your cat’s wishes.

Treat your pet right

Don’t encourage kittens to play with your hands or feet, as this is not fun for you when they are older and might hurt you. As well, it may cause them to attack your hands in play when you are trying to pet them. If they try to play with your hands or feet, redirect them to a cat toy.

Never punish your cat for responding negatively to petting (or indeed, for anything else). Doing things like yelling at your cat, spraying them with water, or pushing your cat, are unkind and likely to be counterproductive. Punishment may also make your cat stressed and anxious. And if you’ve ever used these methods with your cat, they may associate you with negative things and feel unsure of approaching you to be petted.

If you want to train your cat, for example, to come and sit on your lap, use positive reinforcement such as treats and remember to respect your cat’s wishes. (Also, if you have a nervous or fearful cat who does not like to approach you, don’t require them to come near you for treats; in this case, place the treats at a distance).

Appreciate your cat for the individual they are

Some cats are more affectionate than others, and this may also change over time. If your cat is shy or retiring, they may prefer to sit near you on the settee—not even necessarily touching—rather than on your lap, or even on another chair in the same room. They are still choosing to be near you in their own way. Some cats may not be keen on being petted at all, never mind for any length of time. It’s best to appreciate your cat for who they are and let them be affectionate on their own terms.

The cat’s relationship with each individual family member will also affect how they want to be petted by them. Although well-socialized cats can be friendly to almost everyone, some cats are much more choosy about their human friends. Maybe your cat will be happy for family members to pet them, but won’t want visitors to do so. That’s okay. Again, respect your cat’s wishes and don’t let visitors bug your cat, however much they say they love felines.

When you understand what your cat wants, petting-induced aggression is much less likely to occur.

Facebook image: Khomenko Maryna/Shutterstock

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