Cat Behavior Problems: Petting Aggression

Why does my cat turn around and bite while I pet her?

For some reason, some cats that appear to be perfectly comfortable resting in a lap can suddenly turn around, bite, and run away. The behavior occurs for different reasons in different cats; it is not always clear what drives it. This behavior is sometimes named ‘don’t pet me’ aggression. What appears to happen is that, for a time, your cat enjoys the interaction, but at some point, the physical sensation of being stroked and scratched is no longer pleasant. Instead of hopping down and walking away, your cat bites. Some cats deliver a light bite that does not cause a scratch, while others bite hard, causing a puncture wound. Because cat bites easily become infected, ‘don’t pet me’ aggression must be taken seriously.

If your cat tolerates prolonged pets and only bites when you reach toward him, then there may be a miscommunication. Cat behavior can be confusing—cats sometimes initiate interactions by rubbing people with their cheeks or hopping onto their laps, but should a person respond to this approach by reaching to pet their cat, he immediately bites. It is important to understand that many cats enjoy being close to people for warmth and companionship but are not interested in being stroked. It is also possible that a cat’s approach is a ‘request’ for something else, such as play or food, and the bite may occur due to frustration if the cat receives ‘only’ a pet.

Are there any conditions that might affect my cat’s tolerance for being petted?

If your cat exhibits unexpected aggressive behavior, it is important to bring him to his veterinarian for a thorough examination. Pain can trigger an aggressive response to being touched and should be considered if bites mainly occur when you pet your cat in a specific area of his body. Your veterinarian will examine your cat’s ears, teeth, and gums for signs of infection or inflammation. If your cat experiences pain in a joint, limb, neck, or back, even a slight shift in your cat’s position, as often happens during pets, can trigger a bite. Cats with dermatitis may have sensitive skin and feel uncomfortable when petted, particularly when pets continue for an extended period.

It is also possible that your cat is experiencing fear or anxiety while being petted. Cats usually do not appreciate restraint, and though you are reaching just to stroke your cat, he may perceive the movement of your arm as though he is about to be restrained.

Fearful cats may be triggered to bite a nearby hand in response to a sudden noise or new odor. This behavior is called redirected aggression. (See the handout “Cat Behavior Problems – Aggression Redirected” for more information.)

Is there any way to predict when my cat will try to bite me?

Any time you pet your cat, watch closely for subtle signs that he is uncomfortable. Notice whether he freezes or moves away when you reach toward him with your hand. When your cat is in your lap, whether you have been petting him for a long time or have been busy reading and taking a break to give him some rubs, notice whether he pulls his ears back, tenses his body, or begins to flick his tail as you pet him. If you see any of these signs, stop the interaction immediately. It may help to distract him with an offer of something fun. For example, if he knows, “do you want a treat?” you can invite him for a treat to break the ice. Another option is to quietly leave the area, even if it means slowly standing up to encourage your cat to jump off your lap.

Your ability to predict your cat’s mood may improve if you keep track of situations where your cat appears to consistently enjoy being petted. If there are specific times or contexts in which pets are not well tolerated, plan alternative interactions, such as play, during those times. Also, learn whether your cat resists being petted on certain areas of his body.

What should I do if my cat bites me?

First, take care of your wound and call your doctor—cat bites can be serious. If the bite does not cause an injury, quietly walk away and give your cat space to relax. Do not punish your cat, as this will create fear. Your cat did not intend to harm you but was trying to communicate, albeit inappropriately. Do not try to interact until you and your cat are both relaxed and ready to move forward. Give your cat space to recover. (See the handout “Why Punishment Should be Avoided" for more information.)

Can this behavior be treated?

There are ways to reduce the likelihood that your cat will bite you. Treatment will depend on the specific reason for the behavior. Consult a veterinary behaviorist to determine the physical and behavioral factors that motivate your cat to bite you.  

To begin treatment, learn your cat’s subtle warning signs if there are any. Try to anticipate your cat’s tolerance of pets and keep petting sessions short enough to avoid a subtle warning. Communicate with your cat by announcing, “all done,” in a cheerful voice to signal that you are about to stop petting. Practice this cue during short pet sessions—just one or two pets, then say, ‘all done’ and disengage, tossing a treat or toy to reward your cat for remaining calm and tolerant.

Later, if you are petting your cat and notice signs of discomfort, you can say, “all done” –your cat may recognize that you will disengage. Your cat may even recall that after you say “all done,” a treat usually follows—this should help diffuse any tension.

Over time, with additional training, it may be possible to increase the length and frequency of petting sessions. The first step is to recognize your cat’s threshold—learn how many pets are consistently tolerated and always stay below this threshold. The goal in each training session is to stop petting while your cat is calm, then say, “all done,” and reward him with a tasty little treat.

"Over time, with additional training, it may be possible to increase the length and frequency of petting sessions."

If you cannot predict either the triggers or your cat’s threshold for tolerance, it may be necessary to adjust or eliminate physical interactions with him for safety. Sometimes, this can mean that when your cat sits close by or on your lap, you may enjoy his company but should not try to pet him. Other cats may tolerate light scratching in certain areas, such as around the neck and chin, but will bite if you attempt to pet with longer strokes, particularly along the back and sides.

For safety, it is sometimes necessary to use a barrier to prevent social interactions at high-risk times. You may confine your cat to a nearby area with a tall baby gate or move him to a quiet room with a litter box, food and water, cozy resting places, and some interactive toys. A barrier may also be needed to protect people at a high risk of injury, such as a young child or an immunocompromised person in the household.

Are there any other treatment strategies?

Many cats exhibit calmer behavior in response to pheromones. The Feliway Classic® diffuser may be a useful adjunct to treatment. If you are being scratched and bitten, you may use Soft Paws nail caps or trim your cat’s nails to diminish injury.

Underlying medical and behavioral illnesses should be treated. If your cat is diagnosed with underlying fear, anxiety, or frustration, medication may be helpful.

Will my cat still enjoy interacting with me if I don’t pet her?

There are many social interactions you and your cat can enjoy. Instead of snuggling, introduce games, such as trick training and playing with wand toys. If your cat is physically fit, try agility activities in your living room or basement. Your cat may enjoy these interactive enrichment opportunities more than she ever enjoyed being petted.