Cat lovers frequently ask for help in stopping aggressive behavior in their cats—but there are many kinds of aggression, and a one-size-fits-all program doesn’t work.
Of the several types of cat aggression, none confuses, frustrates, and frightens most owners as much as petting aggression, also called status-related aggression. The cat begs for attention and loves the petting, but then bites you after only a few strokes.
These cats use the “leave me alone” bite to stop interactions such as petting, being lifted or approached, or being moved from a favorite perch. It's a very common behavior in cats, but you can work with your pet to stop it.
Why Is Your Cat Aggressive During Petting?
Unlike dogs, cats often have a low tolerance for being petted and can become overstimulated quickly. The length of time it takes for petting to go from enjoyable to uncomfortable varies by cat. But when it reaches that point, the cat reacts almost as if it's being hurt or is in pain. Animal behaviorists refer to this as petting-induced aggression.
Petting aggression seems most common in young, energetic cats taken early from their litter and left alone for long periods during the day.
Smacking the cat may make the aggression worse since most cats view physical correction as a challenge and may become even more aggressive during subsequent petting sessions.
Petting aggression can be explosive and dangerous, especially for well-meaning young children. Learn to identify and avoid situations that might lead to this behavior.
Rule out Medical Causes
There are some medical conditions that may cause a cat to become aggressive, and you should rule these out before you try to modify your pet's behavior. Have your veterinarian check for signs of arthritis, an injury, or dental problems to make sure it's not any physical pain that's causing your cat to aggressively reject your petting.
Cat communication varies somewhat among cats, just as human speech may include different accents or colloquialisms. But body language offers clues as to what your cat intends to do:
- An active tail and turned-down ears point to a coming attack.
- Sudden dilation of the cat’s pupils indicates arousal.
- Increased heart rate (which you may feel if the cat's on your lap) indicates the cat is on alert.
- Purrs that transition to low growls warn you to back off.
- Rippling skin on the back suggests aggravation or irritation.
- Any sign or combination of signs means scratching or biting is imminent.
As long as biting and scratching work, your cat will continue to use them to control interaction. Make these behaviors unnecessary by avoiding situations that prompt them, and/or manage the circumstances so the cat never gets a chance to bite or wield its claws.
Be consistent, though, and practice tough love. If you give up before you've established the ground rules for petting and aggression, you may have to start the conditioning from square one.
And remember, a pet's bad habits often become worse just before they go away as your cat tries harder to get the previously successful behavior to work again. Behaviorists call this an extinction burst, and when it happens, it means you’re on the right track.
Cats accept grooming from other cats on the head and neck. But the full body strokes a human applies may feel unacceptable and make the cat uneasy or uncomfortable. It's this feeling of unease that stimulates the biting.
Limit your petting to the cat’s head or the back of its neck. Then identify its petting threshold. In other words, count the number of strokes your cat allows before aggressing; pay close attention to its body language so you can stop petting before the cat bites.
It may be three strokes, five, or more. Once you’ve identified its limit, stop before the cat attacks so that you control the interaction. This is the key to reversing this behavior: letting the cat know you're in charge of the situation.
When you reach the petting threshold, if the cat is sitting on your lap, don’t push it off or it may claw at you in an attempt to attack your hands. To end the petting, simply stand up and dump the cat off without touching it. Don't interact with the cat, who may cry to get your attention. Other cats in this situation may simply run away and sulk.
Use Positive Reinforcement
The goal in these situations is to teach the cat that all good things in life (play, food, attention) must be earned and that you call the shots. Then rewards and resources can be used to motivate the cat to properly respond.
For instance, teach the cat to “come” by using dinnertime to your advantage.
Before the cat gets the food bowl, say “come” in a cheerful, strong voice and then turn on the can opener, shake the bag of kibble, or pick up the treat jar. Your cat has already learned these cues and what time to run to its bowl, so you just teach it to associate the come command with the action. When the cat obeys, reward it with the treat or bowl of food.
You can also clicker train your cat by pairing food rewards with a clicker that makes a noise. Eventually your cat will begin to think of the clicker as the reward and treats may no longer be necessary.
Use a treat or toy to lure your kitty off furniture or out of the way instead of pushing or lifting it, which puts your hands within the strike zone. Say “move” and toss the treat on the floor or entice the cat down with a feather.
If the cat is in your chair, tip or shake it to get the cat to leave on its own. Eventually, you'll just need to say the word move and offer a sweeping gesture for the cat to obey—and you’ve avoided an encounter that could otherwise lead to a bite.
Finally, if you like, you can desensitize the cat and improve its petting tolerance. If it allows three strokes before its ears and tail signal distress, add one more stroke, paired with a reward such as the clicker; then stop and dump the cat off your lap before it can bite. By adding one stroke each week, over time you can increase its threshold while avoiding its teeth.