By Sophia Yin, DVM, MS September 6, 2009
Q: I've taken in a stray cat that's about one year old and has been spayed. She's very affectionate; however, sometimes when I pet her she either bites or scratches me. How can I stop her from doing this?
A: Have you heard the joke about the patient who visits the doctor? The patient comes in and asks, “Hey Doc. My arm hurts when I lift it like this. What should I do.” The doctor replies, “Don't do that.”
Sounds silly, but the same advice goes here. If your cat bites and scratches when you pet her, don't pet her. I mean don't pet her when she's going to bite and scratch, not don't pet her ever at all.
So what's the deal? You'd think that if you feed your cat and give her a good home the least she could do is let you pet her at will. But just like people, cats can only take so much. They might like the petting at first. But when enough is enough, they'll let you know. The tail will twitch, the ears will flatten, and the skin may develop a nervous tick.
At this point they're screaming in plain Meow. Stop! I can't take anymore! If you continue, they'll give you a sign you can't miss. A bite meant to hinder not to harm. If they've been punished for this behavior in the past, they'll even dart off your lap to avoid the retribution that may follow.
Now why cats don't just leave when they're fed up I don't know. Could be that they want you to pet them but you're just not doing it quite right. In social grooming, cats groom others in short bouts. So maybe Kitty wants you to pet but only in spurts. Or maybe petting is good but only in certain places. Cats have definite areas they consider taboo. For instance, touch Kitty on the belly and she may tell you that area's off limits.
Or it could be that they are comfortable where they are and don't feel like moving so they have to tell you to knock it off.
What if your cat has a low tolerance and you want to interact more? You can teach kitty that petting is fun—it's paired with yummy treats. Pet kitty and give her a treat before she starts getting upset. For instance, pet her for 5 seconds while giving her canned cat food. Then stop petting for another 5 seconds. Then repeat the process so she starts to understand that petting is associated with good food. Or you can pet her in an area she likes and gently move towards an area that's taboo. Only stay there for a sec and then give her a treat before she loses her cool.
If you do this carefully such that kitty only has good experiences with petting, then you'll actually get a cat that likes petting more consistently.
A version of this article originally appeared in Dr. Yin's Pet Tales Column in The San Francisco Chronicle in 2000.