What to Do with a Cat Who Bites When Petted

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Cat biting hands

By Sophia Yin, DVM, MS September 6, 2009

1966-2014 R.I.P.

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.


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6 responses to “What to Do with a Cat Who Bites When Petted

  1. The brief, practical pointers here are the advice we’ve been looking for. Serena is very affectionate, perhaps possessive. She’s the only animal in the house (with the two of us), and she generally seems to love it here. I think my biggest concerns were (1) how to react when she puts a little of us between her teeth, and (2) when she breaks through drawing blood (just a few times so far). A bit more understanding of her point of view is interesting. thank-you.

  2. I had a cat who did this for years until I figured her out.
    I just can’t pet her for long in the same place. I have to switch spots every 15-20 seconds ,alternating sides and back and forth between her neck and her back near her tail. She also doesn’t trust long strokes all the way down her back for some reason; she wants short scratching motions instead. Now I can pet her for 10 minutes at a time and she cries to be petted. Utterly changed our relationship and no more bloodshed. I just wish I’d known years ago because I wasted a lot of our life together being hesitant to pet her very much.

  3. Thanks for your information. We’ve been housing and feeding a feral tortoishell cat for five years. It’s only been within the past two months that she has allowed us to touch her (prior to that she would rub everything else in sight and blink eyes with us). As you mentioned, after a bit of petting, rubbing the ears, she starts to gently bite. Or, she might swipe with sharp claws. When she does this I stop. Guess she couldn’t make it more clear that she has had enough! She is still very skittish. One ear does seem more rounded than the other so I’m thinking she had been part of the “catch and release” program (no pregnancies either). Would that have made her so skittish or is it just a tortoishell (ringtail as well) nature to be that way?

  4. I would not have a cat that runs around all day while the family is gone. The should be keep inside or in a crate in the garage. It’s not fair to neighbors for them to come into other people garage and then when I try to move them, they bite me. I am on Plavix, a blood thinner, can I call animal control?

  5. I read that cats scratch when you pet them and they get over stimulated and don’t want anymore petting. But our cat starts biting and scratch if you just put your hand near her. She doesn’t even allow us to touch her most of the time unless she decides to come to us for attention and that is seldom.

  6. This is just the info I’ve needed. I just got my second Maine Coon rescue. The first was a female and he, too, is a love. I thought it was just her way, but he does the same sudden bite that comes out of nowhere. I imagined it was maybe a form of cat kiss gone wrong. Now I’m going to think of it as long-petting-intolerance.Thank you so much.

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