Cat Bites When Petted: When Purr Turns to Bite, Fangs for the Memories

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By Sophia Yin, DVM, MS

R.I.P. 1966-2014

Reader Question: 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?

Answer: 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 practically screaming in plain English, “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. It really depends on the cat and the situation, and it could be that your cat wants you to pet her but you’re just not doing it quite right. In social grooming cats groom each other in short bouts, and much of the grooming is focused on the neck and head. So, maybe, Kitty wants you to pet but only in spurts or scratch around the ears instead of petting excitedly or in long strokes. Or maybe petting is good but only in certain places. Cats definitely have areas they tend to consider taboo. For instance, touch Kitty on the belly and she may tell you that area’s off limits.

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. Better yet, at first only pet her while she’s eating canned food or treats you’re giving her, then pet her for short bouts, and then stop all petting and remove the food simultaneously.


Then repeat the these steps multiple times until she understands that petting equals yummy food and the yummy food stops when petting stops. If she really hates the petting or has a long history of being bugged by you, you’ll have to practice a lot before she decides she always enjoys the petting. But once she gets the idea you can back-off on the treats. The main message is to always stop before you have a chance to irk her and soon you’ll have a kitty that allows at least short bouts of petting instead of one that suddenly bites.

This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on Feb, 16, 2000.

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7 responses to “Cat Bites When Petted: When Purr Turns to Bite, Fangs for the Memories

  1. I’ve just been bitten by a cat i am cat sitting and did not see any of the warnings you mention.I have had cats all my life and this is a first. The cat just turned on me and bit my hand as i was approaching to pet her… i can’t figure out what the trigger was. I had done the same movement before. Usually, if it does not want to be touched, it will give me a warning. This time … zero.I wonder if the cat is ill. It is an older cat who has major problems eating. I have to give her wet food very diluted. She has poor digestion. Her skin is very dry and flaky.It is so pretty. I let her calm down and went to see her to make sure it was ok. She was as happy as a bird!! I am baffled!!

  2. My 11 yr old male orange tabby, Jackson, is acting strangely! He became sick 2mos ago & I took him to his vet. He was vomiting,urinating/defecating outside his box (everywhere!)& losing weight. He purred going to the vet. But screamed while they tried to take blood, & didn’t purr for days after. His blood work said he is anemic & he had crystals in his urine. He threw up antibiotics (told to discontinue), give him iron weekly & put him on urinary tract food. But he is sleeping in his litter box! I found him hiding in the closet, were he never went before. He scares easily. He seems to want to be up high. He cries at the backdoor (but he’s a inside cat)He sleeps on the hard floor when he has a soft bed,& furniture. My son’s male cat, who is 4 & has lived with us for 2 1/2 yrs has attack him. They used to play chase, first one, then the other, but never vicious. Jackson cowered & hissed! The vet only gives more meds & new food- neither Jack tolerates. Could Jack be senile? Cancer? Do I need a new vet? He has good days & bad…I don’t know what else to do!

  3. Hi Sophia,

    I am hoping you would help. As looking desperately for advice / help.
    We have a 8 month old kitten, he was abandoned – his mother died in car accident and his sibling abandoned him as he was the weakest. Today we love him and is our family. His name is Pepper.

    The issue we have been facing with Pepper is his aggression, he bites alotttttt non stop, he will follow you and bite your feet hand. and off lately with alot of aggression – like he will take a piece of you.

    He had also started howling .

    We have tried everything, my husband & i play games with him throughout the day, take him to beach, give him treats to encourage good behaviour. But its come to a point its just turns to being helpless and frustration.

    His health his good and he has been neutered 2 months back.

    The video of yours to give treats in order to train the cat has worked so far.

    Please guide… wot can i do…. Really hoping would help.

    Best Regards,
    +965 60009698

    Looking forward

  4. I haven’t read my problem anywhere. My 2 year old adopted kitten begs to be picked up and held. She loves to be rocked gently as I walk around the house gently holding her… Purring loudly! She rubs my chin and gives kisses as we walk around. Then all of a sudden for no reason she meows loudly and bites my arm. Of course I put her down immediately. One time after our cuddle walk around I gently set her in her chair and she swatted at me like she wasn’t done with our cuddle. How should I handle this type of biting. By the way the bites aren’t hard enough to break the skin.

  5. I think my cat is lonely as he will bite my hand and hold it while i think trying to have sex with my arm… he is neutered male and we are at work during the day and doesn’t get outside much anymore as the law now is that cats are not allowed outside except on a leash…
    Does he just need a friend or to find a home where he can go outside?

  6. My cat comes up on my chest and will lay there to have snuggles. She was the ruby of her litter and moved moved the rest of the kittens. We found her and her eyes weren’t even open yet. I bottle fed her I feel extremely close to her emotionally. So this am, she got up on my chest as she does a lot. she was fine for 10 minutes or so. I gently laid her on her favorate blanket , on my bed and she wrapped her body around my arm, biting and scratching!!! I just don’t get it!!! She can turn on a dime. I want to trust her but I am always nervous cuz she does it to me, she could hurt anyone who is here. Anyone have any suggestions?

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