By Sophia Yin, DVM, MS
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 eachother 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.