Petting-Induced Aggression

This type of aggression is one that cat parents often think comes out of the blue, but in reality, the cat usually gives plenty of warning signs. The problem is, humans don’t always pay attention to the signals until it’s too late.

Petting-induced aggression occurs when the cat parent is petting the cat and she suddenly lashes out and either bites or scratches. It can occur when the cat parent strokes beyond the cat’s tolerance or when petting causes over-stimulation. It can also happen when stroking areas of the cat’s body that aren’t comfortable.

Cats usually give signs such as tail lashing, tail thumping, cessation of purring, skin twitching, body position shifting, meowing or ear twitching.

To avoid petting-induced aggression, pay attention to the cat’s body language signals and learn her tolerance level so you can stay well below that.

Five Steps to Correct Petting-Induced Aggression in Cats

Here are five steps for identifying and correcting petting-induced aggression:

1. Vet Visit for Your Cat

Just to be on the safe side, have your cat examined by the veterinarian because the sudden aggression may be the result of pain. He may be fine when you pet him in some locations on his body but if you hit that tender spot he may react aggressively. Go to the veterinarian to make sure there isn’t an injury you’re unaware of or some unseen condition such as arthritis, tooth problem, abscess, etc.

2. Did You Interpret Your Cat’s Mood Correctly?

Sometimes the reason your cat may bite when you’ve been petting him is that you misinterpreted his intention when he approached in the first place. His approach may actually have been a play solicitation and not a desire to engage in physical affection. Perhaps he was being as tolerant as possible by allowing you to stroke him a few times but if he was in play-mode and not affection-mode then the stroking just served to increase his stimulation.

3. Read Your Cat’s Body Language

Even though it may seem as if your cat displayed aggression without any warning, there are usually several body language signals given off that cat parents often ignore. If you’re not paying attention to your cat as you pet him, it may seem as if his attack is out of the blue but from his point of view, he clearly gave numerous warnings. If you have a cat who has displayed petting-induced aggression previously then you need to watch his body language as you pet him. You can’t become distracted or you’ll easily miss those physical warning signs again.

Some body language signals that indicate your cat is reaching his tolerance level can include:

  • Stops purring
  • Tail lashing
  • Tail thumping
  • Skin twitching
  • Shifting body position
  • Meowing
  • Growling
  • Ears in airplane mode
  • Ears flattened back against head
  • Cat looking back at your hand
  • Dilated pupils

4. End on a Positive Note with Your Kitty

The way to help a cat feel more comfortable with being petted is to pay attention to his tolerance level so you can stop petting well in-advance of an attack. Pay attention to his body language and stop petting before the warning signals start appearing. For example, if you know that you can typically pet your cat for about three minutes before he bites, then in order to keep this a positive experience, stop petting after about a minute-and-a-half. Leave your cat wanting more. When you stop petting while the experience is still positive then it breaks that chain where your cat feels the only want to end the session is to be aggressive. At the very least, stop petting the second you see the first body language red flag.

Pay attention to where on the body your cat likes to be petted and where he doesn’t. He may enjoy being petted on the back of the head but not at the base of the tail. Petting in some areas may actually cause too much stimulation.

5. Never Punish Your Cat

If you yell at, hit or chase your cat for biting you during a petting session then you will only accomplish one thing – you’ll increase his fear of you and that’s a surefire way of damaging the human-cat bond. He isn’t biting you because he’s mean; he’s biting because he feels he has no other option. From his point of view all other forms of communicating with you have failed. He was left with no choice. If you watch his body language, pet in the body locations he likes and you stop petting long before he reaches his tolerance peak, you stand a very good chance of changing his mind about physical contact.


Pam Johnson-Bennett, Cat Behavior Associates
professional pet sitting software

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Disclaimer: The contents of this website are based upon the opinions of All About Purrs, LLC, unless otherwise noted. Individual articles are based upon the opinions of the respective author, who retains copyright as marked. The information on this website is not intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified veterinarian and is not intended as medical advice. It is intended as a sharing of knowledge and information from the research and experience of All About Purrs, LLC through its many years of working with cats. All About Purrs encourages you to make your own pet care decisions based upon your research and in partnership with a qualified veterinarian.
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