Overstimulation and Petting-Induced Aggression


Cats vary in how much they like to be petted and held. Some cats enjoy it immensely, while others don’t like it at all. Cats can’t express their irritation or discomfort verbally, so they usually indicate it by biting or scratching the person petting them, then jumping up and running off. While this aggressive reaction might appear to come out of the blue, most cats give at least a subtle warning. Such warnings may include:

  • Quickly turning the head toward a person’s hand
  • Tension in the body
  • Ears flattened against the head or rotating forward and back
  • Twitching tail and/or fidgeting or restless behavior 
  • Dilating pupils

If you see any of these behaviors while you’re petting your cat, the best response is simply to stop. If you continue, your cat will likely escalate to hissing, growling, scratching or biting.

Petting-induced aggression is not well understood, but it’s thought that physical contact, such as stroking, can quickly become unpleasant to a cat if it’s repeated. Imagine that someone is rubbing your back, but instead of moving their hand all over your back, they rub in one spot repeatedly. That might become unpleasant and annoying quickly. Your cat might feel the same way about repetitive touching. If petting-induced aggression is a new behavior, it’s important to rule out underlying medical causes. Cats that develop sensitivities due to illness or pain may react to petting with sudden aggression.

Teach your cat to enjoy petting

Most cats can be taught to tolerate petting if they learn to associate it with something positive, such as tasty treats. The next time your cat seeks affection by coming up and rubbing against you, have some of their favorite treats handy. Don’t pick your cat up and hold them, just reach out and pet them. The follow these steps:

  1. Pet slowly for a count of three. Immediately follow with a couple small, tasty treats. This helps your cat anticipate treats after petting, turning it into a pleasant interaction for them. 
  2. Repeat this sequence for approximately two to three minutes. Monitor body language closely and end if you see any signs of discomfort. 
  3. Avoid pushing your cat with longer petting sessions before they’re ready for it–your goal should be to avoid any signs of discomfort.\
  4. After a couple of days to a week, pet your cat slightly longer before offering treats. 
Troubleshooting Tips
  1. If you see signs of discomfort or irritation, simply stop petting.
  2. Refrain from petting your cat outside of training sessions for the time being. 
  3. Instead of free feeding, put your cat on a meal schedule and have your training sessions just before mealtime, when they are hungriest. 
  4. Learn what specific types of stroking your cat likes—long strokes along the body or rubbing around the chin and neck, for example—and use only those strokes when petting them.
  5. Slightly vary the position where your hands contact your cat’s body, so your touch doesn’t become too repetitive and annoying. 

What NOT to Do

  • Never physically punish or yell at your cat for lashing out at you aggressively. These are likely to make the problem worse rather than better.
  • Never forcefully throw your cat off you. At best, they will become afraid to sit near you. At worst, they could be injured by the fall. 

Enjoy Your Cat for Who They Are

Respect your cat’s desire not to be petted much. Cats are like people—some enjoy a lot of physical contact while others enjoy only a little. Appreciate the other ways your cat demonstrates their fondness for you. Your cat probably follows you around the house, sleeps with you at night and hangs out with you while you watch TV. Relish the time you spend together and don’t worry about the fact that they don’t care for lots of physical affection.

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