Some cats switch to attack mode while being stroked because they:
- Experience over-stimulation of the nerves where fur meets skin
- Are irritated by a build-up of static electricity caused by petting
- Are under psychological stress due to recent changes in the household or other problems
- Have medical problems that make being touched on certain spots painful
- Were taken away from their mothers and littermates too early
- Did not experience sufficient interaction with humans during the critical socialization period as kittens
- Fall asleep while being petted, wake up suddenly, and panic before they realize what’s going on
- Have a need to control the situation either to feel secure or to assert dominance
Petting aggression due to overstimulation or skin irritation
Cats have very sensitive skin. While some cats can soak up affection indefinitely, others rapidly become over-stimulated and can only manage a short session of petting or grooming. When a cat becomes over-stimulated or experiences the extreme discomfort caused by a build-up of static electricity, he reflexively lashes out.
Petting aggression is not a personal slight. The cat may really like the person who is stroking him and probably feels no anger toward that person. He’s reacting to the discomfort rather than the individual, and the behaviour is just a reflex.
Petting aggression due to medical or psychological problems
There are a number of medical problems that may cause a cat to lash out when being petted due to pain. These include arthritis, parasites, inflammatory polyps, dental issues, hip dysplasia, and a variety of other conditions. Whenever a formerly calm cat begins acting aggressively, a full veterinary check-up is recommended to rule out medical problems.
Cats may also be oversensitive due to psychological stress. Common stressors that cats experience include:
- Moving to a new home
- Arrival of a new baby or another pet
- Bullying by a resident pet or neighbourhood animal
- Rough handling by members of the household
Petting aggression due to lack of early socialization
There is a critical period in a kitten’s development during which he learns when to react with aggression, as well as the appropriate level of force to use in a given situation. Kittens that are orphaned or removed from their mothers and siblings too early miss out on these lessons, so they are more likely to swat or bite rather than just warning a person away with hostile body language.
A cat may also become aggressive when petted because his interactions with humans during the critical period for socialization (the first few months of life) were unpleasant or non-existent. Rough handling during this time can lead to ambivalent behaviour whereby a cat wants to trust but becomes afraid whenever he’s in a vulnerable position.
Other causes of petting aggression
Some experts believe that certain cats become aggressive after a few strokes because they have a need to control the situation. Just as a person wouldn’t want to be forcibly hugged for too long, being petted for a length of time defined by a human may feel oppressive to some cats, particularly if they’re insecure or have a high need for dominance.
Each cat has unique petting preferences, and some are far more sensitive than others. Some cats are happier with scratches behind their ears or on their chins than full-body petting. Other cats love to be stroked, but need a break after a few seconds, and some cats will happily absorb affection all day long.
When a cat is prone to petting aggression, his human companions should learn to recognize the signs of over-stimulation and teach children to recognize them as well. Early warning signs include:
- Tail twitching
- Body stiffening
- Skin Rippling
- Pupils dilating
- Ears flattening
- Claws unsheathing
- Low growl
If any of these behaviours occur, stop stroking the cat until he has calmed down and appears receptive to affection.
The petting threshold of an overly sensitive cat can often be increased with positive reinforcement, such as offering favourite foods while petting him, after every stroke or two. On the other hand, a cat’s petting threshold will be decreased if he’s punished for reflexively engaging in petting aggression. Punishment nearly always increases aggression in cats rather than decreasing it.
Adult cat preferences tend to be stable over time. Those who want cats they can pet for hours on end should spend plenty of time holding and stroking prospective adoptees to find the ones that meet their needs. Spending time together beforehand increases the likelihood of getting a good personality match.
For more cat articles, see the main Cats page.
- BC SPCA. (n.d.). “Petting Aggression: Does Your Cat Suddenly Attack You During Petting?” ASPCA.org.
- Nash, H., DVM, MS, Veterinary Services Department, Drs. Foster & Smith. (2009). “Petting-Related Aggression in Cats.” PetEducation.com.