There you sit, enjoying a quiet moment while gently petting your beloved feline when he suddenly, inexplicably, turns and sinks his teeth into your hand, or lashes out with his claws. Your quiet moment bursts like a soap bubble and now you’re angry and likely a little hurt. One minute your tabby’s perfectly content, the next, auditioning for Jackson Galaxy’s “My Cat From Hell” show. What happened?
This is a behavior called petting induced aggression, or overstimulation. Cats are not naturally close contact animals and, as odd as it may seem, pleasurable petting can actually become painful if engaged in for too long. While “too long” is different for every cat, careful observation will help you identify when your cat is reaching that point. Sudden or increased tail thumping or lashing is a good indication, as is skin twitching. Also watch for ears becoming tense and laying back, tiny head lunges or nips towards your hand, and a general overall increased restlessness. When you see these things, ease off the petting and just enjoy your cat’s presence without touching him for a while.
You can also work off some of your cat’s restlessness by handing him a stuffed animal to bite, lick and bunny kick, or by engaging him in a play session with a fishing-pole toy. “Da Bird” is one of the most universally liked versions on the market today and is almost guaranteed to get any cat off the couch. Given routine opportunities to engage in active hunting behaviors, your cat will be happier, calmer, and less apt to reach an overstimulated point.
Never smack, yell or otherwise reprimand your cat if you miss his signals and push him into biting or clawing. He does not understand why the stroking slips from pleasant to painful and he will not understand why you hurt him further when he was forced to stop the discomfort the only way left to him. Instead, immediately cease all petting, speak to him quietly and encouragingly and let him calm down at his own pace. Better yet, regularly study his body language, learn to recognize when he’s reaching his tolerance point, and stop long before he gets there. This will ensure your petting sessions remain pleasant for you both.
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