Here's the scene: you're relaxing in your chair with the cat in your lap. The TV is on and you pet the cat as your focus transfers to the action taking place on the television screen. Suddenly, you feel intense pain and look down to discover that Fluffy has sunk her incredibly sharp teeth into your hand. What the heck just happened? Has your cat turned psycho? Why did she suddenly attack you without any warning?
The behavior described above is referred to as petting-induced aggression. There are a few possible causes for it. Some cats initially find the sensation of being petted as pleasurable. As the petting continues though, it may cross over into becoming too stimulating. In other cases, the cat gets so relaxed that she dozes off and then awakens confused by the physical contact. Some cats get agitated if the petting is done over the same area of the body repeatedly. For other kitties, there may be areas that are more sensitive. Finally, there are situations where the cat changes from being relaxed to being on alert while in your lap because of a change in the environment (perhaps the dog or another cat walks in the room) and the petting sensation on her back sparks a defensive reaction.
Although you may feel as if the attack came out of nowhere, the cat gives signals that the petting is no longer enjoyable. She may twitch her tail or even lash it from side to side. Other signs can include meowing, growling, skin twitching, and cessation of purring. She might shift body position, shift ear position, or turn around and look at you. If your attention is elsewhere, you may not notice these signals and so when the cat bites, it certainly appears as if there was no warning.If you have a cat who has a tendency to display petting-induced aggression, be aware of her tolerance limit and stop petting well before that. If she seems to only like being petted for three minutes, then stop after a minute or so. If you stop petting well before her limit, she'll relax again in your lap. In some cases, after a few minutes of no petting contact, you can start stroking her again for a few seconds to build her tolerance. For a cat with petting-induced aggression, you can't absent-mindedly pet her while focusing on something else. Observe body language. Be aware of areas that might be more sensitive than others.
For more information on handling petting-induced aggression or any other type of aggressive behavior in cats, check out the book Starting from Scratch.
Pam Johnson-Bennett is a certified cat behavior consultant and owner of Cat Behavior Associates, LLC.