When your cat jumps into your lap, purring contentedly and rubbing her head against your hand, you naturally assume she is in the mood for being petted. But then BOOM - out of nowhere – it’s like someone has flicked a switch. In a matter of seconds your sweet natured cat morphs into a seething ball of rage. And if you don’t pick up on the very subtle warning signs quickly enough, you will find to your cost that the hand stroking your cat is the hand she bites!
So just why does this happen?
The first thing to understand is that a high percentage of cats do not actually like being picked up and/or stroked repeatedly. In fact some cats do not like being petted at all. Whilst they might be quite happy to sit and fall asleep on your lap, they may not necessarily want you to stroke them.
Cats are very sensitive creatures and if the stroking becomes too fast and furious they can easily become over stimulated. When this happens the feelings of affection suddenly turn to feelings of aggression. The cat then instinctively feels the need to defend itself and responds by biting/scratching.
Being the territorial creatures that they are, sometimes a cat will sit down on her owner’s knee if there is a visitor in the house. This doesn't necessarily mean she is in need of fuss and attention, all she is in effect doing is saying “hands off – she’s mine!”
What are the warning signs that a cat is about to bite you?
Because my own cat Cleopatra is one who has been known to “turn” on me whilst she is sat on my knee being stroked, I have learnt how to spot the tell tale signs that an attack is imminent. The first give away is when she stops sitting perfectly still and starts to fidget and become generally agitated. Sometimes I notice her fur ripples whilst I am stroking her too. This is the point when I know it is time for the petting to stop.
Once the stroking stops she either settles down again quite happily on my knee or she jumps down and walks away.
If you continue to stroke a cat after she has shown obvious signs of becoming agitated, her tail will start to swish meaningfully from side to side, then she will more than likely slowly turn her head towards your hand, with pupils dilated and in a matter of seconds you will be wincing with pain as her teeth sink into your hand.
Why do cats carry on purring whilst they bite you?
Knowing what independent, head-strong creatures cats are it always puzzles me as to why my cat does not simply jump down and move away as soon as she starts to resent the petting. Cats are, after all, very quick to let you know when they don’t want you to stroke them, or even come near them whilst they are sat quietly on their own somewhere. But for some reason it doesn't work like that whilst the cat is sat (voluntarily) on your knee. For as long as you keep on stroking her, your cat will continue sitting there purring, irrespective of the fact that she has in actual fact started to feel very trapped and aggressive. The only way I can describe it is that it’s like a crossover from the cat feeling relaxed and contented to her feeling over stimulated and aggressive by you petting her. And when she attacks you she hasn't completely switched off from feeling contented.
How can you tell if your cat wants to be petted?
If you are like me and you own a cat that is prone to biting whilst being stroked, there is an easy way to test the water if your cat decides to jump up on to your knee. Once she has made herself comfortable, try stroking her very gently once or twice with your finger tips on the top of her head to see how she reacts. If she instantly starts to stiffen and become agitated you can take it that she just wanted to be close to you (and share your body heat!) but does not want petting.
Should you scold your cat if she bites you?
Tempting as it is to scold your cat if she randomly attacks you in this way, I know from experience this will only exacerbate the situation. The best course of action if you are unfortunate enough not to detect the warning signs of an attack early enough is to simply put some distance between you until you have both calmed down.
If it is out of character for your cat to suddenly bite you when you are stroking her, it may be that there is an underlying problem which you need to investigate further. Perhaps she has been injured during a fight - or developed some kind of painful internal condition that requires attention.
Some cat owners take it as a snub if their cat repeatedly shies away from any form of petting. But no offence is intended. Cats have many different ways of showing their love for their owners, such as following them around, sleeping on the bed next to them, or simply just being in the same room. Your cat will have her own way of showing you how much she cares about you, but it just may be that it doesn’t involve having constant close physical contact.