Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:
We just adopted a 9-month-old cat four days ago. She has been quiet and hiding, but yesterday she started to come out and explore a bit more. Today my son held her and she seemed very happy being held in his lap and was purring and drooling. At one point during this petting she licked his face and then bit him. Afterwards, she ran and hid under the bed. We left her there for six hours, and we did not scold her. I just went under the bed and petted her and she began purring, so I scooped her up and brought her on the bed with my son and me. Once again, she was purring and rubbing her head under my chin and seemed happy. We did this for two minutes and then she bit my face. Not hard, but enough to leave a swollen scratch. My son is now afraid of her, and I am wondering if this is a normal behavior. My guess is I should have just left her under the bed and let her come out on her own, but it seemed like she really wanted to be petted. She is now walking around the house and does not seem irritated. This is our first pet, and I want to be sure we give her confidence and a home where she feels safe and loved — and our faces remain unbitten!
Siouxsie: First of all, Melissa, congratulations on your new family member. And yes, we definitely can help you figure out why your kitty is doing this and what you can do to prevent it.
Thomas: It sounds like you may be dealing with what experts refer to as petting-induced aggression.
Dahlia: What this means is that your cat loves your attention, but at a certain point she becomes overstimulated and feels forced to do something to stop your petting.
Siouxsie: Usually a cat gives signs that the affection you’re giving her is getting to be more than she can tolerate. But these indications are subtle, and it’t not surprising that as a first-time pet caretaker you wouldn’t quite know them.
Thomas: We cats communicate primarily through body language rather than vocalizing, and here are some clues that your kitty is getting overstimulated. First of all, her tail might start thumping, twitching, or lashing back and forth. (A “wagging” tail is not a sign of happiness in cats.)
Dahlia: Her skin might twitch a little bit, or she might start shifting her body position because she’s getting uncomfortable.
Siouxsie: She may look back at you several times, as if to say “Why aren’t you getting it? This is too much for me!”
Thomas: If your cat shows any of these signs, stop petting her right away and don’t hold onto her.
Dahlia: Holding a cat when they’re ready to leave can also trigger an aggressive response. Cats don’t like to be cornered, and if your cat starts squirming or tensing her body while you’re holding her, let her go.
Siouxsie: Once you’ve learned the signs of overstimulation, you can stop petting her before she starts getting uncomfortable. It’s better to leave your cat wanting more than it is to leave her feeling frustrated because she couldn’t make herself understood.
Thomas: Many cats have places they prefer to be petted and places that are totally off-limits. For example, most cats will tolerate gentle rubs around the head and shoulders but will have a hard time with strokes down the back.
Dahlia: The middle and lower back by the base of the tail are very sensitive spots, particularly for cats that become easily overstimulated.
Siouxsie: Most cats don’t like having their tummies rubbed, either. That’s a very vulnerable spot, and a belly-rub will send your cat into an instinctive defense response involving claws and teeth.
Thomas: So our advice for petting is to stroke her head and shoulders, give her gentle rubs under her chin, and be very aware of her body language and the signs that she’s reached the limits of her tolerance.
Dahlia: On a vaguely related note, be sure to spend time playing with your cat. A couple of 10- to 15-minute rounds of interactive play will help your kitty get her aggressive instincts out. Play is particularly important since she’s an “only cat.”
Siouxsie: We recommend toys like the Play-N-Squeak Mouse, the Kittenator, or Da Bird, because you can make them act like mice or birds and your kitty can get exercise with her claws and teeth — without causing you injury. Never play with a cat using your hand or fingers because that will give her the idea that clawing and biting your hand is OK.
Thomas: Finally, you might want to get some books on cat behavior so you can get a better understanding of your cat and see what you can do to reinforce good behavior, help her through her fear in her new home, and correct any behavior problems she already has. The best book we’ve read on this subject is Think Like a Cat by Pam Johnson-Bennett.
Dahlia: You’ll also want to make sure you find a good vet for your new cat and take her for regular checkups. Cats age much faster than humans, and annual vet visits can help keep your cat healthy and detect problems before they become severe.
Siouxsie: Speaking of annual vet visits and cat raising tips, we’d recommend that you read the articles in the Kittens section of Catster.com to learn more about your cat’s development and how best to care for her. (In the interest of full disclosure, Mama wrote all the articles in that section. But we helped.)