Q: My 10-year-old neutered cat Zeke likes to sit on my lap and lie on my chest. He purrs while I stroke him around the neck and head, but then sometimes, all of a sudden, he will bite me for no reason at all. He doesn’t break the skin but it hurts. Why is he doing this and how can I get him to stop?
A: Zeke’s behavior of responding to your extended stroking by biting is commonly called petting-induced aggression. Petting-induced aggression typically occurs when an area being petted becomes sensitive or when the cat is annoyed by the stroking. Some cats also respond by biting if they are startled awake while they are being stroked. You might be repeatedly petting the same areas and what originally started out as feeling good has become too intense for Zeke.
Zeke is resorting to biting only after you haven’t responded to his other communication signals. In Zeke’s world, he is broadcasting his desire to not be stroked loud and clear. Because you didn’t respond to his more benign signals he felt the need to escalate his communication to a bite. Even though Zeke is communicating through biting, he is showing very good bite inhibition by not breaking your skin. You can avoid the biting by watching his body language. Zeke might look at your hand before biting. Additionally, you should be able to detect tenseness while petting him. Some cats will start to shift their weight or try to move away from the loving hand. Zeke’s ears may indicate annoyance by rotating and he might start swishing his tail.
Whenever you notice Zeke starting to communicate that he’s had enough petting, stop petting him for awhile. When you do start stroking him, only stroke him a few times in different areas, than stop and wait a few minutes. Next time stroke him a little longer, varying the stroke and the location. Don’t continue to pet him if he doesn’t want to be touched. He may be content just to lie in your lap and on your chest and purr.