Q: I am new to watching a cat for a friend. My new cat friend is a very loving 6-month-old female rescue who sits on my lap and sleeps near me on my bed. However, as loving as she is most of the time, she will sometimes wrap her paws around my lower arm and bite. Sometimes it is a gentle bite and sometimes it’s hard enough to hurt! The biting happens while she is in my lap, purring contentedly and I am petting her.
I am inclined to think this is a loving gesture, except it hurts. Does she want to hurt me? Why is she biting and what can I do to stop it?
A: Your little cat friend is not being affectionate when she bites you. She is telling you to stop petting her! The type of aggression you are describing is called petting-induced aggression. This occurs when the petting and stroking become too intense for the cat. She may have sensitive areas, or the strokes are repetitive and annoy her. Or, she might be falling asleep and your petting her is startling her awake.
Cats usually will give warnings before biting. The exception happens when they are startled. The warnings are broadcast through body language and vocalizations. It’s up to us to be able to recognize and respond appropriately to the signals. Watch for these pre-bite warning communicators: looking back at your hand, tail thrashing, ears back, skin and fur rippling, tenseness, whiskers flattening against her face and, of course, vocalizing. As soon as you see any of these signals, immediately stop petting her.
You can help her tolerate and with time, possibly grow to enjoy longer petting sessions through desensitization. If you know she tolerates five strokes before biting, then gently stroke her only two times on areas that are not sensitive and then stop. Reward her with praise and a small treat. Wait a few minutes and then pet again, this time extending the petting time by one short stroke. Be very aware of her body language. At the first sign of anxiety or stress, immediately stop petting her and don’t reward her. Have another session after she’s calmed down and is showing no signs of anxiety or stress, but this time start at a lower number of strokes and for less time. Gradually, extend the petting time and vary the strokes, always rewarding her when she is responding favorably to the petting. Every cat and situation is different. Some become more accepting of the petting experience within a few days, others take weeks and sometimes months.