Most cats enjoy human interaction especially if it involves petting. As the saying goes, ‘Cats are connoisseurs of pleasure.’ Most love a good head rub, especially when the sides of the face by the whiskers are stroked. Unfortunately, petting may stimulate some cats to bite. The most common history I hear is that the cat was lying next to or on their owner. The owner was scratching their chin, face and/or back when suddenly, the cat bit the owner and ran away. Most of the time, the cat will inhibit their bite which means only use light pressure but I have seen a few deep wounds during my career.
Petting-related aggression is a clinical syndrome in cats that is poorly understood. The cause is thought to be pain or exceeding the cat’s tolerance for attention. Cats with back pain from arthritis or disc disease will often cry and twitch when their backs are stroked. If the petting continues, they may bite to stop the pain. There is also a condition called feline hyperesthesia syndrome that causes a normally sweet cat to suddenly bite. Cats with this syndrome seem to experience episodes of extreme pain that cause some to lash out at anyone around them. Petting the lower back can cause an episode but I have also seen cats trigger without any stimulation.
Overstimulation is the other cause of petting-related aggression. Some cats seem to have a low threshold or tolerance for human interaction. Some behaviorists speculate that there is an internal conflict occurring between the adult and juvenile response to human attention because many of these cats will solicit attention. They will purr and head butt but then bite when touched.
Treatment starts with keeping the humans safe. I recommend using some sort of inanimate object to stroke the cat like a wand or towel. Watch the cat closely for signs of overstimulated. Look for dilated pupils, flicking the tail, flattened ears or raised hair along the back. If observed, stop touching the cat immediately and slowly back away. If the cat is on your lap, slowly stand up allowing the cat to jump off without injury.
Once the warning signs are known, slowly build the cat’s tolerance to human interaction by rewarding it for good behavior. When the cat is hungry, offer small bits of their favorite treat. Once the cat is comfortable taking the treats, start petting them. Pet once then give a treat. Gradually increase the cat’s tolerance to more petting between treats. Remember to stop immediately if any signs of over- stimulation occur. Hopefully, the cat will learn to control their stimulation to get more treats. Keep the sessions short and vary the food reward for maximum effectiveness.
-Horwitz, Debra. ‘Feline Aggression toward People’, Australian Veterinary Association Proceedings 2012, VIN.com.