Cat - Aggression when Touched or Petted

August 2019

Audience: Foster Caregivers, Public, Shelter/Rescue Staff & Volunteers

Aggression is a common behavioral issue in cats and a symptom of an underlying problem. It always needs to be taken seriously. Aggressive behavior can be seen in cats of any breed, size, age, or gender. When cats display aggression when touched or petted, it can stem from many different motivations. The most common include: Fear/defense: A fearful cat may exhibit dilated pupils, ears turning back, or a twitching tail. In this situation, your cat may growl, hiss or swat at the person reaching, touching or petting.

Pain/discomfort: A painful cat may be uncomfortable when touched in certain areas of their body and respond aggressively.

Overstimulation: Aggression can occur as a normal response to being petted or handled in areas or ways your cat finds uncomfortable. It could also happen when the petting or handling have gone on for too long. Some cats exhibit overstimulation which leads to petting-induced aggression. Cats vary enormously as to the extent to which they like petting or handling, and for how long they will tolerate it. They also vary greatly in the number and intensity of warning signals they will give before reacting aggressively toward their handler.

Even mild forms of aggression, when not properly addressed, can evolve into serious aggression. This is why it's important to assess and tackle any change in your cat's behavior right away and consult with a professional.

It is important to follow guidelines for a healthy way to pet with cats. Here are the key points for petting:

  • Keep your petting sessions short. If you know your cat doesn't like to be petted a certain way or in a particular area, avoid doing so. Your cat will tell you if they are enjoying it or are getting irritated. Even if you feel okay with the level of aggression, your cat is telling you that they are stressed. Ignoring their warnings reinforces biting behavior and may increase aggressive incidents and/or intensity in the future.
  • Only pet your cat in the areas they truly enjoy. Most cats like to rub their faces or bodies on an offered hand, but do not appreciate long strokes over their bodies. It is important to know your cat. If they get aggressive when petting the tail base, stay around the head for petting.
  • Observe your cat for signs of impending aggression. Common signals to look for include tail swishing, skin twitching over the back, flattening of the ears, tenseness, dilated pupils, low growl, or walking away and lying down.
  • Stop petting at the first sign of any of these early warning signals. You can do this by calmly dropping your hands to your sides. If your cat is very agitated, walk away. If they are on your lap, stand up slowly and let your cat gently slide off.
  • Wait some time before attempting to pet again. Some cats only take a few minutes to settle down, while others can take several hours.
  • Do not punish your cat for this behavior problem. Never yell at or hit your cats as this will not help and will only make your cat fear you or become even more aggressive. Instead, consult with a professional.

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