Cats - Overstimulation

August 2019

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

Does your cat behave aggressively when you pet or handle them? Overstimulation refers to a cat's normal response to being touched in areas or ways the cat finds uncomfortable, or that have gone on for too long. Many cats exhibit overstimulation or petting-induced aggression. Cats vary enormously as to the extent and duration to which they like petting or handling. They also vary greatly in the number and intensity of warning signals they will give before reacting aggressively toward their handler.

Overstimulation also may happen when play behavior escalates to aggression. This often happens when humans play in inappropriate ways with cat such as rough petting, or playing chase games with their hands.

It is important to follow guidelines for a healthy way to pet and play 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. Cats will tell you if they are enjoying it or getting irritated. Even if you feel okay with the level of aggression, they are stressed and are trying to communicate that. Ignoring the warnings reinforces biting behavior and will 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. (Also see presentation 'Feline Communication: How to Speak Cat')
  • Observe your cat for signs of overstimulation and impending aggression. Common signals to look for include: tail swishing, skin twitching over the back, flattening of the ears, tenseness, dilated pupils, low growl, 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 from the cat. If your cat is on your lap, stand up slowly and let them 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.
  • Punishment is not the way to address this behavior problem. Never yell at or hit as this will not help. It will only make your cat fear you or become even more aggressive.

This document created by the San Francisco SPCA with a grant from Maddie's Fund®.

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