One moment, you’re stroking a sweetly purring cat, and the next you feel fangs or claws digging into the flesh of your palm. What just happened?
It’s a question that certified cat behavior consultant Tabitha Kucera hears a lot, and the answer often boils down to overarousal, also called overstimulation. In your cat’s view, the petting went from being pleasant to simply too much.
“I see a lot of overarousal when it comes to people petting cats,” Kucera says. She adds that “most cats are actually not really big fans of the very long stroke that we like to do. … It’s weird to them.”
The first thing Kucera teaches her human clients is how to read feline body language. By understanding the cues, Kucera says, you can determine whether your cat prefers long, slow strokes, shorter scratches or something in between, and where she likes to be petted (chin, head and neck are often favorite spots, while chest and belly are typically no-go zones). Warning signs that your cat’s had enough include a turn of the head to look at your hand, ears pricked forward, a swishing tail or the subtle bristling of hairs along the shoulders or back. Your cat is telling you, “I’m really worked up,” Kucera says, and it’s time to stop petting before kitty resorts to a more drastic way of conveying the message. (If you miss the cue and your cat lashes out, stay still for a moment and then slowly remove your hand. Don’t use punishment, which will only “escalate everyone’s anxiety,” Kucera says.)
How much petting is too much varies among cats. For a 2-year-old orange tabby named Heathcliff, the threshold from contented lap kitty to overstimulated ninja-cat was low. “He was like, ‘Oh, you gave me two pets; now I’m going to attack your hand because I’m so excited,’ ” says his owner, Liz Waynick, a veterinary technician in Ohio.
Cats can become overstimulated by a variety of positive or negative experiences, Kucera says, and in Heathcliff’s case, those included petting, the sights and sounds of other animals, and his owner returning home at the end of the day. “Something would set him off, and he would be tornadoing around the apartment, and I couldn’t really get him to calm down,” Waynick says.
Sensing this was more than normal young animal exuberance, Waynick turned to Kucera, who recommended calming supplements, a logbook to track triggers, and a training and enrichment plan to help relieve Heathcliff’s pent-up energy.
Now if Heathcliff attacks her feet or hands, Waynick redirects him with a wand toy or a stuffed animal he can grab and kick. Through clicker training, Heathcliff learned to touch his nose to Waynick’s index finger on command, which she says is “a good way for me to get him from point A to point B if I want him to calm down.”
Heathcliff may never be a mellow cat. If he sees a bird outside the window, “he’ll still get really excited,” Waynick says. But he and his owner are better able to manage his arousal level, and his petting-induced aggression has become less frequent. “Part of that is I’m just better at reading him,” Waynick says, “so I know when to stop.”
Marissa Russo is a former editorial intern for the Humane Society of the United States.