Petting–biting syndrome

Cat behavior problems: Why does the cat bite a second after being petted?

Orli Zacai – Chinese Medicine for Animals and Consultation for Cat behavioral

Many cat owners recognize this situation all too well: their cat enjoys being petted on its head or back, but the minute that they touch its stomach or its paws, the cat growls or scratches their hand. Some of the cats even use their back paws to try to distance their owners. Right afterwards, in a second, the cat runs away a short distance and sometimes just stands their and looks at its owner with its ears back, and with an uncertain expression on its face about the next step to take. In general, following this, the cat sits down and cleans itself enthusiastically, an activity that is usually an expression of stress or confusion or the desire to rid itself of the odor remaining from the owner’s petting hands.

Is this normal or not?
Aggressive behavior in cats can be divided into two principal types: normal behavior (a reaction that is essential in specific situations) or abnormal behavior (an exaggerated response). Most cat owners believe that aggressive behavior in their cat is abnormal, and since the normative behavior is often mixed with a scratch or a bite, they have no patience for this type of behavior.
The larger problem is not the scratch itself, but the disappointment or the surprise of the owner when they see their cat go from such a very relaxed state of being petted and comfortable to a state of aggression. The fear people have of being scratched or bitten, and their lack of understanding of this intelligent animal causes many to withdraw from the cat, and abandoning the cat is unfortunately but a short
step away.

Relaxed and calm or aggressive?
Through the years, during domestication, housecats forgot or lost some of the reasons to attack. In spite of this, aggressive behavior still exists, primarily among non-castrated cats or cats that are in situations where their physical and emotional needs are not being met.
Most cats love to curl up and be petted, and they generally purr with enjoyment, since this generally reminds them of the time they had been little kittens being cared for by their mothers.
Adult cats have very well developed instincts for survival, and in some situations, if they allowed themselves to be too relaxed, they might feel vulnerable. The minute that they feel there is a potential to be hurt, they are likely to attack or simply to run away from the situation.
The common situation that is described at the beginning of this article is one of the examples of aggressiveness in cats, and it received the name: the Petting–biting syndrome.
Cats that are used to being petted and the feel of your hands, will react aggressively less frequently, that is to say, it will take them more time before they attack than it takes with cats unused to petting. However, the latter cats could go from a relaxed state to aggressiveness even if they are only being approached or from an attempt at petting.

So what do we do?
In order to deal with the problem we must attempt not to get to this border between calm and stress. If your cat gets to this point relatively quickly, learn to pet it each time only a little. In this situation it is advisable not to pick it up, and thus to avoid an additional scratch to yourself. Little by little the cat will become accustomed to you, and you will be able to pet it for longer periods of time.
Furthermore, it is always worthwhile to pay attention to the cat’s body language. The cats will provide us with signs in order to warn us, and all that we have to do is to be aware of their body language and learn to read the preliminary signs. Cessation of purring or violent waving of the tail from side to side, are examples of preliminary signs, after which you should discontinue petting the cat.
If your cat continues to attack, and you are unable to find the reason and to change the situation, it is advisable to turn to a cat behavior specialist.