Have you ever been petting your cat and then suddenly you find them sinking their teeth or claws into your hand? If the answer to this is "YES", then we're here to help you better understand why this might be happening and give you some tips to AVOID it from happening to you. When petting your cat, it's important to know that each stroke is sending little messages to your cat's millions of touch receptors. With each stroke, your cat's level of stimulation or "sensory overload" continues to rise to the point where petting might become uncomfortable. Petting discomfort is even more present in cats with:
Spine / Back issues
Hyperesthesia ( skin rolling disease)
Dental pain, abscess
It is important that petting preferences are a real thing, and some cats even prefer not to have any contact with us. Most casts prefer short strokes on the back of their head or under their chin and dislike touch to their stomach, base of tail, and feet. And while this has been the most common preferences amongst cats, there are some who certainly have surprised us with what they "like". Some owners might share, "my cat allows me to touch him wherever, and doesn't do anything when I touch his feet or stomach." - but what we must consider is the context of this statement. Just because your cat doesnt scratch or bite during petting, it doesn't mean your cat "likes, wants, prefers, tolerates or is OK with that form of petting." It may simply mean you are missing other key pieces of communication that signify that your cat really doesn't like that form of touch. Cats usually begin to communicate with us in other ways like using their body language or by vocalizing - but often if you don't know what to look for, then you may not recognize the very important cues to look for such as:
Ears to the side, down or back
Tail flicking or whipping
Fur erect on back, base of tail
Eyes wide, dilated or focused
Vocalizing such as a meow, whine, growl, hiss, spit
Nails extended, possibly gripping onto the surface
Putting paws up with or without nails
Quick head turns towards your hand
Now when looking at these all together, the image of this cat is likely one that is clearly uncomfortable right? Understand that each of these is key communication from your cat in an effort to say "Please stop, I am overstimulated or uncomfortable". When you don't understand or disregard your cat's communication, this is when your cat might escalate they way they speak in an effort to get their message across to you. So how do we avoid reaching the point of nails and teeth communication?
Be in tune with your cat's body language. Watch every part of their body so that you can understand what they are communicating with you. Especially pay attention to your cat's eyes, ears, and tail!
Don't pet your cat in high stimulation moments when they may already be excited or agitated such as during play or between engagements with another pet.
Know where your cat likes to be petted. Again, "likes" - not "tolerates".
Keep it short! Give a few pets and then stop so your cat isn't over stimulated.
Offer different forms of interaction and care for you cat such as playtime and enrichment. Your cat will LOVE you for it!
Do not force petting! Force petting can cause your cat to avoid interactions with you and can increase the likelihood of these behaviors occurring.
Tell friends and family your cat's petting preferences and ensure they understand your cat's DO's and DONT'S.
Make sure your cat has spaces they can go that are "no touch" zones. Just like we as humans can walk away to take a mental minute, your cat's need that personal space as well.
If it happens that your cat uses their nails or teeth to communicate with you during petting, stop your movements immediately. Once your cat has stopped, remove yourself from the situation so your cat has time to decompress. AVOID YELLING, PUSHING OFF OR MOVING YOUR CAT, AS IT CAN INCREASE THE INTENSITY OF THEIR BEHAVIORS IN THE MOMENT. If you are really trying to learn about your cat's petting preferences and communication - record yourself petting your cat and watch it back after to see if you pick up on communication you might have missed initially. Use what you have learned and apply it the next time you interact with your cat as a way of showing your cat you understand what they are telling you. Additionally, if you notice your cat is suddenly sensitive on a certain spot on their body, be sure to bring this up to your vet so they can determine if there is an underlying cause. If your cat still is displaying these behaviors even after you've worked on your petting techniques and they have been cleared of any possible pain or sensitivity - your cat might just be a cat that prefers to not be touched. Not all cats want to be petted and even though we mean well by doing so, we need to see it through their eyes. As cat owners, it is essential that we realize these behaviors are just one of many ways our cats communicate. When we learn to speak our cats language, our relationships can develop a greater sense of trust and more love than ever before.