Mean Kitty! Petting and Biting Syndrome

Does your cat allow only a certain number of strokes before turning and nipping your hand? If so, you’re in good company. Many cats, of all genders, ages, breeds, sizes, and personality types, have the clearly defined behavioral pattern known as “petting and biting syndrome.” Most of these cats allow the same number of strokes during each petting session before biting, but others vary the number of strokes permitted.

The Problem

Cats with petting and biting syndrome become progressively more alert and aroused when stroked, culminating in a bite to the owner’s hand or arm. While this behavior in a small kitten may seem cute, adult cats that bite suddenly during a petting session are in serious danger of losing their homes or being euthanized due to this dangerous habit. Cat bites often become infected, and a person or animal who suffers a serious cat bite will always need medical attention to prevent complications. A cat that bites when petted isn’t safe around children, visitors, or, often, her own family.


Never encourage a kitten to bite or scratch your hands and arms during play. Instead, buy a variety of soft toys, and immediately substitute a toy for your body every time the kitten nips or bats you. Teach your kitten that playful bites and scratches are meant for toys, and human hands are for petting and cuddling.

In addition, teach the whole family to respect your cat’s warning signals. Cats with petting and biting syndrome often begin biting only after frequently warning a human that they are tired of receiving attention, only to be ignored and harrassed. Whiskers rotating forward, dilated eyes, or ears pinned tightly against the head, are red-alert warnings that come just before a bite. Teach yourself and your family to avoid this situation by ceasing attention when earlier warning signs appear, like a twitching tail or stiff muscles. If your cat is confident that you will listen when he says, “I don’t want any more petting,” he’ll never feel that he needs to bite to get the point across.

If You’ve Already Got a Petting and Biting Syndrome Cat

As with all problems of aggression, petting and biting syndrome is grounds for an immediate call to an animal behaviorist. The cost of a professional behaviorist is trivial by comparison to medical bills for a severe bite, or to the emotional cost of euthanizing a beloved pet because it poses a danger to your family. If a certified applied animal behaviorist isn’t available in your area, consult your veterinarian for a referral to a professional who deals with behavior problems in cats.

Your vet may also prescribe a mild tranquilizer to help your cat remain calm in the short term. However, in the long term, behavior modification means more than a pill or shot. You will need to progressively desensitize your cat to stroking, while convincing her that her warning signals will be heeded. Under the guidance of an animal behaviorist, observe your cat’s signs of arousal and agitation, and stop petting just before a bite would occur. This will help encourage your cat to use body language, not biting, to get her point across.

If the biting kitty isn’t already spayed or neutered, consider having him or her altered to aid in behavioral rehabilitation. Sex hormones only complicate problems of aggression in cats. A queen in heat or a tom on the prowl for potential partners is far more likely to be short-tempered with humans than a desexed cat.

In the long term, a cat that has bitten humans in the past should be managed with care and attention to her stress levels. Some owners find pheromone treatments like Feliway useful. For other owners, simply attending to the cat’s needs promptly and taking care not to make major changes in the cat’s routine suddenly is enough. If you have multiple cats and there is tension between the household kitties, ask your behaviorist for help with that issue as well. Cats engaged in dominance disputes with one another may drag unwitting humans into the squabble, often with painful results for the human.


If you’re willing to make changes in its lifestyle and take extra care to observe its warning signals, a cat with a history of petting and biting syndrome can be a fine pet. Some cats will become calmer with age, but others become even more touchy as arthritis and other age-related pains creep up. The most important part of behavioral rehabilitation is you, the owner. Your committment to changing a problematic behavior means the difference between a loving relationship with your cat and an antagonistic one.

On Adopting Cats with Petting and Biting Syndrome

Many cats with this behavior problem are available for adoption in shelters, for obvious reasons. Not all families are committed enough to their pets to complete behavioral rehabilitation for an aggression problem, and for some families, such as those with small children, a low-stress environment is impossible to create for the family cat.

If you’re considering adopting a cat with a known history of biting when stroked, be prepared to involve a professional as soon as the cat has had a few days to adjust to its new territory. You may be able to use the confusion of rehoming to your advantage by establishing new behavior patterns in the new environment. Even if that’s not a possibility, you can stack the deck in your favor (and your cat’s favor) by treating the problem behavior before it has become a major obstacle to a harmonious relationship with the new adoptee.

If you’re planning to have children in the very near future, have children crawling or toddling who aren’t used to respecting cats’ space and privacy, or if you can’t see yourself supporting a biting cat for the rest of its life, don’t adopt a cat with this particular issue. Not all cats will completely abandon their biting habits even with treatment, and an unpredictable cat around rambunctious children is a danger. There are many cats needing homes. If your household isn’t suited for a cat in need of behavioral therapy, choose a cat who’s well-adjusted and a better match for your family.

However, if you are able to take a cat with problem behaviors into your home and family, you’ll have saved a life and embarked on a journey that often leads to a closer relationship with your pet in the end. Many people who have successfully rehabilitated pets with problem behaviors feel that they developed a closer bond than they would have had with a “normal” pet.

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