It happens to me and my staff all the time when we’re providing care for our clients’ feline friends. If you have cats, no matter how much they love and adore you, you probably have experienced it yourself: The dreaded “Love-bite.”
Since many of our kitty-cat clients want more than just a spotlessly clean litter box, their cat-grass watered and their breakfast or dinner delivered on time (and kitty says not a minute late, mind you) we always incorporate “socialization” into our pet care. We go the extra mile to scratch, pet, brush or play with our cat clients when their pet-parents can’t be with them (if they aren’t hiding out under the bed). Sometimes that mile is a painful journey.
We sit in the “favorite” chair. Kitty stares imploringly at us at our feet and meows as if to say, “Hey, you have a job to do.” We invite her up into our laps and commence to gently stroking, petting or doing whatever else her pet-parent has told us that Kitty enjoys. Enter the jet-engine purr.
The purr stops abruptly and the next second we’re left yowling in pain and staring with confusion at puncture holes in our hands, arms or both as Kitty launches herself off our laps and stares at us from across the room with what can only be described as disdain. The indignant tail-flick quickly follows.
Yep. Kitty goes from friendly to feral in a nanosecond.
It turns out that there is actually a scientific term for this conundrum – Petting-induced aggression – and after trying to research why we receive those puncture wounds, it turns out that this is not a very well-understood behavior at all.
Experts don’t exactly agree on the reasons why some cats enjoy being petted, but end up biting. They do all agree that when kitty bites at you, it’s a sure sign that she has decided she’s had enough stroking.
Really? Thank you, scientific cat-behavior trailblazer, for the deep insight.
A couple of possibilities have been proposed to explain why cats might react violently when they appear to be perfectly content.
- It may be a manifestation of so-called status-induced aggression, in which cats seek to control a situation. Why can’t they just jump down? It would be too predictable, like dog behavior.
- There may be some neurologically significant negative stimulus associated with being petted at length that affects cats in particular.
- Cats may be especially subtle at letting humans know when they’re unhappy, so that their change in attitude appears more sudden than it truly is. Basically, Kitty thinks we should be able to read her mind and stop before we can actually tell she doesn’t want to be petted anymore.
The good news is that there may be warning signs that your cat is getting ready to bite you:
If Kitty’s tail begins to twitch in a rolling little flick, watch out! You’re about to be chomped.
If Kitty’s ears start turning towards the back of her head, or flatten against her head, puncture wounds are in your very near future.
If Kitty suddenly becomes restless, or stiffens and stares at your hand, take heed. Don’t. Move. A. Muscle.
My scientific analogy of this behavioral pattern – and all cat behaviors – is that cats act this way “because they can.” After all, they’re cats, and most cats think, or rather know, that they rule the world.