Find out what’s going on when your favorite feline gives you an out-of-nowhere bite.

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You're petting your cat and she's making a bliss face, clearly loving it. Suddenly, she grabs your hand in her mouth. What just happened?

Cats have proximity issues, and they can get overstimulated fairly quickly. If you have a cat who swats and bites during friendly petting, you already know this. One minute she's asking to be petted and the next minute she's telling you to stop—now! This sudden switch is often the result of conflicting emotions. Many cats both love and hate to be touched. And which side of that conflict wins can change from moment to moment. 

tabby biting hand
Credit: isavira / Adobe Stock

Cats know this about other cats, so they limit their friendly physical contact. Cat comrades might sleep side by side and even intertwine their tails. But there's no active touching in this kind of closeness; it's all about being near each other without too much stimulation. 

Friendly cats may touch noses or foreheads for about five to 10 seconds. They might rub against each other for about 10 to 20 seconds. They may lick each other on the face and head. But when licking goes beyond about 30 seconds—it can turn into a tussle. Even between cats, a little petting goes a long way. 

The Right Way to Pet Your Cat

We can pet our cats the feline way by sticking to the head and neck, keeping the petting sessions short, and enjoying the contact that comes from being close without active touching. 

Of course, there are cats who love to be petted forever, cats who can tolerate about five seconds of petting, and cats who fall somewhere in between. It's all about personal preferences. And honestly—people are like that, too! Some of us are very touchy-feely, some might be more hands-off, and countless others tend to fall somewhere in the middle. 

When I am cuddling my husband and start to feel a little uncomfortable, I say, "Honey, I've had enough," and we stop. What would happen if he held me down and made me continue cuddling? Would I trust him? Would I want to cuddle with him again?

How to Understand Your Cat's Signals

Our cats have their own ways of saying, "I've had enough," or "Don't touch me there." Sometimes they just move away. Sometimes it's more subtle, like a whisper.  

Some feline versions of "I've had enough" look or sound like this:

  • She may vocalize (other than purring).
  • Her ears may go back, sideways, or flat.
  • She may start to flick or lash her tail.
  • Her skin may twitch.
  • Her pupils may dilate or look like slits.
  • Her claws may come out.
  • Her whiskers may come forward.
  • Her legs or shoulders may become stiff. 
  • She may look at your hand.
  • She may raise her paw.

If you don't heed these whispers, your cat has to shout—with a hiss, swat, or bite

To learn your cat's signal for I've had enough, pet her gently only when you can look right at her—not when you're watching TV or talking on the phone. Watch for even the slightest change in your cat. As soon as you see it, stop petting. If you're not sure, stop petting anyway.

If you don't stop petting as soon as your cat signals that she's had enough, you give her no choice but to escalate the situation. And then if you get bitten, it's not the cat's fault—she tried to warn you.

Remember to Respect Your Cat's Preferences

What should you do if you can't figure out what your cat's body language is saying about her boundaries? Earn her trust. Just pet the cat twice and take your hands away. If she decides to stay next to you, wait a few minutes and then pet her twice again. Leave her wanting more. When she sees that you're not going to overload her, she'll relax and you can gradually work up to a few more strokes. 

When you learn your cat's personal preferences and respect them, something very wonderful happens: She starts to allow more petting. She knows you will stop as soon as she asks, so she feels less ambivalent about it. She knows she doesn't have to resort to biting to get her point across, that you will honor smaller, more subtle signals. And that teaches her that you are a trustworthy person. 

It's important to remember that companion animals have a right to decide when they want to be touched, where they want to be touched, and how long they want to be touched. Our cats want to be assured that we will respect their boundaries. When we do, there's no need for biting.