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Grabbing the hand that strokes 

Animals exhibit many different types of aggression and cats are no exception. We are happy to accept many forms of aggression as normal behaviour, such as our own cat chasing a strange cat out of the garden or a female cat with kittens pushing away intruders. We even accept cats that scratch or bite us, provided we feel that they have been provoked enough to retaliate! Aggression towards people is not a common problem with cats and even when it does occur, it seldom causes serious injury.

Grabbing the hand that strokes

One of the most common aggression problems is known as “petting and biting syndrome” ie. when you start to stroke your cat, the animal turns round and bites you or attacks your hand. Some cats only attack in this way if their tummy is being tickled but others only need to be stroked on the head before they retaliate.

Think of a cat sitting on your lap and being stroked. The cat has to be relaxed and trusting to be in this position. This is similar to a kitten being groomed by a mother. For some cats this feels just a little too dangerous. They relax and then suddenly feel vulnerable. With conflicting feelings of security and fear, they react with defensive aggression and grab the hand stroking them.

The acceptance of stroking is a learned response rather than natural adult behaviour and some cats may just be more naturally reactive than others. They may calm down as they get older since young cats, like children, are easily excited. Others may have missed out on human attention at that vital time in their social development (before eight weeks old) and find it impossible to accept physical attention.

Sit quietly with your cat at a time when you will not be interrupted and keep everything calm. Keep interaction short and stop before the cat reacts. Try not to provoke a reaction. Stop stroking when you notice twitching or backward-facing ears, dilated pupils or sudden tensing. Reward your cat with food and praise for behaving in a relaxed way. Never punish the cat. This only reinforces the idea that you are a threatening person.

Pent-up energies

Occasionally cats go beyond reactive aggression into proactive aggression, attacking their owners as they walk past. Quite often these problems occur in indoor cats and may be a form of predatory behaviour or redirected aggression.

Cats watch birds or other cats through the window and become excited. However, they have no outlet for this pent-up energy or frustration. If their owner happens to be walking past, the movement triggers them into the hunting or redirected aggression mode and they attack. Owners of such cats may want to try to help them to use up some of this energy and allow them to fulfil their hunting repertoire, especially if they are indoor-only cats.

This can be done by providing new toys and objects to climb and play on. By playing hunting games with toys on the end of string and by teaching the cat to find food around the house rather than just presenting it in a bowl, you will be encouraging your cat’s natural behaviour.

Playing too hard

Many kittens and young cats get overexcited when they are playing and may attack hands and feet. When kittens are small, owners may even encourage this because they find it amusing. However, as the kitten grows stronger with bigger teeth, it can become painful.

If it becomes a problem you need to withdraw any attention as soon as the cat bites so that you are not rewarding the behaviour. Walk away and leave the cat alone. Give attention when the kitten is behaving as you want. If you want to play games, use a fishing rod type toy that allows you to keep your hands and feet at a safe distance from your cat’s teeth and claws.