Overstimulation through petting is perhaps the most common cause of cat guardians and relatives being scratched or bitten by the family cat. This is innocent biting by the cat and it is not done maliciously or with intent to harm (although it can harm).
It is a response to what the cat regards as heavy-handed play by the cat’s owner. The owner does not intend it to be play but that is what it can feel like to a cat. Therefore the feline response is play and feline play is always biting because for domestic cats play is play-hunting.
Normally, cat owners know the threshold beyond which their cat is overstimulated and a potential danger. Each cat has their own threshold and preferences with respect to petting.
It is not always petting a cat which can cause overstimulation. It is up to the owner to understand their cat through observation as to the mix of actions and events which can lead to their cat to becoming overstimulated.
Jackson Galaxy in his book, Total Cat Mojo sets out his signs that your cat might be overstimulated. These are:
[Note: Personally, I think these are not that accurate. I hate to say that. I think Jackson’s co-author introduced these signs. They don’t seem to be applicable to petting too much or too hard. They are presented here nonetheless].
- Dilated pupils. Comment: I have to say that I do not use this tell-tale sign that my cat is overstimulated. I am not sure that I have ever noticed it and it might be quite hard to decide whether your cat has dilated pupils or not. It is worth looking for though.
- Piloerection (this is when the hairs of a cat stand on end). Comment: most of us are aware of this. We normally see it when our cat is in a stand-off with another cat over territory and a potential flight is about to start but which is normally avoided. This would have to be at a very advanced state of overstimulation in my opinion.
- Ears back. Comment: once again this is happens when a cat is about to fight with another cat. The ears are being protected. Once again if a cat did this because of petting the the owner would have to be overdoing it big time.
- Quick head turns. Comment: this is not a bad tell-tale sign of overstimulation. It’s a sign that the cat cat is becoming agitated.
- Affection by your cat through various behaviours such as licking and rubbing which become too exuberant.
- Tail swishing. Comment: tail swishing certainly is a sign that a cat is somewhat agitated. It is a sign that the cat is undecided as to what to do next and therefore might happen before the moment arises when your cat is overstimulated and bites or swipes.
- “Back lightning”. Comment: this is a phrase used by Jackson Galaxy to mean the skin rippling that you see down a domestic cat’s back when he or she is slightly disturbed or upset. Jackson Galaxy also sees it as a sign that a domestic cat is overstimulated. I normally see it when my cat is a bit fed up or unhappy with something.
Cat guardians should learn through trial and error and through observation about how far they can go when petting their cat. The guiding principle is gentleness and not to overdo it which basically means to pet less than one wants if in doubt. In my view humans can tend to be a little bit too heavy handed with domestic cats and overdo petting.
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