Let me set the scene. You're sitting on the couch, watching your favorite TV show. Your cat is curled up in your lap and you're lovingly petting him. At the end of a long day, this is the perfect way for you to relax. Suddenly, like a bolt of lightning, your cat whips his head around and sinks his teeth into your hand hard enough to draw blood. Then he leaps from your lap and sits on the floor a few feet away, grooming himself as you stare in disbelief at your injured hand and wonder what the heck just happened. The behavior display is called petting-induced aggression, and although you may think the attack came out of nowhere, or that your kitty became momentarily possessed, in reality he probably did give you warning signs before the attack.
Some cats initially enjoy being petted but then reach a definite tolerance threshold. The cause of this type of aggression may be overstimulation or temporary contact confusion as the cat gets drowsy. When the cat gets sleepy and then feels something coming in contact with his body, his survival instinct may take over and he might bite or scratch in defense. Petting-induced aggression may be part of a dominance issue as well. Some cats are very particular about where on their body they are petted. Some may not like being stroked down the back, along the sides or near the tail.
Although you may think this behavior is unprovoked, the cat will give you body language signals and sometimes vocalizations as well. Warning signs may include skin rippling, tail lashing or thumping, shifting body position, tense posture, rotated back ears, low growling or cessation of purring. The cat's whiskers may also rotate forward and fan out before the attack. From the cat's point of view, he is giving plenty of notice that he's no longer enjoying being petted. When he feels he has no choice, that's when he bites.
• Treatment plan
Reprinted from Cat vs. Cat: Keeping Peace When You Have More Than One Cat by Pam Johnson-Bennett © 2004. Permission granted by Penguin Putnam.