Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:
I have a 8-month-old kitty. He was a rescue, previously a stray. He’s a black and white boy and his name is Charlie. I am 13 years old and I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety for a long time. My parents decided that a cat might be good for my mental health. August 19, 2017, was national “clear the shelters day,” and every animal was free. After going to three different shelters, I met Charlie. He was curled up in a ball with a sleepy look on his face. The worker said to me, “I don’t suggest trying to pet that one, he rarely moves and isn’t social.” My mom nudged me along to the next one. But I wouldn’t move. I looked at the kitty and put my hand out. After a minute or so, he slowly got up and walked all the way out of the kennel onto the floor. Everyone around me was shocked. I was petting him and I started crying. That was the moment I knew he was the one. It’s now a few months later, and Charlie and I are so very close. He sleeps with me every night. Out of everyone in our household, he only listens and responds to me. I don’t exactly have a super-big problem, just a question. He lets me pet him all the time, but he always get mad and bites me or moves away if I pet him from an odd angle, like if I’m petting his head and I put my hand on the part farthest away from me when my arm is close to his mouth, or if I put him on his back with my arm over his tummy and legs. Is this normal?
Thomas: First of all, Keira, we’d like to thank you for looking past the super-extroverted cats and taking a chance on one of the shy ones. We’re very proud of you for adopting Charlie, and for being so wonderful to him.
Bella: Mama has depression, too, so you’re not alone in dealing with the condition. And we know we’ve certainly helped Mama when she’s been in a bad way. She even says that we’ve saved her life on more than one occasion.
Tara: Now, on to your question about why your cat will bite when petted in certain ways.
Thomas: The behavior you’re describing is normal–most cats will bite when petted on their stomach or back legs, or if you approach them from a strange angle.
Bella: I know I nip Mama if she tries to rub my tummy or if she approaches me from a strange angle. Fortunately, I only give love nips–just enough to say “back off!”
Tara: I never bite Mama. I love being petted, anywhere and everywhere!
Bella: Well, you’re just weird. I mean, you like tummy rubs! What’s up with that?
Thomas: Bella, you be nice to Tara. She’s not weird; she just has a different way of relating to humans. Maybe she learned to like having her tummy rubbed when she was just a kitten.
Bella: I suppose you’re right. I’m sorry, Tara.
Tara: It’s all right. I’m sure Santa Paws won’t give you a lump of coal in your kitty stocking. You’re a good cat, after all.
Bella: What’s a lump of coal? And what’s a stocking?
Thomas: We’ll talk about that later, Bella. Right now, we’ve got to answer Keira’s question.
Bella: Okay, okay.
Thomas: So, Keira, the most important thing you can do so that Charlie won’t bite when petted is to watch his body language. Every cat has ways of signaling that they’ve had enough petting, or that they don’t like where you’re petting them.
Bella: First of all, when Charlie’s tail starts to twitch, that means he doesn’t like where he’s being petted–or that you’re in danger of doing too much petting. If you watch his tail and stop petting as soon as you see it twitching, that’s one way to ensure he won’t bite when petted.
Tara: Some cats don’t like to have their tummies rubbed. Actually, a lot of cats don’t like having their tummies rubbed, so we suggest avoiding the belly.
Thomas: Some cats also don’t like to be petted when they can’t see it coming. If you get near their back end, you’ll find Charlie will probably bite when petted. So we suggest that you stick to petting his head, shoulders, and the front of him in order to prevent biting.
Bella: Another thing you mentioned, which we had to edit out so we could make your letter the right length for the post, is that he climbs the curtains and that you sometimes play with him with your hand.
Tara: What you’re talking about here is called play aggression, and our hero, legendary cat behaviorist Pam Johnson-Bennett, has some great tips on how to stop play aggression.
Thomas: First of all, you should stop using your hand as a plaything, because you’re training him to think your hand is a toy to be clawed and bitten.
Bella: Instead, we recommend that you play with him using a fishing pole toy. This is a toy that has a wand and a string attached with some cool dangly bit at the end.
Tara: Play with him in a way that lets him hunt. Move the toy in jerky motions, move it around the edges of your room, and then make it “fly” away. You might be surprised to find that Charlie is one heck of a jumper. Bella sure is!
Thomas: Use the toy until he’s worn out, and then he’ll be mellower for the rest of the day or evening. If you can give him a little treat after he’s worn out, he’ll associate play time with good things and get really excited about it.
Bella: So, Keira, if you watch Charlie and notice his body language–tail twitching and moving away from being petted–he’s a lot less likely to bite when petted.
Tara: And then, by playing with him, you’ll get him worn out and happy, and he’ll be a lot less interested in using you as a plaything.
Thomas: Best of luck to you, Keira. Please write back and let us know how things are going–or if you have any other questions.
Bella: What about you other readers? Do you have some ideas to help Keira keep Charlie from biting her during petting? Please let us know in the comments!