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I am seated quietly on one side of the couch. My nine-month-old cat, adopted just a couple months ago, is laying on the other side, and I have reached out a hand and am rubbing his head and neck. This goes on quite nicely for several minutes.

Ah, but I seem to have made a mistake. Maybe I tickled too hard or for too long, or wasn't reading the signals right. It doesn't happen a lot, but often enough. I'm trying to learn, but for now I have eight tiny hypodermic needles embedded in my wrist, and four powerful incisors massaging my knuckles. It hurts, and there is a little blood. It is clear that his intent is simply to send me a message- he is not actually trying to tear me apart.

While the pain is intense, it is bearable. I am calm enough to not shout, nor try to immediately pull away, as that would just deepen the wounds. I try to get the scruff with my other hand, but he spots the other hand approaching and switches his attack. I suppose I just have to wait it out, keeping as still as I can, until he lets me go.

This story is slightly exaggerated for purposes of this site, but there is a kernel of truth within. While adjusting to a new cat and being taught the proper way to share affection with this cat, how can one most effectively free oneself from the lesson being learned?

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First, I love your title and your write up! Very humorous...although I'm sure you are not at the point where you can laugh just yet. So let's see what we can do to get you there.

You don't say how old your kitty is. If he is young, he could just be exhibiting typical kitten behavior. However, from your description, I'm going to guess he is an adult cat. Please let me know if I'm wrong, and I will edit my answer, accordingly.

It sounds like your cat suffers from petting aggression. This is where the cat can only handle short amounts of petting at one session. Then, seemingly without warning, the cat gets overstimulated and turns on you, biting and/or scratching like a bipolar tiger.

The best thing you can do is keep your petting sessions short. When he's acted this way, how long were you able to pet him before the scratching/biting started? Estimate the amount of time and make sure your petting sessions are always less than this time.

Always have a toy next to you (but on the side of you with no cat) before you start your petting sessions. If your cat usually grabs onto your hand and kicks you with his back feet, a cat kicking toy would be good. If not, you'll want a toy that is soft that he can bite. If you do happen to go over his petting allotment time and he starts to bite and scratch, quickly give him the toy and he will let go of your hand. Let him take out his frustrations on the proper thing.

Before your cat starts biting and scratching, look for these signs:

  1. Tail twitching (or swishing) back and forth, first slowly and then faster
  2. Head turning slowly in the direction of your petting, such as looking back toward your hand if you are petting his back
  3. General body tensing

I hope this helps, and I wish you and your kitty the best!

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  • Subject cat is neutered male age nine months, I'll edit that into the question. – cobaltduck Feb 9 '16 at 20:32
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    @cobaltduck So, that's right in between kitten and adult. With the description you gave, my answer still could be accurate. The other option with a young cat is that the previous owners played with your cat (when he was a kitten) using their hands. Some people think it's cute when a kitten attacks their hands, and they don't correct the kitten. As all things do, kittens grow into adults, and then biting is not so cute. Likely, you will be able to determine which situation you have by looking for the signs I listed. Have you seen your cat exhibit any of these while petting him? – KittyConsultant Feb 9 '16 at 22:07
  • I have been working to learn his tolerances and signals. I will keep a closer watch out for the specific things you mention. Also, note that the core of my question is really about how to best extract myself, or to convince him that he can let me go now, I will leave him be. – cobaltduck Feb 9 '16 at 23:03
  • @cobaltduck Yes, I understand. So in the first situation (petting aggression), you would extract yourself from either learning his signals when he's had enough (and, therefore, no extraction needed) or by having the toy readily available as the hand replacement. If it's the second situation (kitten behavior or previous owners played with him using hands), the answer is still to have the toy readily available. This way, you can immediately show him the toy so he scratches/chomps into it instead of your hand. – KittyConsultant Feb 9 '16 at 23:25
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My suggestions:

  • Continue to pay attention to body language, as you are already doing. You've only had the cat a few months, so you will probably get better at reading this particular cat's signals, and will be able to stop petting before it happens.
  • Make petting sessions a bit shorter; leave the cat wanting more.
  • When it happens, say something like "gentle, gentle" very softly, and move slowly to disengage your hand. I've had good success with this, but it didn't happen overnight.
  • Keep the claws trimmed. You only need to remove the very tips of those little "daggers of love".

I think it's purely a reflex action rather than the cat trying to "send a message". It happens instantaneously, and cats usually seem surprised (and a bit afraid) when it happens. That's why I try to calm the cat first, and then remove my hand.

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If you are in the middle of an attack, the first rule is not to pull away. Claws are made to hold fast prey trying to escape. So actually relax and push in to avoid tearing the skin. Even go limp and have the arm "play dead"

To encourage the cat to let go, you should try pretending you are another cat and meow a complaint or even hiss. It tends to get their attention and works better than scolding as it pushes a different set of buttons. When the cat stops biting and holding, you can try gently removing your hand.

Then you can try the other answers' advice about how to limit such hand play in the future. Soon the cat will be larger and stronger, so you need to get the lessons in early!

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