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About a year ago, my parents adopted a stray female tortie cat who used to hang around our backyard. She would wait at the door and beg to be let in, so they finally gave up. She's been to the vet, she was someone's pet at some point (not feral, she was litter trained) but had been out on her own for years.

She loves attention and will scream-meow at you until you pet her. She jumps on our laps and purrs like a motorboat while you pet her. But if she sees your hand, she flips out, jumps up, hisses and swipes.

Then she immediately throws her butt on the ground next to us and side swims (not sure how to describe it, she uses her paws and claws to push herself around on the floor in circles?) while you scratch her back. She purrs, loves it, asks for chin scratches - and then again, catches sight of our hand or even wrist and loses her mind.

She never really gets us and her claws aren't even out when she swipes, but it's definitely a fear based reaction. We don't know much about her history but think she was mistreated somehow. It's the quick switch back to wanting pets and the randomness of her getting set off that confuses me.

We board her at a vet when we're on vacation and they love her, she has no health issues and is definitely not feral. Any thoughts on how to pinpoint what causes this, or how to get her used to seeing our hands? I don't know what she thinks we're petting her with!

Thanks in advance.

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    How does she react to seeing hands in non-petting situations? Have you tried hand-feeding her? – StephenS Oct 7 '19 at 5:18
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Ok, I totally hate to say it but I’m going to suggest maybe she was abused. It sounds like traumatic reactions to me - fight or flight. Our childhood cat would always run away whenever we got the broom out. It was the oddest thing, but we think maybe he was hit with it.

I think there may have been a reason why she went from being in a house to then going outside and not having an owner. Maybe she was kicked out or ran away? There must’ve not been a good enough connection to make her go back to home.

She must have a good temperament to still like pets and be loving. However, whenever she sees that hand coming towards her it’s an instinct to react.

I’m not sure how to 100% fix this, other than diligence, kindness, and maybe with accepting she may never change. I would slowly stick out my hand a few inches from her face, let her sniff it, and go from there. If she doesn’t like that maybe put a treat in you hand. Than she can associate hands with positive rewards. I would avoid drastic movements with the hand and try punishing her by hand. Another idea is maybe let her become familiar with hands - point with your finger to food or treats, play with toys on the floor with your hand in front of her, etc. This will hopefully warm her up to that hands don’t have to be threatening.

In the end I would just try your best to be calm, gentle, loving, and quiet when trying to show her hands are ok. Hopefully her trust and love for you will overcome this reaction!

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