Our cat Dushenka is really a sweetie. In fact, she’s a love-muffin. She’s a part-time lap cat and is given to nose touches, head bonks, and loud purring. She slurps my husband’s forehead. Sometimes at night, she walks back and forth across our (formerly) slumbering bodies, making sure that each of us gets some of her attention. We call her the Incredibly Pettable Pet.
But, once in a while, she goes a little wild. If we rub her belly a bit too long or scritch and fuzzle her head a bit too much, she changes. When she gets overexcited or overwhelmed by all the play, her teeth come into play, too. She bites the hand that pets her.
Most of the time this is just a love-bite, with no attempt to harm. She just places her teeth on your hand or wrist. When that happens, I tell her, “No bitey” and withdraw my hand. She knows that when she calms down I’ll go right back to adoring her and demonstrating it with more caresses.
This week, however, she didn’t follow her usual pattern. This time she chomped down on my forearm. And drew blood. There was nothing different in the way I was petting her. I wasn’t pulling her tail or touching any of the places she doesn’t like to be touched. (Not that there are many.) I immediately stopped petting her and went to get a tissue to mop up the blood. The mark was gone by the next day. It didn’t get infected the way it once did when Dan’s cat Matches bit me on the web between my thumb and forefinger. And since then she’s been perfectly agreeable.
Why did this happen? Well, the BCSPCA (2022) says, “Many cats exhibit what behaviourists call ‘petting-induced aggression,’ an instinctive reaction to something they find unpleasant, even painful. Compared to dogs, cats are generally less tolerant of petting. When, where and how long cats can be touched before they become overstimulated vary from cat to cat.” Another source compares it to being sensitive to being tickled. When it’s just too much to handle, the tickle-ee tries to get away. If they can’t, they lash out (Shubin, 2022).
(Yes, I’ve been doing some work that requires me to use APA 7th citations, and I can’t quite break myself of the habit. And yes, I have also been tickled past the point of play into pain and know what it is like. Nonetheless, I didn’t bite anyone, though I probably should have. But I digress. Twice.)
Still, while Dushenka’s occasional bites are almost certainly petting aggression, that isn’t true of every cat that’s ever sunk their teeth into my tender (but apparently yummy) flesh.
Anjou, for example, got to me while I was sleeping. She came to me in bed and gave me the ol’ face-nuzzle. I grunted and tried to ignore her. I failed in this, because she immediately nuzzled me again. I grunted louder. Then she nipped me on the tip of the nose, which startled me nearly awake. Reflexively, I caught her up with one hand and heaved her off the bed. My husband said she flew through the air in a graceful arc and never stopped purring the whole time. It’s a pretty picture and I hope it’s true. He’s been known to exaggerate. But she certainly didn’t seem to resent it and showed no sign of harm or even stand-offish-ness the next day.
Another bitey cat was Louise. We got her when she was a tiny little baby kitten. I bonded with her right away, to the point I could even hold her belly up like a baby in my arms.
When we went to bed, however, it was a different matter. Every night, she wriggled under the covers and attacked our toes. Her teeth may have been tiny, but my God, they were pointy! They were like little needles piercing our lower digits. (Afterward, we referred to her as “naughty baby Fek’lhr,” a joke that almost no one gets. But I digress again.) Fortunately, she grew out of it.
Right now, Dushenka is upstairs cuddling with Dan. If I hear a yelp, I’ll know why. It’s not as likely to happen to him, though – Dan has thicker skin than I do. I know it’s not because he doesn’t pet her.