Cat behaviour is a mystery to me

I will start by saying I am a dog person but I really like cats. For a number of different reasons I’ve never been able to have a cat so I really like looking after them as a sitter. But for the life of me I can not understand their moods and behaviour. I read a couple of threads which were helpful but I need some further insight from cat people.

This morning my current cat client and I were having a lovely time, me with a cuppa and Cat getting ear, neck and head scritches, purring away (Cat, not me). Suddenly a flick of the tail and Cat sinks his teeth in to my hand quite savagely. Why oh why, when he seemed so content? Can someone please tell me what I did wrong!

Did you suddenly stroke in a different area? Cats are all different just like humans! Ask the owner next time about the cat’s idiosyncrasies

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Sometimes cats get overstimulated and it’s like the Jekyll and Hyde switch flips. They just don’t know how to process everything that they’re feeling.

It’s only ever happened to me with tortoiseshell cats… The others have always given me visual clues to stop interacting! Torties are often quite unpredictable.

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@Crookie I hope that you are okay? We have housesat a few cats and I grew up with cats (my mum loved Bengals!).
When I trained at a veterinary practice many moons ago, the vet told me that cats like to be handled and loved in a way that they feel free.
I tend to give some love and affection, in short bursts then back off if I see that they are get too over stimulated (tail flicking, ears back, too much padding with claws). It is very individual for each cat and as @Smiley said maybe the owner knows little places they do not like to be rubbed etc.
My husband is an avid cat lover and rescued several in Bali, but he likes to cuddle and hold them and sometimes they do not appreciate his level of love!

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First, I am so sorry you got bit. That’s never fun. Keep an eye on that bite.
Petting aggression is actually not uncommon. Some behavioralist link it to having been left alone too much, especially as a kitten. Our domesticated felines really are social animals that enjoy company and interaction.
As other posters have said, you really have to watch the signs - the tail, a keen tracking of your hand. You will learn the thresholds pretty quickly. Also, I agree that cats generally don’t like constant petting.

Don’t make the mistake of withdrawing all affection, just stay on your toes until you know the kitty.
And congratulations on being a dog person who enjoys the kitties too!

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You did nothing wrong.

Cats are well Queens (kings) of their realm.
They rule. We just live in their kingdom.

I have been bit and scratched so many times I’ve lost track. They do have very different personalities and each one has their own boundaries of what they will allow.
Over time, if this can change once you get to know each other better.
Some are super friendly from day one and some just don’t.

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Cats do signal when they want our behavior to stop, but the signals are really subtle and easy to miss. Often the first place to look is tail, also ears and whiskers tell a lot.

Dog people often get confused because a wagging/twitching tail on a cat indicates agitation, unlike the same gesture from a dog.

I still get it wrong after 17 years of cat ownership and 50+ foster cats!

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Thanks all for your words of wisdom. Cat is very happy at the moment wrapped in a blanket on the lounge with me!

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Yep, I’ve had it quite a few times. These days, I don’t stroke mindlessly while reading or scrolling or watching TV, I keep a very close watch while I cuddle. I would still be having fun, but then kitty suddenly decides they had enough and would tell you (not so gently). Why not gently??!

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Hi. I was a farm kid, worked for a vet and was a rescuer. Bit, scratched and loved. Look up Jackson Galaxy. Everything you need to know about cat behavior. Remember the slow blink!

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I actually had a similar experience to you quite recently. The cat I was looking after would always climb up on me in bed every morning and just loved to be petted and stroked. He came of his own volition and seemed more than happy to be there. During this time, he’d always turn into an absolute purr-machine. I thought all was well one morning as he was purring away quite happily or so I thought and then he suddenly reached out and nipped my hand in quite an aggressive manner. Kind of spoiled the mood somewhat! He still stayed there purring away quite happily after his little outburst so I was pretty confused by that.

I hadn’t spotted any signs at all that he’d had enough as his body language was very calm and settled. I think I still have quite a lot more to learn about cats in order to intuitively pick up on their ways and cues. As others have said, perhaps it’s a case of over stimulation and a bit of sensory overload.

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Thanks for the recommendation @Cristy I watched this video which was very helpful Why Does Your Cat Bite You? - Jackson Galaxy :grinning:

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We’re fostering a little outdoor cat at the moment and she is exactly like this. An incredibly sweet and loving, slinky, twirling, purr monster, but she easily gets too excited and reaches a tipping point during a pat. At that point - and the timing is really hard to exactly predict - she loses her mind.
It’s as if another cat takes her place; one that might do anything.

The daft little sweetheart is getting much better at controlling herself, but we’ve both been scratched and bitten.

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We have had several cats like that. Most likely you touched a sensitive area, but we have also had 1-2 cats who do that just to tell you that cuddle time is over. They were already a bit older and had never learned not to do that (they also did it with the owners). Some cats also gently bite when they like you, but you say that the cat bit you “savagely”, so I assume this is not the case here.

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hello @Crookie
I hope that you are not badly wounded and that the scratch is not painful.

I love cats but some of them do bite and scratch! Some hosts/cat owners have said that they think I am a cat whisperer but even so, I do get bitten or scratched sometimes.

The important thing is to stay focussed and aware while patting or brushing a cat. Watch carefully if the cat is going to bite or scratch you, ie pull your hand away quickly. As a precaution, you can also wear gloves while patting a cat - either gardening gloves or some other type of leather or thick cloth (but not wool or plastic) gloves. A cat’s mood can change quickly (as can many humans) and the only way they can tell us to stop doing something is by biting or scratching. It is also possible that a cat will push us away with soft paws (ie not with claws out) but that might be less often than a bite or scratch.

Good luck getting to know cats. They can be very loving and lovable, it just takes a bit of getting used to them and their moods or personalities.

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This Youtube channel is very good at explaining cats, their behavior and how to respond to it: https://www.youtube.com/@JacksonGalaxy

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I had to chuckle…I have a tortie and we call her Psycho Kitty. She goes from 0 to 60 in no time. For 9 years I have fed, watered her and kept her litter box smelling nice and fresh. I take her to the vet and pay for expensive food. It matters not to her…my husband ignores her and she climbs up in his lap and rubs her face all over him. Psycho kitty fits !!

Happened to me recently on a sit, the exact same thing. The wounds were bad enough that I had to go have a tetanus injection and a course of penicillin. It was like the cat had two completely different personalities. Must admit I kept a wide berth afterwards as it was quite an aggressive attack and I was traumatised by it.

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I recently read an article that suggested that, during petting, there can be a pain response in the fur follicle. This may account for the sudden aggression. Has anyone else heard that?

I do hope you’re okay. Please keep an eye on that bite and yourself, especially if it went deep. I don’t mean to freak you out, but cat scratch fever is no fun (ask me how I know :roll_eyes:).

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@Shafofo yes I did a lot of reading up about cat scratch fever and so sorry to hear you got it! Certainly doesn’t sound pleasant! The Dr told me I did everything right by cleansing the wounds thoroughly and getting the injection and meds immediately. I have had cats all my life and never experienced anything like this behaviour, I am always slow and cautious when approaching and stroking them so this one was quite unusual. Inside only cats and to be honest, I think they had both gone stir crazy. Absolutely nothing to keep them amused etc and no open windows or doors.

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