Why does my cat try to bite and scratch me?


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Does your cat ever bite or scratch you when you’re stroking them? Toni Shelbourne is here to help.

One of the great pleasures of being a cat guardian is being able to caress and stroke your furry companion. However, if he sometimes bites or scratches you when you touch him, it can be upsetting as well as painful. 

Why does he do it?

There are plenty of reasons why cats can suddenly transform from an adorable kitty who is seemingly enjoying a stroke or cuddle into an aggressive cat. Before you can address the problem, you first have to work out what the root causes are:

Pain: A common cause is discomfort. You might notice that he turns on you when you touch a particular area of his body, or that the skin ripples under your hand as you stroke him. Perhaps he has an area of fur that looks dull or otherwise different from the rest of his coat, or maybe he has been over-grooming causing a sore to develop. Have you noticed him not jumping as well? Sleeping more? Or generally seeming out of sorts? All of these can be indications of discomfort, but even if you haven’t spotted anything in particular, your first action should be a vet check, even if it’s only to eliminate pain as a cause. Remember to take a list with any observations you’ve made along with you, as this may help with making a diagnosis.

Play: Another trigger can be excitement and over-stimulation. If you don’t play with your cat regularly or he’s an indoor kitty, he could have excess energy to burn. This can tip into over-arousal or frustration. Try adding more mental and physical stimulation to his daily routine. Once this energy is burned up, wait a while for him to calm down and then you might find he’s ready for a cuddle session.

Too much: Some cats may find long sessions of petting too much to cope with. Observe his body language, respect his wishes, and don’t overdo things so you push him beyond his tolerance levels.

Annoyance: Feline body language can often be very subtle and it can be easy to miss the early warning signs.

Time spent closely observing and learning to read your cat better is never time wasted, since if you misjudge his mood and emotions you may be irritating him with repetitive petting and stroking when what he really wants is to sleep or be left alone.  

Ouch! Check that static electricity isn’t making your hand contact feel unpleasant. Dipping your fingers into water or misting them lightly before touching your cat will help discharge it so you don’t end up accidentally zapping him.

Predatory: Cats are crepuscular, that is to say they are most active at dusk and dawn. This is a time when he would naturally be hunting and if he can’t satisfy this innate behaviour, he might simulate it by attacking your hand or leg as you reach to pet him or walk past.

Unnerved: While these are the most common reasons, there may be others too, such as if you have awoken him while sleeping and startled him into a defensive action, if he’s been frightened by a noise, or maybe if he feels unsettled or insecure in a certain location.  

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Offer the back of your hand and see if your cat makes contact.

Safe Handling

As well as becoming more perceptive of your cat’s body language and mood, and checking for any discomfort, do practise safe handling methods. This could be as simple as performing a permissions test. Here’s how:

1. Present the back of your hand to your cat and wait for him to move towards you and make contact. This will often be with his chin. Keep your hand still and watch what he does: does he continue to make contact or move away? Does he offer other parts of his body for your hand to touch?

2. If he sticks around, use the back of your hand to stroke the areas he presents for no more than three seconds. Then stop, take your hand away, then re-present it for him to make contact with again if he wishes. Make the strokes slow and use the weight of your hand so it’s neither too light or too firm. Avoid touching those areas where you know he reacts to touch. The reason for using the back of your fingers or hand is that it feels less invasive, it’s cooler, and cats seem to know that this way you won’t grab at them.

3. If he does reconnect after you present your hand, repeat the three-second stroking, then stop again.

4. Stop immediately if you see he is becoming aroused or upset.

5. If after several short sessions he seems settled and content about being touched in this manner, try the same process using the front of your hand.

Body talk

Catching the warning signs that your cat is about to strike will not only save you from injury but will let your cat know that you are listening to him. Signs you might see that he is not enjoying being petted include:

  •  Freezing. 
  •  A change in his breathing rate.
  •  Ears twitching or flattening against his head.
  •  Whiskers coming forward.
  •  Suddenly turning his head towards where your hand is.
  • Tail flicking.
  •  Raising a paw.
  •  Hair standing up.
  •  Vocalisations, such as growling and grumbling.
  •  Restlessness.
  •  Dilated pupils.

Make contact with something that isn’t your hand, such as a sanitised feather.

Handless contact

If you’ve had previous negative experiences with your cat, you may understandably be wary about making physical contact with him. If you know he is pain free and healthy, and you want to reintroduce contact, instead of using your hands, try using something like a sanitised feather (you can buy these from arts and craft shops) or a long-handled soft paint brush. Or perhaps he will enjoy contact made through a blanket, or with a sheepskin mitten, or balled up socks. Try to find a neutral object that helps both of you feel safe. When you introduce the feather, paint brush, or whatever you are using, follow the same permissions test as described above.

Once he is happy being touched this way and you are both more trusting of each other, try with the back of the hand. You can alternate between the brush (or whatever you’re using) and your hand, which will again help you build confidence in the contact being an enjoyable experience.

Tellington TTouch Training

The methods mentioned here are part of a technique called Tellington TTouch Training (TTouch for short). It is non-invasive and non-threatening, no specialised anatomical knowledge is needed to do it, and it is very safe to use on your cat.

Research into how and why TTouch works is still ongoing, although it’s thought that it affects the nervous and sensory systems on many levels, reducing stress as well as having benefits in many other areas. By also helping to release tension and increase body awareness, cats feel more comfortable and confident in a variety of situations including being touched. 

TTouch uses specific body work TTouches (pronounced Tee-Touches), along with equipment, such as body wraps, and movement exercises known as the Confidence Course. 

When doing the TTouches, the idea is to lightly move the skin, rather than pressing down into underlying tissue. They are easy to learn. You can get started right away and see a difference — although the more you practise, the better you will get and the more profound the effect on your cat.

Try adding more mental and physical fun to your cat’s daily routine.

Try the Llama TTouch

When you feel your cat is ready for you to get morehands-on, this soothing and calming TTouch is a good one to start with. It continues to use the back of the hand which is more readily accepted by fearful and touch sensitive cats. 

1. When he’s relaxed about you stroking him with the back of your hand, progress to making small circular movements, about 1cm in diameter, as well as stroking ones. Very lightly and gently move the skin, rather than sliding over the top of the coat. 

When making the circular movements, it can help if you visualise your fingers travelling around a clock face. Start each circle at 6 and move in a clockwise direction all the way around the dial. When you return to the 6 position again, keep on going without pausing to where 9 would be, so you complete one full circle plus a quarter of another one. The skin should feel mobile and move easily, don’t force movement or drag the skin under your fingers. At the end of each completed circular movement, pause then slide your hand to a different spot and repeat.

2. Make each circle as slow as possible, staying soft and light. If you notice any signs of concern, stop for a few moments and/or return to a place on his body where he is more comfortable with the contact. Keep your TTouch session really short, just a few Llama TTouches at a time.

Starting at the 6, try visualising your hand moving one and a quarter circles around a clock face.


Find out more about Tellington TTouch Training or contact a practitioner at
www.ttouchtraining.co.uk or visit the Facebook page Tellington TTouch Club 

For online Tellington TTouch courses for cats go to