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Claw and bite syndrome in cats

Sometimes a cat can ‘attack’ or bite their owner, and it appears completely unprovoked. This is what many call ‘claw and bite syndrome’. It is often a reaction to feeling insecure and uncertain when a safety threshold is crossed.
Claw and bite syndrome in cats

One cause of ‘claw and bite’ could be that adult cats, even neutered ones, respond sexually to our caresses - especially over the back and root of the tail. In this case, the cat’s actions are a natural reaction and not a sign of a bad temper.

Another explanation could be their past or early experiences. The socialisation window for cats is between 2 and 7 weeks of age. If contact with humans is minimal or non-existent at this time, cats can react in a way we perceive as aggressive when experiencing intense owner contact.

The influence of early experiences

Cats who, especially during their socialisation period, have been busy and had close contact with people, often have a high tolerance threshold and rarely show aggression-like behaviours. Others, who have had poor human contact, react aggressively just a few minutes after being pet. 

In the case of sudden attacks like this, a cat may have a direct association with a previous unpleasant experience. For example, someone may have stroked them as a kitten, then grabbed and held them. The consequence is that an adult cat can perceive a caressing hand as a sudden threat, so they start fighting for their life.

Another explanation could be that an adult cat returns to the "child stage" when it was fussed with by its mother. Whilst laying on your lap, they may be satisfied but confused over your affection. They can then reach a point where their adult consciousness takes over, so they feel threatened and trapped.

Pleasure vs threat

When petting becomes too intense, some cats end up in conflict. The action is experienced as both pleasurable and threatening at the same time, this is when a cat may turn and bite. Biting disarms the tension that has arisen.

Often, cats are particularly threatened when their belly is being pet.

So, what do you do?

Cats will usually grab your arm, kick and claw, while appearing confused and disoriented. In response to a bite, owners often react by shouting and withdrawing their hand. During these sound and movement states, a cat's mind changes from possible mating behaviour to predatory behaviour, i.e. from biting to eating. Cats then cling to your hand and begin to seriously dig in their claws and bite. The best thing you can do in such a situation is to "freeze" and be completely still.

When a cat no longer meets any resistance, the dilated pupil’s contract and the jaws relax. They can then become totally disengaged and allow you to withdraw your hand slowly and carefully. Usually, they will then jump down and run away in a panic, or sit down and start frantically washing.

Know your cat's tolerance level

Different cats have different tolerance thresholds for this behaviour. By learning their threshold, you can gradually and calmly raise their tolerance by increasing petting time. End before your cat bites and ensure they always have the freedom to jump down and ‘flee from danger’ should they feel it’s necessary.


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