Sometimes cats bite the hand that’s petting them–occasionally hard enough to break the skin. Why do they bite, and can you train them not to?
It is easy to mistake the reason behind the nip, according to Arden Moore, author of The Cat Behavior Answer Book (Storey Publishing, 2007). In the book, she explains that your cat is not delivering a love bite, but rather a clear indication that she has endured enough of human kindness. Her nip translates into “Kindly stop petting me or I will bite harder.”
Some cats bite because as kittens they were permitted to play “hand wrestling” with their owners, who considered it cute antics. They grow up thinking it is okay to bite and swat at hands. But when they do it as adults with big sharp teeth and sharp claws, they aren’t nearly as cute.
Other cats bite because they are scared or do not feel well–but if the biting has been going on her whole life, it sounds like a classic case of petting-induced aggression. While some cats can tolerate being petted, others feel overstimulated by the sensation and automatically react by lashing out. Your cat may be lashing out at you as a last resort after delivering what she believes to be clear pre-strike warnings. These may include tail lashing, ear flicking, dilated pupils, shifting position, tensing muscles, and ceasing to purr. When your cat displays these warning signals, that’s your cue to stop petting. She has communicated with you that she is done with being petted.
Do not be eager to pet your cat for a while. Greet her in a friendly tone, but avoid petting her for a couple of days. This will make her desire your physical attention. When you do pet her, do so for just a few seconds then stop. By being in better tune with her body signals, you can stop before she feels overwhelmed and save your hand from an unwanted bite.