Q: While playing my cat sometimes bites and scratches my hand. Why does she do it? What can I do about it?
A: Cats are highly sensitive to touch and also quite easily over-stimulated during play. This combination often results in human injuries, simply because we don’t always catch the subtle signals that a cat is reaching a point of discomfort.
While we innocently continue petting or playing, they may quickly be approaching a threshold – the invisible barrier between ‘this is great’ and ‘this is too much’. Once over that threshold, a cat will lash out.
The goal with any feline-human interaction is to ensure that the cat remains under that threshold at all times. And this is quite simple to do.
Give your cat regular breaks during interaction, whether playing or giving affection. For affection, three seconds is a good time to remember: touch for three seconds and then stop.
Does your cat gaze at you, move closer or reach out a paw? Do another three seconds.
Do they look or move away, start grooming or sniffing, or yawn and lick their lips? They’re done with affection for now.
The same applies to games. During healthy play, there will be brief intermissions to prevent the play from escalating. I don’t recommend using hands to play with cats as this can be risky, and it’s also useful to teach cats that human body parts are not toys!
Rather get out a teaser toy to keep your extremities safe. Stop moving the toy occasionally, again to prevent your cat from becoming overstimulated. Opt for regular, short games rather than extended play.
Katherine Brown, behaviourist