Why do cats sometimes go directly from purring to biting or scratching?

That was the question raised earlier this week:

The one thing I DON'T understand is this... sometimes, when we're petting him and he's really happy and purring, he'll suddenly lash out and scratch or bite us... there are a lot of times when he'll just be standing or lying down and we'll be petting and he'll seem very happy, then all of a sudden.... *shick-ah* (the sound of a samurai sword swishing through the air in a death stroke)!!!

And here are the responses from readers of www.iLind.net:

My girl kitty, an old bitty of 10 years and an inside cat has this same disposition. Our outside kitties, sibling brother and sister, don’t. So we pet Shmoo the indoor kitty with caution. She wants it, she wants it, she wants it. Bares her belly and stretches and purrs and then “WHAM!” she puts our arm or foot in a death lock and rabbit kicks and scratches us. I think she’s insane, but I guess it’s just being conflicted. When she’s through with the lovin’ this is the only msg she knows how to send.

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The cat may be just getting excited that he is getting such good attention. Some times when I am petting one of my cats, they will grab my hand or forearm, go in to a kicking situation with the back legs, or bite me. I never got an attack response like the one your reader describe, though.

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I work with cat rescue, sheltering and adoption....so that's where this information comes from:

Cats often become overstimulated very quickly. Don't take his biting as rejection of you or as evidence of his being a "bad cat." He's simply had more physical contact than he can handle and he's trying to get you to stop. It seems as if this paw swipe comes out of nowhere, as many cats have EXTREMELY subtle signs that they are nearing the end.

Things to look for, even VEEEERRRRRRRRRYYYYYYYYYY subtle are:

His ears become fixed in direction, probably slightly back or flattened;
His whiskers go back or down very slightly.
He ripples his fur.
His eyes squint down.

In cat language these are quite overt signs that he'e maxed out; as one who also has a whacker, I can tell you that I miss the signs sometimes, too.

It actually won't help at all to yell at him or to strike him, that will merely make him not respond well to you in the future - it'll eventually make him scared.

My best suggestion is to become aware of how long he seems to be able to handle stroking and learn to stop just short of that. Then just sit near him and let him rub against you if he wants but don't pet him for awhile.

Finally, you should probably keep a close eye on him for injuries, as he's an outside cat and make get some small or large holes punched in him by other cats.

Good luck. I can avoid getting whacked by my beloved samurai about 1/2 the time, so I understand your problem. Trust me, your cat loves you or he wouldn't be constantly seeking attention from you. His little brain just fries easily.

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Your reader wrote "The one thing I DON'T understand is this... sometimes, when we're petting him and he's really happy and purring, he'll suddenly lash out and scratch or bite us."

I'd ask him to see if it always happens when they pet the cat in the same spot on its body each time. The cat could have an open sore in that spot, perhaps a tick there that bites harder when the human pets the cat there, or a problem with a bone under that same spot.

If the cat lashes out when petted on various parts of its body, then it has a mental problem. (g)

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Question: have the cats you've known behaved like this--suddenly lashed out when a moment earlier they seemed very happy?

Sounds like a case of "too much of a good thing;" the cat getting overstimulated with pleasure. Here's a link with some good info on aggression of all forms.

Makana the Cat occasionally behaves this way, usually toward the end of a session of brushing. It's as though the level of pleasure becomes unbearable, so she has to put an end to it with the swat of a paw.

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I don't know the answer, but we've got one that does the same thing.

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I vaguely remember there was a study being done in Europe about why cats do this; it said maybe one-third of cats will be purring, happily being petted, then turn into Ninja Cats.

Our Trip
(shown reading his
fan mail) does the same thing every morning when I get out of the shower; he'll hop on the bed, accept scritchins, then suddenly out come the claws and teeth.

One suggestion was that cats like to be in control and that when they get too comfortable, they lose that control feeling. Another is that it's just a way of saying "sorry, had my fill, please try again later."

Me? I just think "that's what a cat does, keeping humans off balance" and wait for the next day.

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My male cat does the same thing. He’ll be content with pets and purrs and love in general, and then without apparent humanly understandable notice, this becomes play, including scratching and biting. I’ve become used to it and just go along, or if I’m not in the mood, I’ll gently take him off my lap and put him on the floor so he can go explore other ways to vent his playful energy. Sounds to me like it’s a “guy cat” kind of thing.

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some cats, while loving continued petting by nature, also become agitated by it much as we get agitated by an overly-long haircut or too much massaging. we tell the barber or masseuse to stop. the cat bites as its signal. it is immediately embarrassed by what it has done and guiltily walks away.

the striking:

if done with claws out, that's usually a young cat that hasn't learned to do "love taps" with claws sheathed. Older cats strike with soft paws. That's just a play reaction and they can't help it. they'll often do it as you walk away. it's the cat's way of saying "come back and play with me." you just have to wait for the cat to age and learn to sheath its claws. when one strikes and scratches you, it also will usually guiltily walk away or even hiss and run away. it knows something untoward has happened. cats are somewhat like humans who hurt others in a moment of passion and then quickly try to blame the other person and walk away from the incident to mask their guilt.

most cats stop that striking in old age, but may still bite if over-petted.

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Well, maybe it's not so strange. We have similar behavior in Gandalf, also a 3 year old neutered male who is an indoor-only cat. He behaves the same way - pet-pet-pet then WHACK! My belief is that he has a very low stimulation threshold, and once you pass it he will lash out to stop further contact. It may also be related to some dominance thing. He doesn't necessarily stop purring, but there are signs that the WHACK is coming. His eyes may dialate, ears may lay low and his body language may change subtly. What we've learned is to keep the scratch/pet sessions short (many less than 5 seconds) unless he is putting himself in a position to want more. We also stay away from 'ticklish' areas (lots of them on the belly).

The tail is also a clear signal - up and slightly bent on the end, or somewhat 's' shaped and he wants affection. Down, or seriously twitching (he's a real twitchy cat) - approach with caution.

Gandalf will however climb on my chest when I'm lying in bed and demand scratches. Those sessions go on for several minutes, and he leaves (sometimes abruptly) when he's had enough. But those sessions are on his schedule, and I don't pursue him after he chooses to leave.

The reader you mention may want to shorten the scratch sessions and quit long before the cat seems to want to stop. If he wants more, he'll ask for it, but keep the duration of each session short. Avoid making direct eye contact, which may challenge him to react. Think carefully about what is happening just before the cat 'attacks', and they will be able to isolate the behavior.

The book 'How to Think Like a Cat' may also help. The author has good insights into cat behavior, and it helped me work things out when we introduced another cat into the household. Gandalf will purr and then turn around and whack her, which causes her to growl and defend herself. In the meantime, Gandalf is still purring and chirring, while she is growling. Very weird.

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Yes, Xena is just like this. I think it is just that some cats have a fine line between affection and play, and between play and hunting, and one can move quickly into the other if the cat never really learned was is appropriate. Just my guess, but I don't think it is that uncommon.

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I'd like to know why cats do that too. And, what I should be doing or not doing.
   It's happened to me, w/blood all over (mine). (I don't own a cat - it was a neighbor's).

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I've read that some cats get over-stimulated when you pet and scratch them more than a short time and can't deal with it, resulting in this type of behavior. (My two just get up and walk away when they've had enough. Although I generally get tired of it before they do).

I'd caution about reading too much into a cat's expression, also, and projecting what we think they're thinking onto the cat. I don't really think the cat is thinking "I go them good that time."

I suspect that if the animal were indoors, and spent more time with people, it might help socialization, also. it sounds like the cat would like to spend more time indoors, with people, from the behaviour that was described.