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Picking Up on the Signals of Feline Overstimulation

Kitty Corner

Have you ever encountered a cat that approached and asked for your attention only to have the same cat turn and swat or bite you when you obliged? You may have encountered a cat with a condition called feline overstimulation. While this common cat behavior may leave you baffled, it can be easy to manage once you know what to look for. 

What is overstimulation? Some cats physiologically have a lower tolerance to handling. Prolonged or vigorous petting is physically uncomfortable for them. These cats often learn that the body language cues they use to alert humans that they’re uncomfortable will not be noticed and that swatting or biting is the only way to successfully make unwanted petting stop.

Osiris was returned to the East Bay SPCA when his family realized he was too rough of a player for their resident cats. Osiris got along best with their large dog. 

When the behavior team evaluated him, they noted signs of overstimulation in addition to his high-energy play. Since most people aren’t familiar with the signals, the team came up with a plan to help potential adopters understand this kitty’s needs. 

Osiris needed a patient, cat-savvy adopter who would find his endless chatting, nonstop energy, and occasional nibbling endearing. He also needed someone who could learn to recognize when he’d had enough handling. At the East Bay SPCA, we had the time, space, and expertise to help him find the perfect match.  

Osiris has since been adopted by a family who reports, “He’s doing great, and is super confident with our dog. He gets lots of play time — both with the toys he went home with and a few new ones.”

What should you do if you think your cat overstimulates? Learn the body language cues that will tell you when your cat is becoming overstimulated.

Some cues to look out for are tail flicking/twitching, ears held back, dilated pupils, back muscles twitching or rippling, raised fur at the base of the tail, raised fur in a line down the back, and vigorous head butts with increasing intensity.

Keep in mind that not every overstimulating cat is the same. Many cats will provide signals and/or attempt to move away, but others are so invested in receiving affection that they won’t self-regulate and will overstimulate themselves by furiously soliciting petting. This is often where the classic, “He acted like he wanted petting and then bit me out of nowhere!” comes from. That’s why it’s our job as cat owners to recognize the signs of overstimulation and take action. 

When dealing with overstimulation in cats, there there is something you can do — remember the three Ts.

Time: Take a break from petting. This can be as short as 30 seconds or as long as an hour, depending on the cat’s needs. Overstimulation doesn’t happen all at once. It builds until it hits a threshold (often where biting occurs). 

Toys: If the cat still wants petting, try engaging it in some other way, like with with toys. Overstimulation and frustration go paw in paw, and burning off that frustrated energy through play can be a huge part of keeping cats under threshold. 

Treats: You can train your cat (yes, it’s possible) by rewarding appropriate behavior with a treat the kitty loves (pair this with giving them a break). Anytime you have a positive petting interaction with your cat but begin to notice signs of overstimulation, offer a treat and a break. The idea is that a cat communicating through body language instead of swatting or biting equals something good happens. This way, the cat learns that it doesn’t have to escalate to a bite or scratch to get its point across. Overstimulation can seem confusing at first, but when you begin to actively observe your cat, it’s amazing how many signals you can pick up on. 

Micah McKechnie is a behavior and training Associate at the East Bay SPCA. She began training using positive reinforcement at age 12 and graduated from UC Santa Barbara with a degree in environmental science. After college, she continued to volunteer in animal welfare, training and handling dogs, cats, rodents, horses, sheep, goats, donkeys, alpacas, and birds of prey. She is currently working on her CPDT-KA certification in dog training, as well as Susan Friedman’s LLA Professional Course. In her free time, she loves riding horses, training circus arts, baking with her husband, sewing costumes, and hanging out with her two cats, Pants and Goblin.

Are you a San Francisco Bay area cat behaviorist, cat consultant, or cat expert who would like to contribute to this column, Kitty Corner? Send email to Editor@BayWoof.com.

Main article photo by: courtesy East Bay SPCA