Overstimulation in Cats
Ever wonder why your sweet, nice kitty will seemingly out of nowhere lash out at you or bite you during play or petting? This is a phenomenon called overstimulation, and is pretty unique to cats. It’s not fully understood why cats become overstimulated, but each cat will display subtle warning signs that it’s time to stop whatever you’re doing.
Being able to understand feline body language is key to knowing when to stop touching your cat and leave them alone. The most likely trigger of overstimulation is touch, although cats can become overstimulated by general interaction with other animals or people. Signs of a relaxed cat include ears that are facing forward, pupils that are smaller and slit, eyes may be closed, and the tail may be gently swishing. Any change from these may be a sign that your cat is starting to feel overwhelmed.
For example, if your cat’s ears start to move to the side, flatten against the head or face backwards, discontinue whatever you’re doing and don’t touch the cat. Continued touching may result in being bitten or scratched. If your cat is lying next to you or on your lap, you don’t need to physically move them, but stop touching with your hands. This will allow your cat to calm down or run away.
Additional signs to watch for include dilated, round pupils, a tail that starts twitching more rapidly instead of a gentle swish, raised fur, and a more tense body. Individual cats will display their own set of signs that are generally consistent, so you can begin to notice patterns of behavior that may save you from being bitten or scratched!
Notice in the first picture (to the left), this cat’s ears are upright and facing forward, pupils are small, and he looks engaged and ready to play in the box. In the second picture (to the right), notice the subtle change of his ear position and that his pupils are more rounded. He’s also in a defensive position. In the last picture, his pupils are much larger, his ears are flatter, and his body position demonstrate an overstimulated kitty! The progression of these images occurred within one minute! (Special Thanks to Dr. Barton’s kitty for modeling!)
Every cat has their own level of tolerance for petting and interaction. Some cats never tire of your affection, and some refuse it all together. Understanding your cat’s threshold will help you safely interact and build upon your bond with your cat. You can’t make an unaffectionate cat want to spend hours in your lap, but understanding their limits and stopping before pushing them too far can help you increase the amount of positive interaction with them. If you know when to stop, they may seek you out more often for those brief bonding moments!