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How Can I Tell if My Cat Is Overstimulated? 10 Signs to Look For

If you’re a cat parent, you know that cats are not only curious but also display curious behavior from time to time. Rare is the cat owner who was petting their cat when, out of the blue, their furry friend decided to give them a good nip, bite, or swat them with their paw. If that’s happened to you, what you experienced was something that often happens to house cats: overstimulation.

Almost all cats become overstimulated at one time or another. It can occur if you’ve been petting them for too long or they’re being handled in a way that they don’t necessarily hate but don’t like. All cats react to overstimulation in different ways. Most cats also give their parents a sign, or several, that they’re being overstimulated. Read on if you’re wondering what those signs are and how to tell when your kitty is getting ready to explode in a ball of furry fury. We have 10 things to look for that will tell you when your cat is being overstimulated below.

Click below to jump ahead:

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The 10 Things to Look For if Your Cat Is Overstimulated

1. The Pupils of Your Cat’s Eyes Are Dilated

In the wild, when a cat is threatened, its pupils will dilate or enlarge. The reason is that they can see their surroundings better when they are larger and, if necessary, defend themselves or quickly escape. While your actions might not be threatening, your cat might still feel that way if it’s overstimulated, and its pupils will dilate. If you see that happen, it’s a sure sign your cat is indeed overstimulated. It’s also good to back off and let them be until their fear passes.

tabby cat big eyes closeup
Image Credit: Real Moment, Shutterstock
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2. Your Cat’s Ears Flatten Down

When a cat is threatened and knows it will have to fight its way out of a situation, its ears automatically flatten down. The reason is to protect their delicate ears from the teeth and claws of the animal attacking them. When they’re overstimulated, your cat will also flatten their ears because they mistake the overstimulation for the “fight or flight” response. A cat with flattened ears is a cat that’s telling you, “Back off, please!”

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3. Your Cat Swats You With Their Paws

This sign of overstimulation, unfortunately, doesn’t give you time to react and de-escalate the situation. It’s called swatting, and if an overstimulated cat has ever swatted you, you know it’s not a lot of fun. The reason is that most cats extend their claws when they swat. That means you not only get a cat punch but, in some cases, a nasty cut. If your cat swats you, the best thing to do is leave them in peace until they calm down. Then, find some disinfectant and a Band-Aid.

Cat's paw on top of a woman's hand
Image Credit: Alexandra Holbea, Pexels
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4. Your Cat Assumes a Crouched Position

Over the millennia, cats have been forced to defend themselves from predators. When they do, they typically crouch down so that, if the need arises, they can spring up and strike their attacker quickly and forcefully. An overstimulated cat will do the same thing because it thinks it’s being attacked. If your cat goes into the crouched position, back off and give them their space. If you don’t, you might have to deal with a cat attack that could leave you with several nasty scratches.

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5. Your Cat’s Tail Is Lashing or Swooshing

Cat tails admittedly move in a very irregular fashion. However, if you see your cat’s tail lashing or swooshing back and forth rather forcefully and methodically, that’s a good sign that they’re overstimulated and getting upset. Indeed, the more and faster they lash their tail, the more upset the cat. As with the other signs on today’s list, if your cat is lashing or swooshing its tail, stop petting them and leave them alone until they calm down.

orange cat shaking its tail
Image Credit: Pixabay
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6. Your Cat is Growling or Hissing at You

A growling or hissing cat is the universal sign that they aren’t in the mood to be messed with. Ignoring this sign is not a good idea and could lead to getting swatted, bitten, or worse. Growling or hissing is one of the telltale signs of a cat that’s been overstimulated and a clear indication that whatever you’re doing is displeasing to them. It’s also clear that you should back off and leave them in peace until their anger and fear pass.

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7. Your Cat Nips You

When a cat is overstimulated, they don’t know the difference between a human who wants to love on them and another animal who wants to harm them. Overstimulation can lead to confusion, sometimes severe, and a confused cat will lash out to protect itself with one of its best weapons, its teeth. Usually, an overstimulated kitty will nip first, which clearly indicates it’s not amused. However, in some cases, they may go right to biting if they feel overtly threatened. Wherever the case, if your cat starts using its teeth, back off quickly and let them calm down.

cat bites the woman's hand
Image Credit: Luis Echeverri Urrea, Shutterstock
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8. Your Cat’s Muscles Suddenly Become Tense and Stiff

If you know cats, you know they’re often like a well-used stuffed animal, loose as a goose and floppy like a bunny. If you ever feel your cat tense up like the skin of a drum, you’ve felt what it’s like when they get overstimulated. In other words, they feel rigid, stiff, and tight. If that happens when sitting on your lap, stop petting them immediately and let your cat leave before they swat, nip, or bite you. If you don’t, they will, and a nasty wound might be the result.

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9. Your Kitty’s Skin Starts to Twitch

There are several reasons that your cat’s skin, especially on its back, might twitch. One of those reasons is, you guessed it, overstimulation. If you’re in the process of petting your cat and its back starts to twitch, you should stop petting them and let them walk (or run) away until the twitching stops. Twitching might also be a response to insects like mosquitoes bothering your cat. Better, however, to err on the side of cat caution and leave them alone for a while.

sleepy cat laying on the lap of owner
Image Credit: Alena Ozerova, Shutterstock
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10. Your Cat Suddenly Turns Its Head Toward your Hand

One surefire sign that your cat is overstimulated is that it suddenly turns its head toward the hand you’re using to pet them. If they do, it’s likely because they’re contemplating whether to give you a good bite or nip. If that happens, stop rubbing your cat immediately and move your hands out of reach of their mouth and teeth. If they want to leave your lap, let them so that their fear or anxiety from being overstimulated can pass.

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How To Avoid Overstimulating Your Cat (5 Tips)

If you find that your cat is constantly being overstimulated and lashing out at you, you’ll be happy to know several things you can do to avoid the problem or at least reduce it significantly.

1. Don’t Pet Your Cat for Too Long

Cats like being petted… until they dont. Knowing their limit can be difficult because all cats have different levels of overstimulation. One way to figure it out is to time yourself when you start petting your cat and do it several times over several petting sessions. Stop the timer when they show overstimulation signs.

Then, add up the times from the petting sessions and average them. That number can be your baseline, the specific number of minutes you can pet your cat before it starts getting overstimulated and lashing out with aggressive behavior.

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2. Pet Your Cat Where They Like To Be Petted

If your cat is like most, the part of their body they like you to pet will be on top of their head. Yes, they may occasionally like a stroke or two on their belly, but most don’t. Some cats like to be pet on the end of their back, just above their tail. Other cats might not like that at all and quickly become overstimulated. In short, stick to their head when you want to give your cat a nice scratch, and be wary of overstimulation if you’re stroking or petting anywhere else on their body.

Cat playing with human
Image Credit: Florian Höllmüller, Pixabay
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3. Stop Petting and Touching your Cat at the First Sign of Overstimulation

One of the biggest mistakes many cat parents make is to miss or ignore the signs that their kitty is getting anxious, scared, and overstimulated. Veterinarians agree that as soon as you see any sign your cat isn’t happy, you should stop touching them immediately and put your hands at your side. Then, if they’re on your lap, slowly and gently get up so that your cat moves off and can go away and calm down.

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4. Don’t Start Petting Your Cat Again for an Hour or Two

Although some cats recover quickly from overstimulation, some don’t and should be left alone until they do. That might be 10 minutes, or it might be several hours. Cat experts agree that an hour or two is a good amount of time to wait before you try interacting with your cat after they’ve been overstimulated.

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Image Credit: rihaij, Pixabay
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5. Don’t Punish Your Cat if They Lash Out

Overstimulation might not be pleasant for you or your cat, but the last thing you should do is punish your cat for lashing out because of it. Yelling at your cat or, even worse, striking your cat will not only make you feel bad but could also worsen their aggressive behavior the next time your cat’s overstimulated. Let them be and learn from your mistake so that you avoid the situation entirely next time.

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Final Thoughts

As we’ve seen today, there are many ways your cat will tell you that they’re overstimulated, and you need to stop petting, touching, or interacting with them. Knowing the 10 things to look for when your cat is overstimulated will help you avoid upsetting your precious cat and also help you avoid any injuries, bites, and scratches. We think you’ll agree that most signs are obvious and easy to spot.

We hope you enjoyed the information we’ve shared today and that it’s given you some keen insight into your cat’s behavior. Knowing what overstimulates your cat and how to spot the signs will help you have a much happier and healthier home life and enable you to become fast, furry friends!

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Featured Image Credit: Real Moment, Shutterstock