Pet Keen is reader-supported. When you buy via links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission at no cost to you. Learn more.

Home > Ask A Vet > How to Identify Cat Overstimulation: 7 Signs to Look For (Vet Answer)

How to Identify Cat Overstimulation: 7 Signs to Look For (Vet Answer)

cat bites the woman's hand

Vet approved

Dr. Iulia Mihai Photo

Written by

Dr. Iulia Mihai

Veterinarian, DVM MSc

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

Learn more »

For your cat, intense play or prolonged petting can easily turn into overstimulation, resulting in biting and scratching. This phenomenon occurs when cats become conflicted during play or petting, especially if these activities last longer than their comfort level allows. This interval depends on the individual cat, their degree of tolerance, their trust in the person, and their state of mind.

An overstimulated or irritated cat has dilated pupils, flattened ears, and a wavy tail that moves rhythmically and nervously. Your cat may also growl or lightly bite you to warn you to stop touching them.


The 7 Signs That Your Cat Is Overstimulated

Overstimulated cats will let you know that something is wrong through several signs 1. Here are the most common ones.

1. Wagging Tail

A cat’s tail moves almost constantly, except when sleeping, though even when they dream, they can wag their tail. When cats are overstimulated, they start to wag their tails quickly, rhythmically, and nervously.

Cats do not wag their tails only when they are overstimulated, however. They can also have rapid tail movements and keep their tail low when they are nervous, stressed, or playful.

cat tail closeup
Image Credit: JackieLou DL, Pixabay

2. Ears Laid Back

Overstimulated cats will flatten their ears. This behavior tells you that they feel uncomfortable and need space. Flattened ears also appear in cats when they are scared or angry. Most of the time, cats that have their ears in this position are ready to attack.

3. Tense Body

When cats are overstimulated, their bodies tense up as they get ready to attack. A tense body can also tell you that your cat is angry.

To determine the difference between an overstimulated and an angry cat, you must carefully read the signs that your pet shows you. Either way, though, you risk being bitten or scratched if you don’t give them space.

portrait of an emotional angry cat
Image Credit: Akim Lakeev, Shutterstock

4. Dilated Pupils

Your cat’s pupils can dilate for several reasons, including overstimulation, playfulness, pain, and certain medical conditions. A playful cat also shows other signs, such as a raised tail, forward-pointing ears, and forward-pointing whiskers. Your cat will follow a toy (prey), lift their bottom, shake it repeatedly, and then launch over the toy.

If your cat suffers from a medical condition, they will not show this behavior. The medical conditions in which cats can have dilated pupils include2:

  • Pain
  • Seizures
  • Neurologic conditions
  • Stress
  • Side effect of certain medication
  • Intoxication (flea medicine, chocolate, caffeine, etc.)
  • Iris atrophy
  • Progressive retinal atrophy
  • Rabies
  • Feline infectious peritonitis
  • Thiamine deficiency

5. Twitching Skin

Cats that are overstimulated can have twitching/rippling/rolling skin. This sign can also appear when they are angry or have certain medical conditions, such as twitchy cat disease (hyperesthesia or rolling skin disease). This condition is unique to cats (it does not occur in dogs) and affects certain breeds more often (Siamese, Persian, Burmese, and Abyssinian). Other clinical signs that may occur with this medical condition include:

  • Agitation/restlessness
  • Excessive grooming
  • Aggressiveness (your cat randomly attacking you)
  • Chasing or attacking imaginary objects
  • Tail chasing
  • Hyperactivity
  • Vocalization

If your cat shows these signs, take them to the vet.

shorthair tabby cat with a wide-eyed expression and dilated pupils
Image Credit: Mary Swift, Shutterstock

6. Flattened Whiskers

Cats’ whiskers flatten when they are overstimulated. However, cats can also flatten their whiskers when they are scared.

A frightened cat has their ears laid back and parallel to their head, their whiskers flattened, their back arched, their fur ruffled, and their tail up. A scared cat might also meow insistently.

7. Following Your Movements

Overstimulated cats will follow your hand movements. This is when many of them will also attack. If your cat starts following your movements, it is recommended to give them pace or distract them so you don’t get bitten or scratched. Also, distracting or giving them space will help them overcome this moment faster. Overstimulated cats may also low growl to warn you to give them space.

Cat bite arm
Image Credit: Julia Pavaliuk, Shutterstock


How to Prevent Overstimulation in Cats

Here’s what you can do to prevent the overstimulation of your cat and thus avoid being bitten and/or scratched:

  • Play or pet your cat only for a short period: Some cats don’t like to be petted for multiple minutes at a time. If you know that your cat dislikes being petted for a long time in a certain area or excessive play seems to overstimulate them, keep these moments short. Even if you don’t mind your cat biting or scratching you, overstimulation causes them stress.
  • Pet your cat only in the areas that they like or tolerate: Most cats dislike being petted on the belly because that area is sensitive to them, and rightly so, as their abdomen houses their internal organs. They can instinctively get stressed when you pet them in that area (even if they trust you). Also, some cats don’t like being petted from head to tail. Therefore, consider petting your cat only on the “safe” areas, such as the base of the head, under the chin, or the base of the tail.
  • Stop what you’re doing when your cat shows signs of overstimulation: Take your hand off your cat calmly, without making sudden movements, because they might see you as a threat and attack you. If your cat is on your lap, let them slide off gently. If your cat is agitated, walk away from them slowly and calmly. If you don’t want or can’t get away from your cat, try to distract them with a toy, and use it to create physical distance.
  • Do not pet your cat immediately after coming home: Be sure you give them time to adapt and calm down.
  • Don’t punish your cat: Cats learn nothing when they are punished (except to be afraid of you and to stop trusting you). So, don’t hit or raise your voice at them. Overstimulation is natural for cats, and they cannot control it nor understand that they have done something wrong.



Overstimulation in cats occurs when they are petted for a long time or the play gets too intense. It happens due to a conflicted emotional state between enjoying the moment and letting their guard down and feeling vulnerable. An overstimulated cat will signal that you need to give them space to recover if you don’t want to be bitten or scratched. Signs of overstimulation in cats include a wagging tail, laidback ears, flattened whiskers, and twitching skin. They can also growl, puff their hair, or tense their body.

If your cat shows these signs, it is recommended to give them space and let them recover. In some cases, distracting your cat with toys while creating physical distance can help get them out of this state.

Featured Image Credit: Luis Echeverri Urrea, Shutterstock

Our vets

Want to talk to a vet online?

Whether you have concerns about your dog, cat, or other pet, trained vets have the answers!

Our vets