Cats who get over stimulated often love interaction with their human companions, jumping into laps and happily sitting for petting, but then strike out at the hand that pets them. It is not known exactly what causes this to happen, and it can be frightening to a person who is not expecting the sudden change in the cat they are stroking. There are things that can be done to reduce these incidents, and in some cases eliminate the behavior over time.
In most of these cases the animal will give signals before it reaches the point of over stimulation. Flicking the tail, and/or ears rotating toward the side or back of the head while being stroked are signals that the cat is getting to the point of over stimulation. The key to reducing the incidents of over stimulation is to stop before the cat gets to the point where he or she strikes out. Watch the body language of the cat and always stop petting as soon as you see the signs of over stimulation. Leave the cat wanting more. Often the animal is content to just keep sitting quietly on the person's lap after petting has stopped. By consistently stopping stroking before the cat gets to the over stimulation point, the amount of time it takes to get the point of over stimulation should get longer. Over a period of time some cats will no longer get over stimulated if they are never brought to this point. From this practice, it seems that some cases of over stimulation behavior can be slowly eliminated.
It is always important to ask any visitors to your home not to pet a cat who gets overstimulated. If the cat jumps into their lap, and they are comfortable, ask them to just let the cat sit on their lap without petting. If they are not comfortable, just nudge the cat off of their lap yourself. It is not a good idea to pick up a cat who gets over stimulated. It is no surprise that a cat who can only take a small amount of petting will become overloaded very quickly when picked up.
In some cases, cats who get over stimulated do not give signals before they strike out. For these cases it is best to try to estimate the amount of time that the animal will tolerate stroking and stop well short of that point. In these more extreme cases, using a wooden back scratcher rather than your hand is a safe alternative to getting scratched if the cat reaches the over stimulation point.
Helping a cat who gets over stimulated to enjoy longer periods of stroking can improve the quality of life for both you and your pet. It is amazing to see how paying attention to signs leading up to the over stimulation point and stopping before reaching it can help the majority of these animals in just a short amount of time. Patience and attention to the body language of your cat is the key to improving your life with a cat who gets over stimulated.