by Barbara George – Tellington Ttouch Behaviourist
Cats are generally very touch-sensitive – this is part of their survival instinct as solitary hunters; they need to be aware of every sound, smell, sight, and touch all the time. It’s no wonder that they react to overstimulation, seemingly at the flick of a whisker!
Petting aggression is the term used when the cat that has been peacefully lying on your lap, enjoying being stroked, suddenly flips the switch and attacks with teeth and claws. She has been giving off subtle signals for a while; since we haven’t been listening or watching, she has escalated the message to a higher level. By the time you are seeing dilated eyes or stiff legs, it is already quite a high warning, and you are lucky to get away unscathed. As always, it’s a good idea to check for any possible medical issues first.
There are a number of ways to cuddle your cat without being violently attacked! While some cats love to be petted, and can stay for an hour or more, most have a lesser time limit. Monitor to see your cat’s acceptance level.
Are you petting or patting? Petting is a gentle touch, a light and mindful stroke, whereas patting is harder and less mindful. Patting is really irritating to cats, as every firm touch is registered in the brain as a potential threat, and stress levels can accelerate rapidly. Gentle petting, on the other hand, is soothing and relaxing, releases happy endorphins, and benefits both the cat and yourself.
Be conscious of where you are petting; a specific place may be a no-go zone for your cat, or it may an indication of pain. Both of these will raise the stress level and lead to an attack.
Learn the subtle signs of stress and overstimulation, and stop petting as soon as the first ones are used. A flick of an ear, whiskers pulled back, tension in the body, raised fur, head turning sideways, and change in vocalisation, are all subtle signals. Ones that may be more difficult to see when she is on your lap include dilated eyes and lip-licking.
By stopping petting as soon as a signal is recognised, you are showing respect for her feelings, and that you understand her language. This helps to build trust, and she will be more receptive to future petting sessions.
The smell of your hands may be a trigger, either because she likes the smell, or because she doesn’t like it. Either option can cause her to lick or bite your hands.
The head and neck are typically places where cats enjoy touch. These are areas they cannot reach themselves for grooming, and also where most allogrooming between social cats takes place. Start and end petting sessions here, so that each session begins and ends on a happy note.
Try a pet-and-pause strategy to limit the amount of touch, while lengthening the time she stays with you. Gently pet her for a short while, stroke over the head and neck, them take your hands away and relax for a few minutes, allowing her to settle, then pet again for a short while, and pause again. This way it is possible to have a longer petting session with a touch-sensitive cat, and who knows, she may even like it!
For the addictive petter, something other than you hand may be better tolerated. A soft grooming mitt, soft toy, even a folded soft cloth, is less invasive than a hand. Our hands can feel warm, and even threatening, while a firm touch with a soft item can be more soothing and relaxing. This can also be a good way for young children to learn how to pet a cat, as they are not as aware of pressure, and may not read the warning signals correctly.
Whatever the outcome of the petting session, punishment of any description, no matter how mild, will make her less likely to want to be petted in future. Short and respectful petting with a gentle ending makes it more likely that she will enjoy, and even request, another petting session.
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