Petting-Induced Aggression in Domestic Felines – Unprovoked Attack or Misunderstanding? (Part One)

(Over the next several posts, I will be discussing petting-induced aggression in domestic felines. Part One frames the problem and gives a foundation for discussing this behavior concern in future posts.)

"All the sudden", "out of nowhere" and "without warning" are phrases often uttered by humans when describing incidents between them and domestic cats. These incidents often end in scratches or bites, but even worse are the hurt feelings and damaged relationships left in their wake. Aggressive behavior is one of the leading reasons for relinquishment of cats to shelters and rescue groups (Salman, 2000) and is also a leading reasons for cat owners to contact a feline behavior professional. Why are such a large number of bites directly related to contact initiated by humans? There must be a reason for the miscommunication between cats and humans. What are humans missing?

Missing information is a key puzzle piece when trying to understand why cats bite the hand that pets them. When cats bite, scratch or threaten during petting sessions that seemed to be enjoyable for both human and cat it can be quite shocking to the human in the relationship. Many times it seems that the cat is enjoying the interaction one second, and just as quickly is injuring the hand that only moments ago brought comfort. Why the change? Is the actual act of aggression really "out of the blue?" A review of feline communication, including body language, will help decode this puzzle.

Feline Body Language

Generally, cats are quite clear about conflict. Their body language is easy to read once you know what the signals mean. Most body language can be divided into two categories: distance-increasing and distance-decreasing. The use of distance-increasing behaviors or signals when interacting with humans generally indicates a conflict that, for the cat, is rooted in fear and defensive behaviors.

When necessary a cat will use ritualized aggressive behaviors to avoid actual physical conflict. As noted in Think Like a Cat:

"Defensive Aggression: dilated pupils, ears flattened (facing down and back), whiskers pulled back along face, arched back, piloerection or hair coat, tail held either up and over the back or low to the ground or inverted "U" position, facing opponent sideways, mouth held open, hissing, growling, spitting, slapping the ground in front of him with front paw, rolling onto his back to fight if there's no means of escape." (Johnson-Bennett, p.36)

Other authors describe these behaviors differently.

"Fear can be associated with forms of distance-increasing silent communication. In addition to the arched back and piloerection of the other threat postures, the fearful threat includes signs of apprehension such as salivation, extreme mydriasis (dilation of the pupil), sweating of the foot pads, flattened ears, and panting. The body may be lowered into a crouched position similar to that of the pariah threat, the head is down adn the tail is down or tucked between the rear limbs." (Beaver, p.111-112)

Another reason that we need to take these behaviors seriously is because distance-increasing behavior is controlled from within the central nervous system. (Beaver, p. 113). Therefore, these are not just simple emotional responses displayed without thought. The cat recognizes its fear and responds accordingly and purposefully. They are attempting, in their own set of feline body language rules, to ask for more distance between them and the human. If they are displaying species-specific distance-increasing signals, why are those signals and their meaning, so invisible to many humans?

(Stay tuned for Part Two wherein I will discuss the details surrounding petting-induced aggression, including the cat perspective on touch and petting.)

Beaver, B.V., (2003) Feline Behavior: A Guide for Veterinarians, 2nd Edition. St. Louis, MO: Elsevier Science

Johnson-Bennett, P. (2000) Think Like a Cat New York, NY: Penguin Group.


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Miranda K. Workman

MS, CCBC, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KSA

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Telephone : ​716-465-5877

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Purrfect Paws Animal Behavior Center, LLC.

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