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

(This is the Fourth and final installment in a series addressing petting-induced aggression in domestic cats. You can click on the links to read Part One, Part Two and Part Three.)

Where do we go from here?

In order to fully understand our feline companions, with a view to reducing the human-cat conflict described in previous posts, we must begin asking some specific questions to ensure that we are reducing the number of times and situations where we are putting cats in conflict with us because of our own behavior.

More detailed research into the physiological contributions to petting-induced aggression is needed. We need to undertand exactly how information is transferred between the nerve endings in a cat's skin and his brain. Where is the destination for the information provided from those nerves? Does it affect pain centers in the brain? Could this be a reason for the petting-induced aggression? Is touch actually painful? How important is the hypersensitivity of the cutaneous trunci? We could start by electrically stimulating the cutaneous trunci and following the communication to the brain. By understanding where this communication goes, we can start to understand if certain reactionary brain structures such as the amygdala or the HPA axis are involved in the seemingly intense and aggressive reactions when petting supercedes the cat's threshold for touch.

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We need to learn more about the sleep systems in cats to understand how the "twilight sleep" affects the brain. We also need to learn more about waking behavior in cats. Does being startled awake engage different brain areas causing cats to react aggressively/differently than if they wake normally? Put simply, we need more information about the physiologic nature of cats and how they react to touch in varioius states along the sleep-wake continuum.

The flip side of the relationship coin requires that we also need to study how humans ciew cats. By understanding what they currently know and believe will help guide us to new, more effective ways to educate the general population about feline body language. Surveys of the general public including questions about general cat body language will help us understand what the common knowledge is about feline body language.

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In order to educate the general cat-owning population, we need more research about how cats interact physically with one another. Observational studies of cats in multi-cat homes will give us more information about which physical contact is preferred by the general domestic cat population. This will lead us to ask questions about how best to replicate pleasurable physical contact for our domestic felines. Is there a compromise for petting that humans love so much (the belly, sides and tail) and the cats' preference for touch in their head and neck area only?

As an Anthrozoologist, I feel that it is important that we look at the cross-species relationships such as those between domestic pets and humans. By asking questions about both sides of the relationships we start to understand more about ourselves in the process. If we are going to continue to share these close relationships with other, non-human animals, we need to understand them more clearly. The more we learn, the less our surprise with aggressive behaviors. No longer will our bonds with our cats be broken due to behaviors that occur "out of the blue."

How Do Humans Learn to Listen?

Educating humans about feline body language in imperative. Cats are now the number one pet in North America. There are now 74.1 million pet cats in the USA as compared to 69.9 million dogs. (Dale, 2012) As this number continues to grow, we will continue to see an increase in bites and scratches from our most popular pet. Feline behavior professionals will have ever more work to do translating feline behavior into terms that the general population of humans can understand in order to avoid more damage - physical and emotional damage. Shelters will see increases in cats surrendered due to owner directed aggression. In 2000 it was listed as one of the top three reasons for relinquishment of cats to a shelter in a study of relinquishment data to 12 shelters. Up to 26% of the relinquishment reasons include a form of humane-directed aggression (Salman, et al, p.96)


Continuing to learn to both listen and hear our feline friends in their language is absolutely necessary to prevent additional aggressive encounters. We must start to understand their social structure more clearly, how they communicate in their native language. We need to start seeing the subtle signals for what they are - a request for space, not a cry for help seeking assistance from a human who has little experience comforting a more socially independent feline. We need to love them for who they are and celebrate their language.

Dale, S. (2012) AVMA Releases Pet Census Results [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.

Salman, M.D., Hutchinson, I. & Ruch-Gallie (2000) Behavioral Reasons for Relinquishment of Dogs and Cats to 12 Shelters. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 3(2), 93-106

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