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

(This is Part Three in a series addressing petting-induced aggression. Click here for Part One and Part Two.)

The Tip of the Iceberg in Feline Research on Petting-Induced Aggression

In 2005, Kakima, et al reviewed a group of 25 cats presented for behavioral concerns in Japan. Of these cases, 17 (68%) presented for significant aggression toward humans. This is a large percentage when compared with other countries such as the UK (23%) or the United States (13%). The authors presented two theories about the differences: (1) behavioral veterinary medication and behavior consulting for feline problems is still a relatively new concept in Japan and (2) the Japanese feline population is significantly more aggressive than cats from the UK and USA. If the first reason listed is the true, then it stands to reason that if behavior veterinary medicine is a new concept in Japan, then the general population's understanding of feline behavior will be less sophisticated when compared to the UK and USA. This is an endorsement that education about feline behavior does work. A more educated culture results in less human-directed aggression in cats. (Kakima, et al, 2005)

Brazil did not fare much better when reviewing the domestic cat population. A 2009 study by Ramon & Mills reviewed surveys completed by 107 cat owners from Sao Paulo. They noted that human directed-aggression occurred in nearly 50% of domestic cats. The most common situation in which aggressive behavior was observed was petting and playing. Sensitivity to being stroked was associated with an increased risk for aggressive behavior in one or more contexts. In addition to being stroked, background stress levels in the home were found to be the most pervasive risk factors. This seems to indicate that here may be both physiological and psychological factors contributing to the potential for petting-induced aggression. (Ramon & Mills, 2009)

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Also in 2005, research was presented indicating that here was no difference in socialization (and therefore incidence of human-directed aggression) between kittens that were hand-raised by humans from an early age and those reared by their feline mother. This research seems to indicate that petting-induced aggression (and potentially other conflict-related aggressive behaviors) is not correlated with early socialization efforts. Therefore, it would appear that there must be another explanation for why cats bite the hand that pets them. This would point to a need for more research on the physiological basis for human-directed aggression. (Chon, E., 2005)

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Terry Marie Curtis discusses petting-induced aggressive behaviors in her 2008 review of aggressive behaviors in the domestic cat. Her discussion makes a unique point about the development of grooming behaviors in domestic cats. During observation of cats who are grooming one another, they primarily groom one another on the head and neck area - not on the back, sides or tail area. If cats avoid those areas in their interactions with one another (these are generally only touched during self-grooming situations), it may be a big red flag indicating that there may be a reason for avoiding those areas when humans are petting cats. Because this is not well understood the identification and treatment of petting-induced aggression is controversial at best. (Curtis, 2008)

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When discussing physiological triggers for petting-induced aggression, Dr. Alexander de Lahunta, DVM notes in an article published by the Cornell Feline Health Center that cats have a skeletal muscle called the cutaneous trunci under the skin that is hyper-sensitive when touched, petted or scratched. This would explain why cats avoid grooming one another in that area and only do so when self-grooming. The head and neck area do not have this hypersensitive muscle. (Ewing, 2010)

A condition eliciting similar behavior to petting-induced aggression is feline hyperesthesia syndrome. This poorly understood condition is thought to be related to either neuropathic pain or seizure type activity triggered by touch. Treatment of this condition has shown some success when using gapapentin - a drug commonly used in both human and veterinary medicine for treating neuropathic pain. The self-directed aggressive behaviors common in this syndrome are often elicited by touching the same areas housing the cutaneous trunci This seems to imply a link between hyperesthesia syndrome and petting-induced aggression where the cause could be rooted in the hypersensitivity of the cutaneous trunci with the difference being the target to the aggressive behaviors - self-directed in hyperesthesia syndrome and the human in petting-induced aggression. (Lorimeter & Ciribassi, 2009)

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All the above studies and papers seem to indicate that there is potential for both physiological and psychological factors contributing to the risk for petting-induced aggression in the domestic cat. We need to understand more about the role of the hypersensitive cutaneous trunci muscle in relation to touch. Other cats avoid those area, yet this is the first place where humans tend to touch and pet cats: on their back, sides and tail areas. Also, we need to investigate the role of stress and whether or not it affects the brain's response to the cutaneous trunci's hypersensitivity to touch.

In the next installment, I will discuss how we use the information we have to be better companions to our feline friends and what we still need to learn.

Chon, F. (2005) The Effects of Queen-Raising versus Hand-Rearing on Feline Aggression and Other Problematic Behaviors. In: Mills, D. et al (ed) Current Issues and Research in Veterinary Beahvioral Medicine. Purdue University Press.

Curtis DVM, T. M. (2005) Human Directed Aggression in the Cat. Veterinary Clinic Small Animal Practice. 30, pp. 1131-1143

Ewing, T. (2010) Hyperesthesia Syndrome [ONLINE] Available at:

Kakima, Y. el al., (2005) High Prevalence of Feline Aggression Cases Targeted Towards People in Japan. In: Mills, D. et al (ed), Current Issues and Research in Veterinary Behavioral Medicine. Purdue University Press.

Lorimeter, L. & Ciribassi, J. (2009) Feline Hyperesthesia Syndrome. [ONLINE] Avaialble at:

Ramon, D. & Mills, DS. (2009) Human directed aggression in Brazilian domestic cats: owner reported prevalence, contexts adn risk factors. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, 11. pp. 835-41

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