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

(This is Part Two in a series about petting-induced aggression. You can read Part One here.)

One clear example of human-feline miscommunication happens as a result of petting-induced aggression. This is described during a situation wherein a cat is near a human (often sitting on their lap or next to them) and they seem to be enjoying the physical contact (petting). With lightening quickness, the once pleasurable interaction turns violent. At times, the human is left with damage from a bite or scratch. "The majority of cat bites are the result of one of two things: predatory or playful stalking and pouncing by the cat, or rough petting and handling by the owner." (Lachman & Mickadeit, p.64) This leads us to ask: Are humans to blame for petting-induced aggression?

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We first must realize that humans have a much less intimate history with cats when compared to dogs. Cats certainly are not small dogs. They come from a more solitary and loose social structure most unlike our own. We struggle to understand their social relationships as they are more independent individuals than we are. This, in my opinion, is one of the core reasons humans have trouble understanding cats which results in conflict between the species.

There are at least two theories about why petting-induced aggression occurs. The first theory discusses the possibility of a disconnet from reality initiated by the dissociation related to "twilight sleep" - the moment when an individual is slipping away from conscious awareness and and into sleep. Therefore, the stark re-awakening creates a conflict between what the cat is aware of and what he is feeling at that moment.

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"The...theory holds that the petting and handling are so pleasurable that the cat falls into a light sleep, oblivious to its surroundings. The cat awakens suddenly and, still not completely oriented, is aware only of 'confinement' and fights its way to freedom." (Beaver, p.145)

This certainly does not explain a large number of petting-induced aggressive encounters wherein the cat remains conscious and clearly awake. In those situations, they seem to first enjoy the physical attention only to quickly and violently lash out at the hand that is petting them. "One theory is that the cat initially enjoys the handling and petting, which finally become excessive and reach a threshold level." (Beaver, p. 145) This indicates a sensitivity to touch that seems to elude observation by humans. Why?

Again, the social structures rise to the top. We forget that our social structures of close physical and emotional contact are not shared by our feline friends. "Remember, cats in the wild aren't close contact animals. Some have low thresholds for how much touch they can tolerate before pleasure turns to discomfort." (Johnson-Bennett, p. 144). Herein lies the problem...our idea of "close contact" is very different from that held by most of the cats that we interact with. They do not enjoy contact in the same way that humans do. This is where the cross-species communication starts to break down.

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As explained by Pam Johnson-Bennett, "The signs that an owner often misses include tail lashing or thumping, skin twitching, or a shifting of body position. Sometimes the cat looks back at you several times, rying to figure out why you're not getting the message." It is not that humans don't observe these behaviors. Sometimes, we do forget to observe our cats when we are interacting with them. We are so comfortable when around them that we fail to be present with them in the moment. Even if we are present, some humans do not understand the meaning behind all the communication the cat is sending. We fail to learn how to speak cat.

Another wrinkle in the relationships occur when we see behaviors that indicate discomfort or fear in those close to us. Our first instinct is to draw them closer to us in order to comfort them; tell them that everything is ok. We see "a twitching tail, flattening of the ears, or tensing of the body [that] could be signs, however subtle, that your kitten is no longer enjoying being petted." (Ackerman, p. 95) Too often, when a cat is displaying distance-increasing behaviors, especially when the cat is confined to a lap or a cage or a carrier, we do not see a request for distance, but rather a cry for help. What do humans do when faced with a distressed individual seeking help? We help them of course!

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Distress causes humans to often try to resolve the situation by comforting the individual in distress. We do this through touch, hugging and other physical contact. In the booklet entitled "Helping Children Overcome Fears" from the Purdue University Department of Child Development and Family Studies discusses how to comfort a fearful child. Of the fears represented through pre-school age, the advice provided for 5 of 7 fears included touch (picking up child, hugging child, touching child) as a recommended way to comfort the child. (Goetze & Meyers-Walls, 2004). Often times, adults react to animals as if they were younger children, dependent on them for comfort - which apparently requires touch by human rules. Recent studies even point out that the same parts of our brain activate when we are looking at children or pets. (Stoeckel, et al, 2014) It makes sense then that as humans we would react like a human - we reach out and touch someone - even if that someone doesn't want to be touched simply because we think we are doing the right thing.

So many times I have observed cats in their cages at an animal shelter hissing, flattening ears, and looking at us with dilated pupils - obvious distance-increasing signals. At the same time, the human at the other end of that interaction continues to reach for, touch and speak to the cat saying phrases such as, "It's ok kitty. I won't hurt you. You're fine." Humans react as if they were small human children, not adults from another species who are not so enthused about our "help."

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Eventually, there are no other options left to the cat - ritualized aggression (behaviors meant to avoid actual physical aggressive behaviors) and requests for space through distance-increasing body language fail. They must take more definitive action - they must swiftly and clearly create the distance they once so politely requested. This is when cats scratch and bite. It is then and only then that humans finally get it right - the cat needed space. Yet, all the precursor signals were ignored.

Stay tuned for Part Three where I will discuss how we gather information about cats and how that can help us overcome the human-cat language barrier to create more harmonious relationships.

Ackerman, L. (1996) Cat Behavior and Training: Veterinary Advice for Owners. Neptune City, NJ: T.F.H. Publication, Inc.

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

Goetze, G. & Meyers-Walls, J. A. (2004) Helping Children Overcome Fear. [ONLINE] Available at: [Last Accessed December 4, 2012]

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

Lachman, L. & Mickadeit, F. (2000) Cats on the Counter: Therapy and Training for Your Cat. New York, NY: St. Martin's Press

Stoeckel LE, Palley LS, Gollub RL, Niemi SM, Evins AE (2014) Patterns of Brain Activation when Mothers View Their Own Child and Dog: An fMRI Study. PLoS ONE 9(10)

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