Okay, so. You’re sitting on the sofa, watching TV, and your cat slowly slinks over. She gives you the “maybe I will” and “maybe I won’t let you adore me” dance before she finally snuggles down into your lap, purring and rubbing against you in the ritual request for affection. You smile and stroke her head, her neck, her pretty little face… and out of nowhere she spins around, latches onto your arm, impaling your skin with her claws and sinking her teeth into your hand. After savaging your arm like Kitty Cujo, she leaps to the floor and scurries away with her hackles up her ears tucked back and her tail whipping around like a conductor’s baton during a double-time performance of Flight of the Bumble Bee. So what the heck just happened?
It’s called “petting aggression.”
Of the several types of cat aggression, none confuses, frustrates, and scares the wits out of a cat owner as much as petting aggression, also known as status-related aggression. With “play aggression” being first, petting aggression is the second most common feline behavior problem seen by animal behaviorists. Here at the Humane Society of the Nature Coast, this is often the reason we hear as to why someone will want to surrender their cat or to return one they recently adopted.
If you have small children or elderly family members around, that attack could cause some serious injuries. It happens infrequently and seemingly without warning. So, what do you do to protect your family and keep your otherwise precious kitty as well?
Schedule a Visit to the Veterinarian
If you are the target of your cat’s petting-induced aggression, the first thing to do is schedule a visit with your veterinarian to rule out the possibility that the aggression is being induced by illness or pain. Examples include arthritis, dental disease, skin conditions, urinary tract infection, a thyroid disorder, or anal gland problems. A complete behavioral history may reveal contributing factors — removed from mama and siblings too early, conflicts with other pets in the house — or past trauma, such as a prior hip fracture, abuse, or a tail that once got pinched in a door.
Once medical and behavioral history has been dismissed as the cause of the petting aggression, it’s time to make plans for some selective behavior modification. Of course, the best place to start is always at the beginning.
Learn the signs
Petting aggression assaults don’t happen without warning. If you are paying attention, your cat will show clear signs of irritation just before she attacks. These signs may include a suddenly tense body, dilated pupils, flattened ears, a rippling of the back and a twitching tail. When you see these signs, stop whatever you are doing because they don’t like it.
Pay attention to what riggers your kitty’s petting aggression. Is it when you rub her neck, her face, her lower back, or when you touch her whiskers? How about when you try to rub her belly? After you discover what the trigger is, it’s time to determine the petting threshold. Maybe she likes getting scratched between the ears, but only a little.
Let the cat set the pace
Try this. Just sit back and focus on something other than getting your cat to let you snuggle — like a good book or watching TV — and wait for your cat to come to you. When your cat approaches for attention, start by greeting them the way cats greet each other. Felines who are friendly with each other greet each other by touching noses. You can mimic that behavior by offering a non-threatening finger tip at their nose level, a few inches away. Your cat will likely sniff your finger, tap it with their nose and maybe even rub into it. That is called a successful greeting.
Of course, after a successful greeting you will want to go straight into petting. But, don’t. Resist. Let your cat tell you when she’s ready. Maybe she will just want to sit near you before climbing over into your lap. Let her do so. Just keep reading your book or watching TV. Maybe she will give you the side-face rub, or the head-butt. Both are good signs of affection from your cat. Only give small doses of touch when she asks for more.
As your affection sessions get longer, you will eventually hit that point where you sense Kitty Cujo is about to come out. That’s when you stop.
Desensitize your cat.
After you discover what flips the Kitty Cujo switch, it’s time to learn to stop petting just short of her trigger point. As soon as you sense the switch is about to flip, stop petting her and give her a treat. Over time, your kitty will learn that calm interactions are controlled by you and followed by yummy treats. By doing this, you will be training your cat to understand that reward comes by exhibiting the behavior you want.
Never use physical punishment as a method of teaching your cat about unacceptable behavior. Rough corrections will only intensify the problem. Vigorous handling during play sessions is a no-no as well as rough play will cause Kitty Cujo to rear it’s fang-bearing head.
Perhaps the hardest thing for a kitty parent to do when dealing with petting-induced aggression is to accept the cat’s limits. What cat-lover doesn’t want to snuggle up with a happy, purring kitty and run their fingers through that soft, silky fur? Unfortunately, some cats just don’t like too much physical affection. This doesn’t make them bad kitties or poor companions and it doesn’t mean they don’t love you.
With some time and patience, your capricious kitty can settle down and learn to accept your affection and you can learn how much attention she’s comfortable with receiving at one time. With a bit more understanding of her personality and boundaries, your kitty will eventually be comfortable enough to show you how much she really does love you.