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September 2, 2014

Biting the Hand that Pets: Petting Induced Aggression

04.07.13 Cats usually give warnings when they do not want to be petted any more. Learn the signs: tail swishing, skin twitching or rolling, ears back, whiskers flattened against cheeks, vocalizations. When these signs are ignored, cats will typically look at the hand petting them and then in an extreme effort to communicate their wishes–bite.

My Cat is Mad at Me

I know my cat is mad at me because she is: (urinating on the bed, defecating on my clothes, biting me when I sleep, scratching the furniture—fill in the blank—). People sometimes jump to the conclusion that their cats have a vendetta against them or are mad at them when they engage in unpleasant behaviors. I hear this frequently from my clients.

Behavior does not occur in a vacuum. There is always a reason for behavior, cats being mad at their people or trying to get even with them is not one of them. Cats do not hold grudges. People do.

Look beyond vendettas and grudges.

Check the environment—look for the circumstances that contribute to the behavior. Inadequate litter box maintenance, poor litter box locations, lack of scratching posts and vertical territory, changes in schedules and household tensions are examples of situations that set the stage for unwelcome behaviors.

Additionally, check out the consequences of the behavior. Consequences predict if a cat will repeat a behavior. It is common for cat parents to unknowingly reinforce behaviors. Attention seeking, night time/early morning demands, counter surfing and aggression are some behaviors that people easily and accidentally reinforce.  A cat who wakes her favorite person at dawn will predictably repeat the annoying behavior if her person feeds and pays attention to her. The cat has learned that when she wakes her person, she gets what she wants—food and attention. A cat who bites when soliciting play most likely has been played with using hands and bites during play. The cat, enjoying the interaction with her favorite person, will try to solicit attention and play from her favorite person through biting.

There are other times when no one is reinforcing the behavior. A cat who urinates on their favorite person’s bed or couch may feel safe eliminating in those locations (always rule out any medical reasons by first having the cat examined by a veterinarian). Beds and couches usually have extensive views—perfect for a cat to identify and then escape a potential threat. Feeling safe is the consequence of urinating on the bed or couch.

It is easy to understand why people make ethnocentric assumptions about cat behavior. Humans hold grudges and they sometimes indulge in vendettas against each other. Cats don’t hold grudges, neither do they engage in unpleasant behaviors because they are mad at a specific person. Look beyond initial assumptions for the reasons for a behavior. After identifying the triggers, a successful behavior modification plan can be designed and implemented.

Ninja Kitten! Play Aggression

Today I met an adorable kitten—a 12 week old orange fluff ball, appropriately named Fluffer, who had been adopted when she was 8 weeks old. This tiny little ball of fur was terrorizing her adoring humans, biting and scratching whenever she wanted to play. According to the sleep-deprived cat parents, the only down time they got was when the kitten ate and eliminated. They were desperate for help and asked me to come to their home.

I was greeted at the door by Brittany and her frustrated mother, Anne. In the middle of the room Christopher, Anne’s husband, laughed and giggled as he delighted in playing with Fluffer, rolling the kitten on her back and petting her irresistible tummy. I watched for a few minutes as Christopher hid his hand under a newspaper, moving his fingers, encouraging Fluffer to stalk and pounce.

According to Anne and Christopher, Fluffer stalked and attacked at every opportunity. The time of day or the circumstances didn’t matter—when Fluffer wanted attention, she jumped, attacked and then bit. Usually she didn’t break skin, but occasionally she did. The problem, instead of getting better had worsened. Christopher admitted that when Fluffer went into attack mode, he usually responded by roughhousing with her.

I wondered if Christopher would be willing to change the way he related to Fluffer.

90% Human Behavior; 10% Kitten

It is natural for kittens to play intensely. Although play is fun it is also serious business. Kittens learn important survival and social skills when they play. Play also helps kittens develop coordination.

Kittens are little sponges when it comes to learning—they have to be in order to survive in a hostile world. Like all animals, one way they learn is by repeating behaviors when the behaviors are rewarded. Christopher reinforced Fluffer’s biting by using his hands when playing with the kitten. He also encouraged the kitten to grab and bite him during play—rewarding the kitten with attention when she attacked. Fluffer, being a bright kitten, assumed that biting was acceptable so now whenever she wants to interact with her favorite people she does what works—biting.

Brittany caught on right way. She thought a possible solution would be re-homing her dad so that he wouldn’t roughhouse with Fluffer anymore. Brittany wanted a kitten she could snuggle and cuddle with, not a Ninja kitten who pounced and attempted to kill anything that moved.

Changing Behaviors

The kitten’s behavior can be changed, but everyone in the household has to be on board—modifying how they interact with Fluffer. Christopher has to stop using his hands when playing with the kitten and he needs to resist roughhousing with her. His task is to learn how to play; using pole type toys and other interactive play items instead of his hands.

Time outs will also help change Fluffer’s behavior. Whenever she becomes over-stimulated or solicits attention through biting, Fluffer’s victim needs to stand up and leave the room without interacting with her. Time outs are short; a few seconds are usually all that is needed. Fluffer will quickly learn that when she bites and attacks, her favorite playmates disappear.

Everyone in the household promised they would do their part—changing the way they played with the kitten. Brittany could now look forward to stashing the first aid kit in the cabinet and safely snuggling with her little kitten.

Cat Aggression

Petting induced aggression

There are many flavors of aggression, caused by a variety of triggers. One common aggression that seems to come out of left field is petting induced aggression. It usually occurs when devoted cat people are having special moments with their cats, petting, stroking and cuddling. Suddenly “out of nowhere” their beloved cats turns, bites and sometimes scratches. The physical and emotional damage can be painful. Along with bites and scratches, the victims often take the aggression personally. It just doesn’t make sense to cat-parents why their cats, who they are so bonded to, suddenly hurt them.

The cat isn’t being bad, nor does the cat have a sudden vendetta against her person. Petting induced aggression usually occurs when being stroked and touched becomes unpleasant for the cat. The cat may have a sensitive spot or the stroking may become too intense for her. Or, she may be falling asleep and suddenly is startled awake. In the majority of cases, the cat does try to communicate through her body language that she’s had enough. Unfortunately, most people don’t catch on to her subtle hints. When all other endeavors at communication fail, the cat uses a direct approach that is immediately understood—she bites or scratches.

Avoid being a victim of petting induced aggression by first learning to recognize the warnings. Cats communicate through body language and sometimes through vocalizations when they’ve had enough handling and petting. When cats have had their fill they often communicate their wishes by thrashing their tails, positioning their ears back, flattening whiskers against their face, tenseness and fur rippling. If these subtle messages are ignored, cats will look quickly at the hand that is petting them and then will bite it.

The next step to avoid being a victim of petting induced aggression is simple. As soon as the cat communicates her discomfort at being handled, stop interacting with her. After a time out you may be able to carefully pet her again, avoiding the sensitive areas and varying how she is petted.