Saturday, March 19, 2011

To Pet or Not to Pet

Our cat this week is Prince.  Now, we all know Prince leads a busy life.  He has to patrol the edges of his territory (the house),  keep an eye on his fellow housecats while lounging conspicuously on his high perches, and allow every human visitor to admire his natural feline beauty as he rubs around their legs.  Every once in a while, he’s kind enough to jump up onto his owner Nikki’s lap for a little petting session.  Now, these sessions always start out well.  Nikki firmly strokes Prince from his head all the way down to his tail.  He arches his back, and then he rolls and curls up while purring loudly.  Suddenly, out of the blue, his ears flatten slightly, the tip of his tail twitches, and he whips around to bite Nikki!  Nikki is confused and hurt (hopefully not bleeding).  Everything was going so well!

We call this kind of aggression ‘petting aggression’.  It’s a very difficult type of aggression to combat because it seems so happen randomly and without warning.  Luckily, there are some things we can do to recognize and head off these episodes.

Our first strategy is, in my opinion, the hardest.  Some cats will rub against your legs, purr, and then snap when you naturally lean down to pet them.  We have to recognize that, just as some people are not huggers, some cats are not petting cats.  While they like to show us affection (or claim ownership), they’re not that fond of the way we respond.  We have to pay attention to the way we interact with these family friends.  This, actually, is the key.  If you have a cat who snaps at you, you need to be aware of your interaction with your cat.  If Prince wanders past your chair as you’re watching T.V., don’t absently reach down to pet him.  He might not be in the mood. 

When it comes to lap petting sessions, these cats are very challenging.  They genuinely seem to enjoy the attention, but at some point they pass a threshold, and (seemingly without warning) they bite.  Luckily, they do usually give warning, but it’s fast, subtle warning.  When asked, a lot of owners agree that the hairs on the back of their neck seem to stand up just before kitty bites.  Subconsciously, we’re already picking up on our cats’ signals.  We just need to recognize what we’re sensing. 

Here’s a testy-kitty petting strategy:  First, when petting, stick to kitty’s head – along the cheeks and around the ears and neck.  For a cat, these petting areas are like shaking hands.  Rubbing all the way down the back is a bit more intimate for a cat – sort of like a big bear hug.  While it’s stimulating, it may be over stimulating your kitty.  Also, when you’re stroking the length of your cat, you’re not paying as much attention to his face and your hands (his potential targets).  When your cat is starting to reach the point of over stimulation, he’ll probably give you one or more of these subtle warnings:  the tip of his tail will twitch every so slightly, his ears will flatten to the sides, he’ll become very still, he may growl softly, and/or his eyes will seem to cross.  This means he’s just about had enough.  It’s time for you to, without touching him with your hands, stand up.  Your lap disappears, petting time is over, and nobody got hurt.  (If you don’t know you’re seeing these signs, trust your instincts.  If you start to get nervous, stand up.)

These kinds of cats will probably never sit in your lap for hours.  If they do sit on your lap, they may not want petting (which is very frustrating).  If you really want to pet them, it’s best to have short, planned petting sessions.  Then end on your terms; which is actually great for both of you.  It’s stressful for him to feel he needs to control interaction, and it’s better for you to have trusted control.  In the long run, you’ll see more trust and respect in your relationship with a ‘Prince’ of a cat.

Next Week:  Box Under Cover?

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