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Does Your Cat have a Split Personality?

This one really baffles me: Petting induced aggression. Have you ever heard of it? It sounds like a contradiction in…

This one really baffles me: Petting induced aggression. Have you ever heard of it? It sounds like a contradiction in terms, right? If you are a cat owner, chances are you have experienced it, perhaps without ever knowing it is a “thing.” I had a cat for years and I just thought she had some kind of personality disorder… sort of a Jekyll & Hyde thing. Apparently, she was perfectly normal!

Not all cats experience pettinginduced aggression. Some revel in belly rubs, stroking and caressing. In fact, some cat owners say their cats are very affectionate. For others, there are limits. Here is what happens: Your cat initiates a cuddle time… purring, rubbing against you, and we, as pet owners are more than happy to accommodate. After a few minutes of loving bliss, your cat will suddenly get ticked-off, scratch or nip at you, and then run away! What in the world?!

Petting induced aggression is difficult to understand. The easiest way to explain it is that some cats simply have limited tolerance for human touch. Experts say there are several theories as to why it happens.

It’s so irritating!

The repetitiveness of motion can sometimes cause irritation. It’s kind of like if you scratch or rub an area of your skin repeatedly, it will likely become inflamed or irritated. I imagine that is the kind of irritation that cats can experience when we pet them repeatedly. A cat’s skin has very sensitive tactile receptors. An over-stimulation of these receptors can be uncomfortable for a cat. With this heightened sense of touch, it is easy to understand how petting can be annoying to them.

It hurts!

Speaking of a cat’s overly sensitive tactile receptors, some believe that these receptors get their signals crossed in the brain and the pleasure of being caressed turns into pain. I find that theory a little ambiguous, but I do think it is possible that petting can be painful to a cat. And pain is a logical reason for the unprovoked aggression in cats that follows a petting session.

There is always a possibility that something really does hurt. When we rub up against a bruise, for example, it just hurts. Likewise, petting a cat with a sore back or tummy could certainly aggravate existing pain. A trip to the veterinarian would also be helpful if your pet shows signs of aggression when being petted. They could be suffering from painful underlying medical problems, like arthritis, some kind of dental pain, maybe an ear infection, or some type of skin affliction.

There is also an interesting condition called Feline Hyperesthesia Syndrome, FHS. FHS is also known as “rolling skin disease,” characterized by rippling or rolling skin along the spine. It causes extreme sensitivity and can be painful to the cat when touched. What is most interesting is that there is not one single origin. It can be dermatological, neurological, or behavioral, but regardless, the sensitivity is intense. It sounds awful.

Where do cats like to be pet?

If you think about it, cats are not really accustomed to being petted on the body. As a species, they greet and groom one another only around the face and neck. Anything lower than that – particularly the belly or lower back – can be very offensive to them, or even perceived as a threat.

Cats prefer to do things on their own terms. Allowing themselves to be confined to your lap while being stroked puts them in a vulnerable position. It may be very overwhelming to them. And it could be that your cat merely has a preference of where it wants to be touched. Cats are particular little creatures, and unlike most dogs, they prefer things done their way. They may tolerate being petted in more sensitive areas, but only for a little while before Mr. Hyde appears. Learning where to pet a cat and their level of tolerance is important.

Cat Socialization

Cats are just not as social as dogs. They generally do not crave physical contact as dogs do. Even if they choose to interact with us, it does not always imply a solicitation for petting or cuddling. Cats do have social needs, however: They like being around their people, they enjoy touching their loved ones (on their own terms), and they want to be close – like on the couch behind your head or lying adjacent to you in the bed. Petting and stroking are not really instinctive to them.

If your cat was adopted, it could be that they were not properly socialized as a kitten. Maybe they were not held very often so petting does not feel natural to them. It may even frighten them. Or, sadly, they could have been punished in the past with a smack of the hand – so the hand is now the enemy, and certainly not something they perceive as warm and friendly.

What can I do to prevent a scratch or bite?

A cat will usually give some warning signs just before they attack. Signs that your cat is getting ready to pounce may include:

  • Twitching their tail
  • Flattening their ears
  • Low growling
  • Hissing
  • Wide eyes and dilated pupils
  • Sudden showing of claws
  • And other more subtle signs of agitation or uneasiness

If your cat suddenly turns their head towards your hand while you are petting them, stop immediately and drop your hand. They will probably hop down off your lap at that point. Do not punish them for their bad behavior. That will only make your cat fear you and will make them even more anxious about being petted.

Knowing your cat and understanding their body language will help you to interpret their behavior. Follow their lead. Sometimes they just want to sit quietly with us without being touched. That’s sweet. Recognize and accept their limits. Don’t push them. Respecting your cat’s nature teaches them that they can trust us.

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