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Petting Aggression in Cats

By: Dr. Nicholas Dodman

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Aggression is a natural behavior for your cat and was a survival-related behavior of his wild ancestors. Although cats have long been thought of as solitary creatures, it has recently been recognized that they can live in communities and that, in this situation, some of them assume a higher status (or rank). These more privileged cats are sometimes termed "alpha cats." Alpha cats use affective offensive aggression to procure certain assets and privileges for themselves in preference to other cats.

Alpha cats also exist in the domestic situation and may attempt to control the behavior of others around them, including their owners. Petting is an act that may induce aggression in such headstrong cats. An alpha cat will jump up on his owner's lap and allow himself to be petted – but only for a little while. When he's had enough, he'll glance sideways at the hand that is petting him and begin to switch his tail from side to side. This is the writing on the wall that heralds an imminent meltdown: From acceptance to flat-out rejection, suddenly your cat is swatting, biting, and perhaps even rolling onto his side so he can attack you with all five sharp points simultaneously.

Petting-induced aggression is difficult for owners to fathom since many affected cats seek attention initially and appear to enjoy the physical contact. But these cats have a threshold for the level of physical contact they can tolerate.

Petting-induced aggression is expressed toward compliant owners. Cats with this penchant are often also aggressive to their owners over resources such as food, toys, or resting place, and may use aggression as an attention-getting mechanism. They may show aggression in response to annoying interventions, or if forced to do something they don't want to do.

Nip Your Cat's Biting in the Bud

If your cat bites you when he is on your lap and you are petting him, do not allow him onto your lap until he has learned some better manners. Then when you do allow him back into your lap, make sure that petting sessions are firmly under your control. Your cat needs to know that petting is not associated with excessive restraint or indeed anything unpleasant. He must also learn that being petted is a luxury, not a right.

When your cat approaches for affection, call him onto your lap and begin light stroking without any physical restraint. After a brief session, and definitely long before your cat begins to signal his growing dislike of the situation, put him back on the floor and give him a treat, such as food, play or a catnip toy. At each subsequent session, call your cat onto your lap, pet him without restraint, each time a little longer than the time before. Then put him on the floor and offer him a treat.

Be aware of your pet's body language. Furtive glances and a twitching tail mean that it is time to quit. Keep petting sessions short and never try to pet your way out of a difficult moment.

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