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PETTING-INDUCED AND PLAY-INDUCED AGGRESSION IN CATS
Some cats engage their owners in petting sessions or play activities, appear to be enjoying themselves, and then suddenly scratch or bite. This does not make sense to the owner because the activity preceding the aggression was positive. But it makes sense to the cat: it does not matter whether or not the experience is positive or negative, an aggressive outburst is the only way the cat can indicate that its tolerable level of excitement has been reached and exceeded.
Every cat has its own personality, so every cat has its own limits to the levels of various kinds of excitement it will tolerate. Because a cat's personality is as much a part of it as its ears or tail are, there is little, if anything, that can be done to reset these limits (more about this shortly). The most important things an owner can do are to learn what the cat's limits are and how the cat indicates the limit is approaching.
A cat's limit to petting might be a certain amount of time. It might also be a certain body part; for example, many cats will accept petting of the head and shoulders and not tolerate being petted on the lower back. Once the cat's limits are determined the owner can be careful not to exceed them.
Growling and hissing are obvious signs that a swat or bite are about to happen, but attentive owners can pick up on more subtle cues. Fidgeting, twitching back muscles, twitching the tail, retracting the lips, licking the lips, or attempting to move away can be signs of oncoming aggression. Very alert owners may simply "sense" that tension is building.
When cats play with one another it often looks like hunting (stalking, chasing, attacking), and also often takes on a rough-and-tumble format. But cat owners are not equipped with the instinct, skills, or body types to participate in this sort of play. The owner should toss or dangle toys, thus directing play away from rather than towards themselves.
BEHAVIOR MODIFICATION It is sometimes (but not always) possible to stretch a cat's limit of tolerance for petting or play. The first step is to learn the level the cat always accepts as tolerable. Petting or play then takes place when the cat initiates it, and never exceeds the tolerable level; it should ideally stop before the owner shows any warning signs, and should always stop before aggression occurs.
A high-value food reward is provided at the time of petting or play, but not at other times. The cat should never be physically restrained during the sessions; it should always be able to move away if it chooses to do so. Gradually the amount of time spent during the sessions is increased, but the sessions are always stopped before an aggressive outburst. Once some success is achieved the owner can then start to initiate the petting or play sessions; these owner-initiated sessions must also stop before the cat becomes too aroused.
MEDICATION Prescription medication alone will never increase a cat's tolerance for petting or play. However, for some particularly nervous or fearful cats antianxiety medication can increase the chance for success with behavior modification.
PUNISHMENT Physical punishment, startling or yelling at the cat are never a good idea and should always be avoided. Punishment will always make the situation worse, by teaching the cat that interaction with the owner has unpredictable and unpleasant consequences.
EXPECTATIONS AND PROGNOSIS
Management and treatment for petting-induced and play-induced aggression will never eliminate any chance of future problems.
An owner must be willing to adjust their expectations for their pet. The owner may have wanted a cat that purred happily while being petted for an entire evening, but may have acquired a cat that tolerates only brief contact.
Cats with friendly, social and confident personalities are more likely to respond well to management and treatment efforts than cats that are fearful and reclusive.
Yarmouth Veterinary Center
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