Overstimulation (Petting-Related) Aggression

By Jackson Galaxy

Wendy and her cat Nala are relaxing on the couch, Wendy absently stroking a half-sleeping Nala while she watches TV. This goes on for ten minutes or so, and suddenly Nala whips around toward Wendy’s innocent hand and sinks her teeth into it. Wendy yells, equal parts disbelief and pain, and noisily banishes Nala from her lap, swatting her on the rear as she runs off, her tail and body low to the floor.

This is an examples of overstimulation, or petting-related, aggression. It is one of the most common sources of feline-human miscommunication, and often has frustrating, many times bloody, results. Wendy interprets Nala’s sudden turn in human emotional terms, as if Nala was telling Wendy with a purr one moment how much she adored her and the next second, “I hate you!”

In order to understand how to solve the problem, we must first understand it from a cat’s-eye view. This involves seeing your cat for what he or she is, a natural predator, as well as prey for bigger predators.

In the case of overstimulation or petting-induced aggression, there are many theories. One in particular that may help us understand the cat’s psyche suggests that Nala floats in and out of consciousness, like a kitten being groomed by her mother. Suddenly, she pops back in, with her natural fight/flight response confused by the feeling of confinement. She bites, or grabs briefly with all four paws, then immediately disengages, hopping off the couch to groom herself, a self-calming behavior. There is also a theory of physiological response; slow- and fast- acting touch receptors get their signals crossed, essentially turning the initial feeling of pleasure to pain. There are others theories as well, but the gist is that Nala had no intention of biting Wendy; it is a sudden impulse that is really not within the cat’s control. It then becomes Wendy’s job to recognize the impending attack and head it off at the pass, which we will discuss.

How do we resolve this problem? First, Wendy must be careful to not send mixed signals. She cannot expect to be able to pet Nala’s tummy, knowing she’s going to “get it,” just because she can’t resist how soft her fur is. Nor can Wendy say that Nala putting her mouth on Wendy’s hand softly is acceptable. Nala cannot be expected to make a fine distinction between what sort of tooth pressure is okay and what isn’t. The rule must be that no biting is allowed, ever. Consistency on our part is key towards helping our cats understand a certain measure of right from wrong.

Another common theme in resolving these forms of aggression is the use of regular play therapy. You can read more about play therapy here. The idea is to ritualize play, to let the air out of the cat’s energetic balloon on a predictable basis, and to guide the cat’s hunting instincts towards “acceptable victims.” For Nala, play therapy can help relax her later on in the evening when Wendy likes their “cuddle-up time.” If the air is regularly released from the balloon, Nala’s sense of vulnerability toward touch and her heightened sense of fight/flight may be greatly eased.

That’s not to say that play will be the cure-all for Nala. Wendy also has to learn Nala’s touch threshold in order to succeed. It’s like the old commercial, “how many licks does it take to get to the middle of a tootsie pop? One . . . two . .. three . . . CRUNCH . . . . Three!” Well, in this case, we want to make sure there is no crunch. Knowing that Nala can only stand to be petted for 10 minutes means stopping well before that limit — at 6 or 8 minues. Or it may be timed by number of strokes, rather than minutes. In either case, Wendy needs to learn how to read Nala’s body language when she says, “I’m getting irritated,” to avoid crunch time. Specifically, we’re looking for: turned back or flattened ears; rippling skin down the spine; dilated eyes; or tail twitching that escalates to whipping. These signs mean: cease and desist. Depending on the severity of the specific cat’s overstimulation, either stop petting, or simply stand up and let the cat roll off your lap. No repercussions here; there’s no reason to punish Nala for being overstimulated. Just end the session, and let some time pass before starting a new one.

Accepting human touch is a learned behavior, not a natural one, and some cats may be more naturally reactive than others. Further, Nala may have missed out on vital human interaction during her early socialization period of kittenhood, so slow desensitization toward touch may be in order. This means counting the strokes before Nala gets antsy. Let’s say it’s five. Keep it at four, or even three, praising her, and then stopping. Do this for at least a week. Add a stroke every few days after, as tolerated. If she doesn’t tolerate adding strokes, remember that keeping petting to the head and neck area is usually tolerated better. Stay away from the rear, tummy, and full body strokes for cats that are easily overstimulated.

Many hypersensitive cats benefit greatly from flower essence therapy. Spirit Essences offers many formulas to help with behavioral issues. In this case, “Feline Training” will help adjust to the new lessons of play therapy, while using “Stress Stopper” during the petting desentization sessions will help to bring a cat like Nala’s energy “off the ceiling.”

Finally, remember if biting occurs, or the dreaded all-four-paw wraparound, don’t struggle or try to pull away. Instead, go completely limp and give a sharp “OUCH!” This will distract the cat verbally, and at the same time not trigger the instinctual prey drive. If you stiffen or struggle, your hand resembles prey even more. Above all, don’t yell or punish your cat! It will frustrate them further, effectively infusing them with even more negative energy, and it will probably not make you feel too good, either.

If your cat has overstimulation or petting-related aggression, always have a remote toy handy. Remote toys include sparkle balls, furry mice — a rolled up sock if nothing else is at hand — something you can have in your pocket. At the moment the inappropriate behavior begins, throw the remote toy as a distraction, and to re-focus the cat’s attention. Essences may also be helpful.

Your job is to understand a cat’s basic motivation so that it’s not misinterpreted, learn basic body signals so that you can effectively anticipate and thwart an attack, and redirect that energy. Be proactive! You and your cat will be much happier that way!

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