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March 7, 2021

Cat Byte: Emotional Lives of Cats

05.15.12 Cats show their feelings in a number of ways, including through body language, vocalizations and their proximity to people.

Cat Aggression

Petting induced aggression

There are many flavors of aggression, caused by a variety of triggers. One common aggression that seems to come out of left field is petting induced aggression. It usually occurs when devoted cat people are having special moments with their cats, petting, stroking and cuddling. Suddenly “out of nowhere” their beloved cats turns, bites and sometimes scratches. The physical and emotional damage can be painful. Along with bites and scratches, the victims often take the aggression personally. It just doesn’t make sense to cat-parents why their cats, who they are so bonded to, suddenly hurt them.

The cat isn’t being bad, nor does the cat have a sudden vendetta against her person. Petting induced aggression usually occurs when being stroked and touched becomes unpleasant for the cat. The cat may have a sensitive spot or the stroking may become too intense for her. Or, she may be falling asleep and suddenly is startled awake. In the majority of cases, the cat does try to communicate through her body language that she’s had enough. Unfortunately, most people don’t catch on to her subtle hints. When all other endeavors at communication fail, the cat uses a direct approach that is immediately understood—she bites or scratches.

Avoid being a victim of petting induced aggression by first learning to recognize the warnings. Cats communicate through body language and sometimes through vocalizations when they’ve had enough handling and petting. When cats have had their fill they often communicate their wishes by thrashing their tails, positioning their ears back, flattening whiskers against their face, tenseness and fur rippling. If these subtle messages are ignored, cats will look quickly at the hand that is petting them and then will bite it.

The next step to avoid being a victim of petting induced aggression is simple. As soon as the cat communicates her discomfort at being handled, stop interacting with her. After a time out you may be able to carefully pet her again, avoiding the sensitive areas and varying how she is petted.

Tall Tails

Cats have evolved a complex and effective communication system. Every part of a cat is a perfect little communication device, broadcasting messages to their world about their intentions and their emotional and physical states. A cat can communicate more effectively then an iPhone with just a simple movement of the head, a flattening of a whisker or a shift in body position. Sometimes their communications are subtle with slight nuances, other times it’s loud and wakes the neighbors.

Cat body language is complex. A series of books dedicated to it would still only scratch the surface. With that in mind, this blog entry will address one complex communication signal that is transmitted by the tail. I am calling this signal the “Happy Tail Dance”. Most of you have seen this. Sometimes it’s confused with the signals a cat gives when she sprays. Usually the cat half closes her eyes. Her tail is held high, with a slight curve at the top and it starts quivering. It can be somewhat alarming at first. The Happy Tail Dance is never accompanied by spraying and is broadcasting a different message to the world.

The language difference is subtle. Check out the base of the tail when a cat does a Happy Tail Dance. Usually the fur at the base of the tail is fluffed up. Just the fur at the base, closest to the cat’s back. Usually cats vocalize and have conversations during the Happy Tail Dance. And, the big difference… no spraying…

I can count on my cats to do happy tail dances on a daily schedule. Sudan, my Savannah always runs ahead of me and does the Happy Tail Dance on doors I’m about to open (inside, of course). He especially loves closets and likes to help me pick out my clothes every day. He shows me this with a happy tail dance. Maulee rushes to meet me when I come home, doing a happy tail dance on the cabinet. Olivia jumps on my lap and does a happy tail dance when she wants me to play fetch. The way she fluffs her tail, makes her tail look like a little pyramid. All of my cats do the Happy Tail Dance just as I’m about to do a clicker training session with them.

Check it out next time… look at the subtle tail language. Next time you see the Happy Tail Dance, don’t put your cat in the bathroom because you think she’s about to spray.

Oh… if she sprays, it’s not the Happy Tail Dance… you didn’t quite get what she was saying…