An opinionated feline in Edmonton, Canada who lived with a retired cat behaviourist, Greyce provided behavioral advice to cats in need until her death in July 2014. Because her entries are useful even today, the blog remains posted.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Biting the Hand That Feeds You

I was settling in for a snooze when I received a telepathic message from Mouser, a mackerel tabby of some repute. His story was enough to put me off my nap.

"Well Greyce," he said, "this has been going on for some time. I settle into my favourite spot on the sofa beside Himself. He starts to pet me ever so gently at first and I respond with a deep, rumbling purr. He continues and all would be well if he knew when to stop. But instead he keeps going, and going, and going until I can't take it anymore! I've tried to tell him to stop, using my best cat etiquette; but nothing gets his attention until I give him a nip or two. Then he shouts at me and pushes me off the sofa. And I was there first! Can you figure this out?"

Mouser, humans are notoriously thick-headed when dealing with feline communication systems. Of course we resort to the occasional meow to tell them dinner is late, plead for a treat, or beg to go out the door; and that seems to be all they respond to. But unless we chatter to kittens or raise a ruckus with a rival, we are -- from their point of view -- mostly silent. Little do they realize that we usually communicate without speaking.

It would surprise them to learn that the majority of their communication with each other is non-verbal as well, because they take it for granted. Unless they are in a bar trying to attract the attention of the human of their choice, they put no stock in body posture, facial expression, or the many little signals that let another being know your intent. So the bottom line is that you are at a disadvantage because you don't speak.

When you have given off numerous signals telling the offender to back off and they are all ignored, you have no choice but to deliver a quick nip to the hand that has become an instrument of torture. So let's get down to business.

You need to know why any human who loves you would do such a thing. The answer is simple: Most humans think that petting is always pleasurable. The closest analogy in their experience would be getting relief from an itch they cannot scratch. Take Himself, for instance. Suppose he asks another person to scratch his back and she does. And it feels good. But if she continues to scratch there, it becomes irritating. So he will ask (and perhaps even demand) that she stop. It's the same with us. Petting can be a pleasure. But a smart human will quit petting his cat before it becomes overwhelming.

Unfortunately humans often miss our important signals that say 'enough is enough'. You think you are communicating clearly, but they just don't get it. For example, you may start swishing your tail back and forth; to you this means you are irritated; they might think you are behaving like a dog -- and are happy! Then you raise your paw slightly and spread your claws like a starfish, only to hear, " Oh look honey, Mouser is so happy he is starting to wave!" You might, at this point, give Himself a good swat (claws in) only to have it interpreted as a wish for more petting. And so I don't blame you when you give him a good nip on the petting hand, to make your point. Your task, dear Mouser, is to train your human to become more savvy in the ways of cat communication.

The next time Himself is on the computer looking for books to buy on the Net, direct him to Bruce Fogle's Know Your Cat: An Owner's Guide to Cat Behavior (Doubleday, 1991). It may be out of print but with the Net these days (and interlibrary loan) it should still be accessible. The beauty of this book is that it is filled with coloured photos of magnificent cats in various states of communication. And all these poses are labelled and explained in detail. Chances are Himself will be so enchanted with the various poses so displayed that he will start to get the messages behind them.

Once he has leafed through the necessary sections, he should be more attentive to the signals you are giving him. To assist, I suggest that you exaggerate each and every one of your signals for the first few lessons. He should then be able to stop petting you well in advance of your need to nip him.

It may require your giving him a nip or two at first, but he should get the hang of this quickly. If not, I suggest you give him a swat and leave the scene immediately. Do not return to the sofa until he is ready to behave.

Be strong, Mouser. Be strong!

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