Petting: to stroke, caress, fondle, or pat an animal affectionately
I can certainly do without that “F word”, but you get the idea of what petting is. We all love to pet our animals. It makes us feel good. It relaxes us, and it increases our mood. But what exactly is it doing to, or for, our animals?
Anyone that has ever met a cat knows that felines can be particularly sensitive to petting. It matters to the cat who’s doing the petting, how they are petting, and for how long the petting lasts. If you are unsure when to stop petting, a cat will tell you when you are done, usually well before you are ready to stop petting him or her.
If you really think about it, humans (especially those of us who know what they like) are not that different from cats. I don’t like to be manhandled. I don’t enjoy being touched by strangers without being asked first. I like my personal space. If I don’t like the way someone is massaging my back or neck, you can bet that I will ask him or her to stop. Usually I don’t bite. Cats know what they like and don’t like, and they have no problem telling us. I adore them for that very reason.
Last week there was a lot of discussion around this very subject. It centered around a study published recently in the journal “Physiology & Behavior” suggesting that petting cats in general can actually stress them out! The study was conducted by animal behavior experts from Brazil, Austria and Britain. They examined whether cats living in multi-cat households are more stressed than cats housed singly. The researchers found that cats release hormones linked to anxiety when handled by humans. Many media outlets responded to the study with an interpretation of the results and published articles titled “Cats Hate to be Stroked”.
I was a bit surprised, believing this scientific article to be true, but I kept rolling it over and over in my head. I kept trying to correlate the article to all four of our cats, and it didn’t seem to add up. Only two of the four cats in our home have ever shown that they are stressed from being petted, and that was usually when “the “petter” was not aware that the cat was already wound tightly, or stressed from other stimuli in the home. The other two love to be petted 24/7, no matter what is happening in their environment. So what gives?
To the relief of conscious cat guardians everywhere, who thought they would have to keep their hands off their felines, one of the study’s authors quickly issued a release retracting her conclusion. The co-author, Rupert Palme of the Institute of Medical Biochemistry at the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna, explains: “As a matter of fact, the majority of the cats enjoyed being stroked. Only those animals that did not actually like to be stroked, but nevertheless allowed it, were stressed.” She explained that the study had been misinterpreted and assured cat guardians that they “can carry on stroking their four-legged friends without worry.” Good to know.
John Bradshaw, author of Cat Sense was recently interviewed by National Geographic and he explained, “I think what they have shown is that there are some kinds of cats that are very anxious about something, and you pick that up from the stress hormones they are excreting as well as the fact that they are very nervous when they are being stroked. They aren’t stressed because they are being stroked; they are stressed because something in their lives is making them very twitchy and very apt to overreact to things. But [the researchers] weren’t able to pinpoint what that was.”
“Cats are in no way generally stressed when they are stroked. It depends much more on the situation and the character of the individual animal.” ~ Professor Rupert Palme
The Updated and Corrected Summary of How Petting Affects Felines:
Every cat feels and reacts differently
The majority of cats like to be stroked
If you are a cat guardian, you probably already know those two facts.
“It seems that those cats on whom the owner imposes him or herself are the ones we need to be most concerned about.” ~Professor Daniel Mills
Now, I must mention that petting a cat may seem like a fairly simple thing to do, but there is much more to it than you think. Jackson Galaxy, TV star and cat behaviorist, offers his tips on how to ensure that petting a cat will be enjoyable for everyone involved. You will see in the video below that there is no mindless full-body petting, and he is aware of where she enjoys to be touched. He also asks permission several ways.
The dog may be wonderful prose, but only the cat is poetry.
Truth: Animal bites are provoked in some form, and they can be prevented.
When I think of common animal bites, three companion animals first come to mind: dogs, parrots, and cats. All three of these are social animals. Why does this fact matter? Well, social animals use very clear cues to communicate with each other and they know how to read and respond to these very subtle cues within their groups.
Now let’s look at humans. We are very demonstrative when we are speaking with each other and even when thinking silently to ourselves. We flail our arms around, we grandly gesture, and the more animated characters in our species have very expressive features on our faces. Now think about a cat, a horse, a rabbit, a parrot, a fish, a tortoise, or even a snake. Their facial expressions are not designed the ways ours are. They appear to not be as expressive as humans, but they are quote communicative. And their species’ form of communication is exceptional amongst themselves.
Each animal’s body language is explicitly clear within the individual species. Each species has evolved to learn how to communicate with exquisite precision, each in their own unique way, without having to be loud and demonstrative. As humans, we often fail to understand their communication.
Communication is Key.
Many of the species that I studied, bred, and trained at The Audubon Nature Institute were the same way. They used very subtle communication with each other and with the people who cared for them. When I first started working at Audubon I quickly learned about a common saying that I still practice and believe: “If you get bitten, it’s always your fault”. That was a tough truth pill to swallow when I first started began my career there. I didn’t understand how that could be true. There were so many animals and so many different behaviors to learn! How could I learn them all and prevent getting bitten? Two words: Education and Observation. I had to learn how to speak their language by observing them.
Over the decade that I was there I was fortunate to have worked with some of the most amazing and incredibly intelligent species on the planet. Many of these animals could bite, scratch, stomp, kick, or gore you, if they were having a bad day.
It was our job as zoo keepers and public educators to keep ourselves safe, the animals safe, and the public that was interacting with the animal safe. We did this by educating ourselves about each species that was under our supervision and care. We took the time to learn about their natural behaviors in the wild. We learned how they tend to behave in captive environments. We learned how they reacted in certain situations, and with certain people. We knew their limits. We knew their individual triggers. We knew their boundaries. Knowing all of this was vital to keeping everyone safe. It was the responsible and ethical thing to do.
Safety in Your Home
I truly believe that this kind of education should not end at at a professional animal care facility. This should be happening in every home that has an animal and especially in homes with multiple pets or children. I find it incredible that so many people love all sorts of companion animals, but they invite them into their home without doing research first. Many people love their animals but don’t understand how to read the subtle signals and behaviors of their animal companions. When this happens, scratches, bites, and severe injuries occur.
At a recent dog safety workshop someone asked me, “But don’t some of these animal “attacks” happen out of the blue?” My answer was simply,”no.”
And here is why: It’s very dangerous to our community to say that bites are random occurrences. If there isn’t an actual stimulus triggering the aggressive behavior, then how can we prevent it? We can prevent bites, because animal bites happen in response to something that triggered the bite; knowing and understanding this is what helps us understand animal behavior.
Awareness Facilitates Understanding about Aggression.
It’s helpful to know that most forms of aggression, except for predation, are distance-increasing behaviors (the animal is attempting to actively increase the distance between itself and the stimulus/stressor). Think about when an animal lunges at you, this behavior will increase the distance between you and the animal nearly 100 percent of the time. Animals do this because they know it works.
Very often, bites are a last resort for animals. Bites often happen when all of the other cues the animal has given are unknowingly ignored. The Ladder of Aggression helps to explain how aggression can stem from various stressors.
Bites Do Not Occur “Out of the Blue”.
Animal bites are never a random occurrence. Often there are conditions in the animal’s environment that have continued to “stack up” and set the scene for a bite to occur. This is known as Trigger Stacking.
This happens when multiple “triggers” (stressors unique to the individual animal) happen close together, or at the same time. When these triggers stack up they can have a cumulative negative effect on the animal. Stress hormones can create a cluster effect of reactivity, causing the animal to behave in a way that he/she normally would not. This can quickly escalate into a dangerous situation.
Prevention and Awareness Are Necessary.
Make no mistake about it. Bites can be prevented. It’s up to each of us to learn the unique signals and respect the boundaries of our animal companions, or the animals that we are working with.
Assuming that animal bites are random can lead to more unfortunate and often fatal incidences, as we are sadly seeing in the news. The cat that “bit for no reason” probably gave the person at least 6 different signals that a bite would happen if they continued doing what they were doing. That parrot that “randomly bit” also gave a clear warning. The dog that bit a person or another dog “out of the blue” gave off a number of red flags well before the bite happened, or they were neck deep in their own personal nightmare of stress hormones and Trigger Stacking!
There ARE signals. There are ample warnings. They may be subtle, but they are there. I assure you.
Every species is unique and has a unique way of communicating. Every animal within that species has its personal boundaries and individual triggers (just like we do), so it’s up to us as animal guardians to know these individual boundaries and signals. It’s how we keep them safe, keep ourselves safe, and keep other people and animals safe.
Despite what we often may think, animals are pretty complex creatures. They speak a different language than we do, they have quirks in their personalities that can make them quite unusual sometimes (like us humans) and they often display anxiety and discomfort in ways we don’t.
Respect Their Boundaries.
Being safe around animals is not something that comes naturally to most animal lovers. It’s natural to want to give love and affection to them, and to receive it from them, but doing this safely has to be taught and learned. I had to learn how to practice restraint, while recognizing the animals’ clear boundaries. Over the decade that I worked at the zoo, I worked with crocodiles that would love to add you to their menu, king cobras that could outwit you, feisty donkeys that patiently waited to chomp you, lions that would love to maim you, and hormonal parrots that enjoyed taunting you.
Out of the countless encounters that I had with hundreds of exotic animals, I was bitten five times. Each of them was a nasty bite, but I never blamed the animal; each one of those bites was my fault. Three of the bites were food related (I got in the way of their food, or they confused me for food). One bite was a defensive bite during breeding (they were getting their groove on and I accidentally intruded). The other bite was redirected aggression at another animal and my hand was in direct-line-of-bite. I can create all the excuses that I want, but I could have prevented ALL of them.
Learn and Grow.
Taking responsibility for these kind of common mistakes can only make us better animal guardians, animal trainers, and animal stewards. There’s no need to feel bad or guilty about it; we just have to learn from the bite so we can help to educate our friends, family, and colleagues on how to prevent it! Judgement and guilt have no part in learning from our mistakes. We live and learn. We then teach others.
Becoming a Conscious Companion
If you are reading this, I can assume that you love the animals that you share your life with enough to be inspired or learn more to improve their lives. I encourage you to take that love and funnel it into educating yourself, and your family and friends about the basic behavior of the species that you work with, live with, and adore. Every day I challenge myself to learn something new about the animals I love and live with. I hope you do the same.
“I am who I am today because of the mistakes I made yesterday.” ― The Prolific Penman