Woods Weekly Mews
May 25, 2011
This week's featured pet is Rufus
"Those who play with cats must expect to be scratched" - Proverb
SHELTER HOURS UPDATE:
WHS will be closed on Monday in observance of Memorial Day. Please contact me (Steve) if you would like to stop in from 8-noon to assist with Animal Care duties.
If you've spent much time in the cattery, you've probably experienced what I'm about to describe. You're petting a cat and she's looking really happy, purring and rolling over very fetchingly, when seemingly out of no where - whap! - she suddenly jumps up and whacks your hand, looking thoroughly disgusted. What the heck just happened? You've just experienced "the overly stimulated cat".
My first experience with "the overly stimulated cat" was with our darling Dexter. When we spent time with him at Woods, Dexter was cuddly, loved being petted and just couldn't get close enough to Gary and me, which he continued at home for a short while. Once he got a little more comfortable in his new surroundings, however, that changed - fast. Dexter would jump into my lap, I would begin to pet him and (apparently) completely without warning he would whip around and bite whatever he could reach - hand, arm, face. I didn't understand this behavior and thought if I just tried petting him more, he'd calm down. Trust me - this does not work! The result was that he'd bite again - harder. In retrospect, I have to admit that I was a very slow learner and ended up getting bit a lot and I'm sure Dexter wasn't very happy either. It took me quite a while to figure out that I just needed to back off. Dexter is a classic "overly stimulated cat".
So - what exactly is "the overly stimulated cat"? There are a few theories for this behavior. Some people believe that when the cat accepts handling, he is behaving like a kitten would do with his Mother, relaxing and enjoying the attention and feelings of security. Then the adult cat takes over and suddenly feels vulnerable - something a cat HATES - and displays defensive behavior. Others believe that there are two distinct, genetically determined character types of cats: one type which is geared toward social contact and tends to be very friendly with people; the other which is geared more toward play and predatory activity and requires less social contact with people. Dexter lives to play (and stalk and attack anything that moves), so the second theory resonates with me.
No matter what the actual root cause of over stimulation, the most important thing is to know what to do when your cat (or a Woods cat) displays this behavior. I am living (though scarred) proof of one thing NOT to do - continue petting and trying to give the cat more attention. And you must never, ever punish the cat or try to show him you are dominate over him. This may work with dogs, but it definitely does not work with cats and you will create more aggressive behavior. Whan an overly stimulated cat strikes out he's telling you clearly that he has had enough attention right now and wants to be left alone for a while - sort of like a self imposed time out. So - stop what you are doing and simply give him some space. Don't take his outburst personally and don't get angry - just leave him alone for a while.
Actually, the best scenario is to learn your cat's signs that he's reaching his limit before he has to prove to you he's had enough. Each cat will express this differently, but common signs are tail twitching or swishing, restlessness, skin rippling and turning his head toward the hand that is petting him. In some cats - like Dexter - these are extremely subtle or seemingly non-existent. After four years I still haven't figured out Dexter's "signs" (he'd make a very good poker player like those dogs in the paintings). But I have learned just how much cuddling he can handle (he's gotten more tolerant, too) and we've happily reached the point of mutual understanding.
So - if you have an "overly stimulated cat" or encounter one at Woods, be patient. Be willing to let him show you how much, for how long and in what way he wants to be loved on. Believe me - while it takes time and lots of patience, it's definitely worth it and will go a long way toward ensuring that you and your cat have a loving, trusting relationship. What could be better than that?