Don’t Pet Me Anymore!

Recently a friend who is quite knowledgeable about pets and their behavior said something that gave us pause.  She said her cat sometimes bites her when she is petting him to show his dominance over her.  

It’s not uncommon for cats to bite or scratch when being petted.  Some cats will just get up and leave when they have apparently had enough petting.  Others will turn and bite, and it is this behavior our friend was referring to as being “dominance motivated”.  

In the traditional thinking about social dominance, threatening or aggressive behavior usually occurs over some resource such as food, a toy or a place, or when another individual challenges the dominant individual.   It’s hard to fit the “don’t pet me anymore” aggression into this framework.  There is no resource to be contested, and it’s hard to see how petting is a challenge to the cat’s social status, particularly if the cat solicited the petting to begin with.

This is another example, we think, of people confusing social dominance with control.  Perhaps our friend believes that because her cat was trying to control her actions by biting her, she interpreted this as her cat trying to “dominate” her.  We’ve explained before that social dominance and having control over an animal are two different things.  Animals in a dominant role in a relationship don’t attempt to completely control the behaviors of the subordinates.  

Another possible explanation for the “don’t pet me anymore” biting is that sooner or later the petting becomes uncomfortable for the cat.  Another hypothesis is that petting results in general arousal causing the cat to bite.  Other cats may just be fearful and not enjoy physical contact from people for very long.  The bottom line is that we don’t understand this behavior very well and no explanation so far seems to adequately explain the behavior in all its slightly different manifestations.   

It seems that people tend to invoke the “dominance explanation” when they don’t understand the “why” of a behavior.  Often, their idea of what dominance actually means is vague and unclear.  Frequently we see “dominance” become a catch-all explanation for any sort of inappropriate behavior by the animal.  

This is not a good ‘fall-back’ explanation because of what it implies.  If a cat is supposedly biting because he’s trying to establish his social position over his owner, then what should the owner do in turn?  Try to “dominate” the cat?  That generally leads to visions of scruffing, pinning, and other uncalled for physical confrontations that are virtually guaranteed to result in fear and more aggression from the cat, injury to the person, a damaged relationship, and a cat that now enjoys being touched even less. 

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