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Question from Cindy:
I have had a cat that is a sweetheart most of the time but when she wants to be touched, she will go underneath my hand from head to end of tail numerous times. After several times of this attention, she will sit down and try to grab my hand with her claws and if she retrieves it, she will bite my hand causing pain. It's like she wanted me to pet her but gets mad at me for some unknown reason. What could I be doing that she doesn't like?

Response from Yvette Van Veen:
In some ways I find it interesting that cats and dogs are treated so differently. Both species are thought of as companion animals. When it comes to dogs, many people expect them to be friendly and tolerate anything. When it comes to cats, many people let the animal "be." There are enough jokes floating around that I think it can be said that cats often are left to be as they please.

Recently, I had the opportunity to discuss aggression in animals with a health unit representative. It was quite surprising to me to learn that cat bites and scratches were thought to be a very significant and important health and safety concern. Locally, a "bite" is defined as, "Anything that breaks the skin." The reason health units use this marker is because a break in the skin can lead to infection. In fact, just this summer a local woman who rescued a number of cats spent several weeks in the hospital due to a small bite that resulted in an infection that spread. I think that how cats are viewed might be changing. As our most common pets, we want more from our cats these days.

When it comes to dogs, for years we have followed the advice of Dr. Ian Dunbar. Most groups stand firm on the notion that dogs need to be socialized. We do handling exercises so our dogs love to be touched. We do guarding prevention so we can take bones away. We work with our dogs.

But I do not see that same level of attention given to cats. I think those exercises are great for cats too. Some organizations have begun cat education programs. Best Friends has online resources, and San Francisco has launched a cat education program. Why? Because we want our cats to be companions. We want them on our lap.

Fortunately, learning theory works for all species of animals. My cat shakes a paw, plays fetch and does a number of other fun tricks. Learning theory works on cats because they are trainable. This means, "why" is less important than, "What is the animal doing and how can I change it?" I find that many cats get sensitive when stroked. Cats have a rich area of nerves at the base of their tail. Which means I don't think it is you. I think your cat is sensitive to touch and gets over stimulated.

What I would do is work using counter-conditioning and desensitizing. It is no different than what dog trainers have been doing for years with a dog that is sensitive. You teach the animal to relax and enjoy the process. You can also teach your cat to divert some of that energy to something more acceptable such as a cat toy.

Part of that is learning to read a cat. Many cats will begin a slow flick of the tail when they have had, "enough." Work below threshold. Over time, teach your cat to relax to human touch. As you progress, sometimes massage can help too. Personally I find that most animals have certain areas of their body which are less sensitive. Others are more sensitive. It can make your progress smoother if you start at the easy areas and work toward the more difficult ones.