Are You Loving Your Pet to Aggression?
There’s always that one relative in every family, overbearing and obnoxiously affectionate, pinching your cheeks, roughing up your hair, and hugging you far too tight. They are depicted in every family movie and written about in every family story.
Reactions from the child on the receiving end of this affection range anywhere from resigned acceptance to active avoidance and sometimes even aggressive behaviors. Of course, in human terms, telling someone to stop (the animal equivalent would be growling) or pushing them away, are usually defined as defensive behaviors, not aggressive.
So what does this have to do with animals? Well, many people are like the overbearing relative with their animals. People are constantly picking up their small animals, hugging or hanging on their larger animals, squeezing them, kissing them, and otherwise lavishing their affections on the animal, oblivious as to whether they are enjoying it or not.
Many people can get away with being overly affectionate with animals that were bred to live and work with us, such as dogs and horses. These animals often tolerate even the most extreme behaviors from us and are very forgiving. Where people get in to real trouble is when they try to behave this way with their exotic pets. Although many exotics can seem very sweet and affectionate when they are young, most have a very low tolerance of being handled in any way as they get older. Excessive displays of affection by their humans such as hugging, picking them up, or even just petting them, can seem antagonizing to the animal and often results in defensive aggression.
With humans, the relationship with the overly affectionate relative usually changes as the child grows up and reaches adulthood. The obnoxious behaviors are no longer socially acceptable. Unfortunately, the distinction between childhood and adulthood in animals is not as clear for the human and from the human point of view, the obnoxiously affectionate behaviors remain socially acceptable for the entire lifetime of the pet. However, as many an exotic pet owner (and even some domestic pet owners) has discovered the hard way, the animals don’t always agree. Once they reach sexual maturity, and oftentimes even earlier than that, these behaviors are no longer acceptable or tolerated.
So how do you show affection to your animals without antagonizing them to aggression?
The first step is to recognize your pet’s personal boundaries and find out what their “NO” looks like. Growling, hissing, and bearing teeth are usually the most obvious signs, but for almost all animals, there are many more subtle signs that come before these behaviors.
Looking away, lowering head and body, a hard stare, tail lowered or clamped tightly to the body, yawning and lip licking are common behaviors in many species, from dogs & cats to kinkajous and foxes, that indicate their discomfort.
Going very still is a clear sign that an animal is uncomfortable, though this is often mistaken for acceptance and even enjoyment, as people are expecting the animal to struggle if they’re uncomfortable or afraid.
Respecting your animal’s boundaries is the next step. The more respectful you are when your pet says “No”, the less likely they are to feel like they need to keep telling you “No”. If you’re not sure what your animal is feeling, you can ask them by pausing your petting periodically to see how they react. Do they move away from you? Then they are not enjoying the petting and want you to stop. Do they move in to you and seek out your hands? Then they want more! Do you have to catch them to pick them up? Then they probably don’t enjoy being held. Do they run to you when you call and facilitate picking them up? Then they want to be held!
If your pet doesn’t enjoy being hugged, petted or picked up, you can teach your pet that these interactions = good things, by pairing them with things that your pet really enjoys, like food and/or play. Teaching your pet certain behaviors to facilitate activities like picking them up or moving them from one place to another will help your pet feel much more comfortable around you and increase the likelihood of them seeking your affections.
You might also consider compromises in the way you show affection with your animals as well. If you want to hold and snuggle your animal but they absolutely refuse, you may find that they do accept laying next to you being petted. You still get to show your love but in a way that your animal enjoys.
Want to read more about this? Check out this great blog post by behavior vet and dog trainer, Dr. Jen: