My cat, Furball, is an extremely social and outgoing cat. Unfortunately, this gets him into trouble, or perhaps the better way to phrase it is that he gets me into trouble. You see, whenever we have guests over, whether they are well versed in the behavior of cats or completely pet-phobic, Furball insists on coming over to say hello.
Furball loves company, so he doesn’t just peek his head into the foyer and then go hide under the couch. No way! Furball’s modus operandi is to walk right up to people, look them straight in the eyes, and then give them a boisterous meow. He’ll top up his friendly hello by affectionately rubbing the guest’s leg with his cheek (i.e., "You belong to me"), and then he’ll plant himself in the middle of the social scene.
What this does is charm the pants off of our guests, but it also convinces them that our cat really likes them and they have special cat-whisperer talents. The irony is that Furball genuinely enjoys visitors. But he only likes to be petted in a very particular fashion. It’s easy for him to get overly excited, and when he does, he switches from purring kitty to ferocious feline (though one just wanting to play) in milliseconds.
If you come up from behind and pet Furball’s back for a limited number of strokes, Furball will purr like a banshee. However, once his eyes start dilating and his tail begins to twitch, you have exactly 0.8 seconds to remove your hand before he’ll launch a faux attack. While Furball has never sunk his claws into me, it’s quite startling when he turns on a dime so suddenly.
Usually, however, I’ll spot the signs and stop petting him long before he gets overly stimulated. Visiting guests, on the other hand, are not so astute at observing the signals. Compounding Furball’s "please-pet-me" mannerism is that he absolutely detests being petted on the head if he can see your hand.
Unfortunately, this is how most dog people or people without pets will reach down to pat Furball on the head. It’s a gesture that is 100-percent guaranteed to induce Furball into launching an "arm hug." My theory is that Furball finds it threatening when he sees a hand coming down toward his head. Think about it. Imagine a giant hand the size of a flat-screen TV reaching straight for your forehead. What would you do? Of course, you’d take defensive action.
At first, we would explain to guests about Furball’s finicky preferences when it came to being petted. Inevitably, right after telling someone not to reach down to pat Furball on the head, he or she would reach down and try to pat Furball on the head. Of course, this would be followed by my husband or me frantically shouting, "STOP!!! Don’t let the cat see your hand!"
The guest would quickly extract his or her hand and stutter an apology for forgetting the rules. The guest would then proceed to pet Furball on the back the way he likes, but for way too long. Initially, Furball would reward the guest with a loud and constant purr. This would encourage our guests to continue petting the cat. They’d start thinking they had the magic touch and would soon be handling Furball like a fluffy stuffed toy.
Indeed, we’ve had friends bend down to coo in Furball’s face. We’ve had guests pick up the cat and sling him across their shoulders. And we’ve had people insist on petting him even after I tell them that Furball’s reached his limit. No matter what I say, Furball’s natural charisma overshadows the words coming out of my mouth. His gentle little mews lull people into feeling they are special and exempt from the petting rules.
Guests are always completely taken aback when Furball announces, with a swift swat, that he has had enough. The initial shock is usually followed by a hurt expression (on the guest, not the cat). It’s almost as if they’d entered the secret world of the cat and then been cruelly tossed out. And like any jilted lover, the relationship is never the same again.
Nowadays, we’ve curtailed the problem by making one simple statement when people come to our home.
Please, don’t pet the cat.
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