Tickling a cat’s tummy: Invite for cuddles or lacerated hands?

  • Animals
  • Monday, 09 Apr 2018

Cats enjoy being stroked, patted and tickled. Theyre not the only ones, though. Other animals, from domesticated to wild ones, do too. — 123rf.com

Target was sitting bolt upright, his chin sticking up in the air as I tickled his neck. He had his eyes squeezed shut, his paws were paddling happily, and the purr was loud and steady.

When I teased him a little by running my fingertips right on the tip of his jaw, he lifted his front paws off the ground, and hung in space, vibrating with purrs. I ran my hand up and down his elongated neck, and then I stopped.

Target was swaying, totally blissed out, and when he rolled over, I tickled his tummy. The purr cranked up into a lion’s roar and then my pet shimmered and twitched. His eyes flew open as his fur rippled.

“Ticklish?” I teased him.

I tickled him again, and for a moment the green eyes were shut in silent giggles. Then all four paws came together with crushing force. Target held my fingers, suspending the tickle, and then he dipped his head and bit me as he bunny-kicked. Hard.

I know my fluff so I wasn’t at all surprised. In fact, I was expecting it.

Targets intense look is actually an invitation to pat him. Photo: Ellen Whyte

In a world of pretty weird things, tickling is one of the simplest – and one of the most baffling – experiences. That shivery sensation is half-fun, half-horror. It makes us laugh and squirm at the same time.

Cats are ticklish, as are dogs, chimpanzees, rats, and other mammals. Animal behaviourists have observed all kinds of animals – from domesticated pets to wild ones – that enjoy tickling sessions.

Although we all know what tickling is, the experience is a rather complex one.

First, you can’t tickle yourself, no matter how hard you try.

Next, it seems to be related to awareness. If you don’t know you’re about to be tickled, the sensation can be perceived as just touching or even annoying.

But if you see someone is coming over and is intending to tickle you, being touched in exactly the same way and in the same spot will have you wriggling.

As if that’s not confusing enough, tickles are sometimes fun and sometimes creepy.

Another totally baffling thing is that we’re not really sure what tickles are for. Most things we do have a purpose, and as cats, humans, apes and other creatures all experience tickling, you’d think there would be some use to it.

Darwin, the father of evolution, thought that tickling was meant to help us bond. He suggested that kids and adults bond through the fun activities like tickling. It was a neat idea, especially because it seemed to explain why you can’t tickle yourself.

Others thought being sensitive could be very useful in simpler, more obvious ways. For example, you want to know if a bug is walking over your skin. If that were true, then the shivery kind of tickle would be important for keeping healthy (and bug-free), and the fun tickly stuff might be a side effect of an overly sensitive system.

Another idea was that being ticklish is a response that encourages battle skills. We have tickly sides, hands and feet, this theory suggests, because it prompts us to wrestle in fun when we’re little. That helps us develop fighting skills that will keep us safe when we’re adults.

Whatever tickling is about, there’s little doubt that it’s quite an individual experience. Target loves being tickled on his chin, ear and base of the tail. But if you touch his tummy, he gets the shivers – and then he’ll be biting and kicking.

Guido, on the other hand, thinks having his tummy tickled is heaven. He treats all tickles as if they’re massage. Also, if you rub the bottom of his ears, running your fingertips rapidly over the fur there, he falls into absolute stunned bliss.

Swooner is totally ticklish everywhere. His face, his paws, and his back are all super-sensitive. I’d not even think of touching his tummy because he’d hit the ceiling.

Maybe it’s because he’s still young, but the only place you can really touch him at any time is the top of his head. What he really adores, is being kissed there. Seriously, kisses on that sweet spot will have him purring.

For me and Target, tickling is about having fun. Usually he walks up and sits in front of me, purring and paddling his paws suggestively. Invited to cuddle, I give him a brief rub and then I tickle.

I tickle him the way he likes – first, the base of the tail, then the chin and ears. And, for a finale, I tickle the forbidden tummy. It’s a ritual. Love and bliss followed by a climatic giant tease tickle. He knows it, I know it, and we both love it.

So when Target dipped his head and bit me, I knew it was because he was so happy that he just couldn’t help himself. The bunny kicks were applause, and that nip was the standing ovation.

Pawsome, right?

The science of tickling

Journal articles exploring the science of tickling divide tickles into two main categories.

First, there is the kind of reaction you get when something very light disturbs the surface of your skin.

That’s when you get that kind of weird shiver going.

This is knismesis. Second, there’s the heavier touch, the type that produces laughter. This is gargalesis.

Knismesis and gargalesis aren’t in dictionaries, not even etymologies. However, they are peppered all over journal articles.

These terms, along with the adjectives knismic and gargalic, were made up (or should we say, “birthed”?) by Granville Stanley Hall and Arthur Allin in a paper published in the American Journal Of Psychology back in October 1897.

For people, and cats like Target, who become very sensitive to tickling, they suggested hyper-knismesis and hyper-gargalesis.

So, where did they come up with these words?

Dictionaries don’t list any of the terms they created, but the roots of the words are Ancient Greek.

The term knismesis comes from the Greek kine meaning movement or motion. You’ll think of words like telekinesis – the act of moving items with the power of mind.

The term gargalesis probably stems from the Greek gargarizein meaning throaty, which makes sense seeing the second kind of tickle is about laughing.

The words end with the suffix -esis that also comes from old Greek. It is used to form nouns of action or process. So knismesis translates roughly as movement action and gargalesis as laughing action.

While the terms aren’t in dictionaries, they are in journals because these two men were among the early leading lights in the field of psychology. Granville Stanley Hall (1846-1924) was one of the earliest supporters of Darwin’s evolutionary theory as well as the first president of the American Psychological Association.

Arthur Allin (1869-1903) was born in Canada, and then went on to train in Heidelberg, Berlin, Breslau, Paris, and London, before joining Hall at Clark University, Worcester, Massachusetts. Sadly, this superbly educated man died when he was 33.

If you’re interested, you can read the classic paper, “The Psychology Of Tickling, Laughing, And The Comic” on the Internet. Just Google it.

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