You see, our Smart Cat (Cobweb) had developed a strange habit over the past few weeks. Whenever we would pet or scritch her, she would start licking her right front leg.
At first, we just thought it was cute. "Oh, look! She's so relaxed in my arms that she'll even start bathing!" But, over time, the behavior became more and more consistent, until we both started thinking something funny was going on. I kept saying, "She's going to lick that leg bald!"
Last night, Shannon said he thought perhaps she had somehow gotten the idea that licking her right front leg magically caused scritching to continue. So we spent 15 or 20 minutes testing this hypothesis and attempting to extinguish this behavior, since she really would probably eventually lick that leg raw.
Shannon scritched Cobweb as usual, then abruptly stopped when she leaned down to lick her leg. Cobweb immediately looked up at him, shocked, and voiced a very loud and disgruntled meow. I don't think I've ever heard that particular meow from her before. It sounded a bit like cat language for "Hey! What are you doing, bitch?"
Anyway, we continued on in that vein as she wandered back and forth between us. We both made sure to immediately stop petting or scritching if she started to lick her leg. She occasionally tried licking the other front leg, to see if that would cause the attention to continue, but was disappointed to see that -- just as with licking her right leg -- it caused us to pull our hands away.
I informed her that she should know better than to mess with two people who have read about instrumental conditioning. We know about behavior extinction, and we aren't afraid to use it!
After only 15 minutes or so, she had mostly stopped licking her leg, though she quite obviously was fighting a strong urge to do so. Somewhere in her little walnut-sized brain, she still thinks that licking her right front leg will make us keep scritching her, even if the rules appear to have suddenly changed for no apparent reason. Strange little cat brain.
Now we figure she'll stop bathing altogether, in hopes of being scritched all day long.