Some Thoughts on Displacement Behavior

Last week, in Oman, Dr. Pretlow spoke at the World Obesity Federation Regional Conference on the subject of displacement behavior. One of the things he says about that is,

Displacement behavior in animals likewise may become compulsive and destructive, e.g. “lick granuloma” in dogs and cats, which is excessive licking (grooming) of the fur in response to stress or social isolation, causing significant damage to the animal’s skin.

In the last post, we talked some less complicated creatures,  and a dog. This time it’s a cat, whose owner even throws in a reference to OCD, or obsessive-compulsive disorder type behavior. Ailurophile (cat-lover) Michael Broad wrote,

Cats can lick the fur off their bodies and don’t even stop there, sometimes. A cat can lick exposed skin raw to the point where it bleeds and becomes infected.

He knew this through observing his own cat, Charlie, who felt threatened by a stray that was allowed to enter through the cat flap at will, and eat from his bowl. Feeling invaded, Charlie would growl, but was too polite to start a battle, and too possessive to run away and concede the kitchen to the interloper.

In that instance, neither fight nor flight could be found in his repertoire. Instead, Charlie displaced his bad feeling by taking it out on himself, and even when the intruder was not present, Charlie would spend much of his time overgrooming to the point of undeniable self-harm.

In a previous post, Childhood Obesity News mentioned zoologist Basil Hugh Hall, who believes that for people, laughter can function as a displacement activity, along with the more familiar choices. Feeding, for example, is another one of the F-words sometimes engaged in by animals faced with dread that can be neither resolved not tolerated.

That same impulse can show up in humans as compulsive eating. Hall says,

I view laughter in modern Homo sapiens as an exapted fight or flight displacement activity which has been co-opted by different systems in the brain to serve different functions.

One line really stands out, where he suggests how “inappropriate laughter that takes place in tragic circumstances, and seemingly causeless spontaneous laughter, are typical of individuals suffering from long term stress.” Everybody must have encountered at least one person with what is sometimes called a “nervous laugh” and sometimes a “tic.” It’s a strange, weird noise expelled after everything they say — including words that are not remotely humorous.

The involuntary response can quickly become intensely annoying, and people who do it are apt to be ridiculed and avoided. But it very likely signifies a deeply troubled person who, as Hall implies, suffers from long-term stress. Imagine feeling so threatened that whenever you say anything out loud your subconscious tacks on a “laugh” that is obviously not heartfelt, a thinly disguised footnote whose message is, “Please don’t hurt me.”

How is this useful in a clinical setting? In an interview with the parents of an obese child, if one of them appends that jarringly inappropriate pseudo-laugh to every utterance, something unhealthful is going on in that family. This underlines again the idea that psychologists and psychiatrists would do well to play a much larger part in addressing the childhood obesity epidemic.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “First hand experience that anxiety can cause overgrooming in cats,”, 01/14/13
Source: “Laughter as an exapted displacement activity: the implications for humor theory,”, June 2009
Image by Gotardo Ronitis/Unsplash

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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