Feline Aggression: Accepting and Managing Your Cat’s Inner Wildcat
[The Cheshire-Cat] looked good-natured, she thought: still, it had very long claws and a great many teeth, so she felt that it ought to be treated with respect. —Alice in Wonderland
POUND FOR POUND, CATS ARE FORMIDABLE ADVERSARIES. They’ve been called the perfect carnivore. Dogs have one weapon—their teeth—but cats have many more. There’s that wide-opening mouth with teeth sharp enough to neatly sever the spinal cords of animals of similar size or smaller. There are the four, almost prehensile, paws with claws as sharp as razors that cats can wield like swords. And cats have many other strategic advantages, too. They are quieter than a whisper but have explosive power and speed. They’re harder to restrain than a Chinese contortionist channeling Houdini. Cats’ backbones flex like noodles and they have no collarbones. Their shoulders can rotate in nearly any direction. Like the greatest human athletes, cats have an unerring sense of where they are in space. Everyone knows that a cat that falls upside down from high enough can usually air-right itself and land on its feet. (But do not drop a cat to test this claim, lest you cause your cat serious injury.) In her charming memoir-with-cat, Homer’s Odyssey, Gwen Cooper relates how her blind cat Homer would stalk flies through the house until suddenly, springing five or more feet into the air, often complete with a backflip, he would catch one in his mouth.
Cat bites can contain particularly harmful bacteria and, about half the time, they cause infections in humans, adding an element of danger that most cat owners (it’s fair to say) didn’t consider when they picked little Hansele out as a kitten. Cat bites against both humans and cats (or other animals) can be very deep and should be treated immediately.
The cat’s arsenal of weapons and defenses makes sense: Their African wildcat ancestors lived, stalked, hunted, captured, killed, guarded prey, and ate—all alone. They still do. They’ve never had a pack or group to rely on, as dogs and wolves do. And because cats have the status of being both predator and prey, they’re all but unique in needing adaptations suitable for being the predators and not becoming the prey. Of course they’re going to have serious skills, as teenagers say, both defensive and offensive.
So what are you going to do when a cat seems to be itching for a fight, fight back? Unfortunately, some people try.
What Not to Do: Punish, Reprimand, or Reach For
As I explained in Chapter 1, you should avoid giving punishments or even reprimands to your cat. Of course, if you’re confronted with an angry or aggressive cat and are willing to risk scratched-up arms and (one can only hope) a good dose of guilt, you can overpower a cat, or even try to “punish” it (quotes here because that’s the owner’s notion of what they’re doing). But abuse (my notion, and I suspect the cat’s, too) will do nothing to help the problem. It has the potential to further anger the cat, or frighten him, or ruin your relationship with him, or both. So don’t bother. Nor should you ever try to pick up or soothe an agitated cat. Cats, once aroused, don’t usually calm quickly or benefit from human attempts at soothing. Some cats might even consider the attention a kind of reward for their behavior—another mistake. Better just to remove yourself from an upset cat’s presence; otherwise the cat could injure you.
CONVENTIONAL ADVICE ALERT
Some people suggest that if you’re dealing with a kitten who is biting or scratching, you should swat or growl to discourage the kitten’s inappropriate play behavior, as the mother would.
I do not recommend this approach. Swatting violates our injunction against punishment, and because we aren’t mother cats, we’re not able to growl with the full range of vocalizations and body language that she employs.
Understanding Feline Aggression
Understanding aggression is the first piece of the puzzle. Then you must treat or manage aggression as quickly as possible, because aggression can be self-reinforcing. The longer you let it go on, the more entrenched it can become. It’s precisely the cat owners who come to me after years of aggression who are my greatest challenge in cat behavior consulting.
Most domesticated animals—other than cats—are less territorial than their wild forebears were; they’re more playful throughout their lives than their ancestors, they’re less fearful and less suspicious of novelty, they exhibit less predatory behavior, and they’re quite dependent on others for food and attention. But the cat? Its territorial and aggressive behaviors develop as it matures, so that by the time it’s an adult, its behaviors are similar to those of its wildcat forebears—further proof of the cat’s incomplete domestication.
KITTY JEKYLL OR MAD-CAT HYDE?
Cute and fluffy one minute, a fanged dervish the next. Seems incomprehensible that a cat could transform itself so fast and so completely, but aggression can be a normal response to situations that threaten him—or at least seem to him to do so. In fact, aggressive instincts are the main reason cats are such great survivors. A cat is and must be its own best protector.
A cat and his aggression are as natural as a kangaroo and his hopping. An aggressive cat is not a bad cat. The instincts we lump into aggression are those that helped cats survive: catching and killing prey, marking and defending territory, protecting themselves and their young. A cat’s ability to protect himself at a moment’s notice is a hardwired instinct. It is simply a part of who he is and what makes him such a great survivor. Owners may have trouble seeing and understanding this wildcat survival mechanism, especially when it’s buried beneath the cuteness and fluff. But every cat has the potential to be aggressive if the circumstances bring it out in him—and sometimes owners create those circumstances without being aware that that’s what they are doing. I’ve never seen any of my six cats act aggressively, but I know the potential is always there.
The average cat owner has almost 2½ cats (this number being a statistical average, and not a literal description of, say, 3 or 4 Cheshires in various stages of disappearance), so aggression within the household is always a possibility. The more serious forms of aggression arrive, like marking, with the onset of social maturity, somewhere after about two years of age. While aggression can be common between intact toms in sexual competition, aggression between cats is less often related to sex than to social hierarchies, territory, and emotional responses. Most aggression between cats is covert, subtle, and passive, which can make it extremely hard to detect. Rarely will you see your cats facing off, snarling, over a food bowl. In fact, your cats could have a conflict right in front of you without your being any the wiser. One cat may subtly posture aggression, the other cat will subtly signal deference, and that will be that. Some conflicts are resolved just by staring—and just as with humans, the first to blink or walk away is the loser. More obvious signs of aggression in cats, whether they are being threatened or doing the threatening, often involve trying to look bigger than they really are—their way of bluffing and swaggering. They straighten their longer hind legs to raise their hindquarters, and the fur along the ridge of their spine and on their tail stands up (called piloerection). Some, though, will begin to look smaller, flattening their ears against their heads for protection, tightly curling their bodies, and leaning away from the source of their arousal. Or they may just decide to go passive-aggressive, getting their territorial point across with a little urine marking. But however bold or subtle the signs, when two cats don’t get along, it can upset the entire household, cats and people alike.
What about aggression against humans? Aggression against humans is generally related to the human’s behavior. One study found, for example, that nearly all cat bites fell into the provoked category, which didn’t necessarily mean that the cat was being abused but that immediately before the bite, it was being petted in a way it didn’t like or picked up at the wrong time or exposed to some other kind of treatment that caused it distress.1 Since you may be completely unaware that you are doing anything to upset the cat, it will be useful to learn the types and signs of impending aggression in order to back off from it before it occurs.
Aggression related to medical conditions could overlap with pain- or irritability-induced aggression. Be sure your vet can rule out medical conditions like localized pain or general discomfort, abnormalities in the central nervous system, Feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV), hyperthyroidism, partial seizures or epilepsy, infections, dietary deficiencies, toxoplasmosis, hepatic encephalopathy, feline ischemic encephalopathy, meningioma, toxicity, CNS pathology, dental issues, impacted anal glands, and even medications like corticoids and progestogens.2
Before I explain the different types of aggression and provide C.A.T. Plans for treating them, let me review some general ideas about how to prevent aggression before it blooms.
Socialize and Properly Introduce
Aggression that results from a cat’s lack of socialization to people as a kitten is probably the most difficult to treat. So before bringing a kitten or young cat into your household, see if you can find out about the kind of socialization it had, particularly during the important two-to-seven-week period. And if you yourself have kittens in the home, make sure to give them plenty of safe, supervised exposure not just to people but to any other cats or animals in the household, and also expose them to a variety of sounds, and to different locations and situations during that critical window between two and seven weeks of age. You should continue that exposure afterward, too, gently and carefully. Even one unpleasant experience can teach a kitten to fear, so do your best to make sure the kittens don’t encounter a rambunctious dog, a territorial cat, or a tantrum-throwing toddler in the home—otherwise they might develop everlasting fears of dogs, cats, or children (just like some people you know).
Kittens who lack adequate socialization during their early days are more likely than their better-socialized peers to grow up to be both fearful and aggressive. People often tell me that on the basis of what they’ve seen of their cat’s behavior, the cat must have been abused before they adopted it. In most cases, however, it was merely not adequately socialized. Socialization specific to humans can help prevent play aggression.
With adult cats, it’s important to use the correct introduction process when you bring a new cat (or person, dog, or other pet) into the home. You’ll be happy you did. Sometimes the only reason a cat has become fearful or territorial is that the owners introduced the new cat into the home too quickly, setting the stage for years of chaos. It’s not enough to let them sniff each other under the door for a few days. (See Chapter 4 for the full description of the process for introducing cats to one another.)
No Body Parts
To reduce play aggression and unwanted predatory behavior, never use your (or anyone else’s) body parts to play with your cat. I’ve seen people using their fingers, toes, and hair, or poking their faces into their cat’s face, as part of their play. Not good. Instead, maneuver string and wand toys, throw simple toys, and let automated toys do their thing without any participation from you.
Spay and Neuter
Unneutered or unspayed cats are typically more territorial and aggressive (and more likely to spray). The urge to mate is one natural instinct of cats that can and should be eliminated. Cats are prodigious breeders. At least thirty thousand feral cats must die every day just to keep the population stable.3 It should be clear that the enormous feral cat population, up to 70 million in the United States alone, constitutes a humane crisis. Cat owners’ collective failure to spay or neuter leads to unhappy lives for millions of abandoned cats who become feral, and for their offspring, and leads to a host of other negative effects, such as:
fouling of common areas, nocturnal fighting and caterwauling, leaving of corpses [of prey, not to mention the corpses of deceased feral cats], attacks on pets and people, entering homes uninvited, flea infestations within the neighborhood, health risks [to humans]from the cats in general (toxoplasmosis), killing of pet and ornamental birds and fish [and killing of wild birds], and digging of gardens.4
Millions more cats are cycled through animal shelters and euthanized every year, many of them due to behaviors that could be eliminated or reduced by neutering males. To reduce your male cat’s instincts of sexual or territorial aggression, you should definitely neuter him at four to six months of age. About 90 percent of males neutered before the onset of puberty never engage in aggression with other cats. And it’s never too late: If you neuter an adult male, there’s still a 90 percent chance he’ll stop fighting (50 percent stop immediately and 40 percent after a few months).5 Early spaying of females may help not just to keep the cat population down but also to prevent mammary cancer.
Keep other animals out of your home and off your property. A very common cause of redirected, fear-based, and territorial aggression is your cat’s sighting of a dog or cat outside, paw prints in soil, or feces on the ground, or your cat’s smelling cats’ urine spray on windows. If you know the owner of the outdoor animal, you can ask the owner to keep it away from your home and yard. (If you get no love from thy neighbor, see Chapter 9 to learn how to deter outdoor animals from your property.) If you feed feral cats, do not do so near your property.
TYPES OF FELINE AGGRESSION
We can describe the types of aggression in terms of their purpose or function. Aggression ignited by a particular purpose includes aggression induced by fear, petting, or pain (so-called “irritable aggression” could also fit in here); inter-cat aggression, which can be territorial, fear-induced, or sexual, or could also be maternal (if some other cat seems to threaten her kittens); aggression; and predatory behavior. Aggression can be further broken down into the fundamental emotional divide of offensive versus defensive. We won’t deal here with fine parsings of aggression, such as irritable aggression, that fall into larger categories. We also won’t deal with aggression related to medical conditions or with idiopathic aggression, which is Greek for “we really have no idea why your cat just did that,” or, as Alice put it, “I think you might do something better with the time than wasting it in asking riddles that have no answers.”
I’ll start the in-depth discussion of the various kinds of aggression with unwanted play aggression and predatory agression, directed toward you or other people, as well as toward other cats, animals, or actual prey. First, I’ll explain their different causes, then offer a C.A.T. Plan that will work for both kinds of aggression.
Sooner or later, when you are petting or playing with your kitten, she may go too far and bite down on your fingers too hard, or unsheathe her claws on your ankles. Her bite pressure and scratching power seem uninhibited—Why, just look at the bloody scratches and puncture wounds she’s left on your hands and ankles! She is doing what all kittens do to one degree or another, which is to sharpen their hunting skills—she just hasn’t learned how to inhibit the actions that cause others harm. Such a kitten may be playful one minute and then, as if someone had flipped a switch, she’ll flatten her ears, growl, and attack. A kitten or cat who is merely playing will usually be silent. If your cat growls or hisses, however, she may be in a fighting mood—either defensive or offensive.
Many humans (and not just first-time cat owners) have no idea that the hunting skills practiced by their kitten are normal, and that they didn’t mistakenly purchase a tiny leopard. “Welcome to kittenhood,” I tell them. Kittens begin to play by batting at moving objects at about two weeks of age. Social play behavior begins when a kitten is three to four weeks old—at around the same time it can actually move around well. The kitten paws and bites softly, assuming a series of postures designed to increase its eye-paw coordination and develop its hunting skills. Play has a diversity of purposes ranging from physical fitness and exploration of the environment to the coordination, timing, and maturation of the central nervous system.6 The kitten repeats its hunting behaviors, or motor pattern sequences, over and over again, coupling instinct with (eventually) ability. Watch, and over time you will see your kitten display the following postures.
• side step with body arch
• vertical stance
• horizontal leap
• the face-off
Kittens also practice catching different kinds of prey, from “mice” (pouncing on a small object and seizing it with the forepaws) to “birds” (intercepting flying objects and guiding them to the mouth) to “rabbits” (e.g., larger moving objects, such as my Teacup Chihuahua, who, when Josephine and Farsi were kittens, lived to be ambushed, brought to the ground, and, gently, neck-bit, in a replay of the ancient battles between saber-toothed cats and wolves). Like small children, kittens even have imaginary friends, and with great zest will engage in so-called hallucinatory play.
A kitten with healthy play socialization learns when she has gone too far: She gets a nip, a scratch, a low growl, or a swatting from her littermates or her mother. The mother or littermates will often leave or pull away from the overly exuberant player. The message: Unnecessary roughness. Ease up or we won’t play with you. The kitten who is taught when enough is enough learns to calibrate her actions and reactions and the intensity of her bite or scratching.
Play That Has Gone Awry
Play aggression is most common in cats between the beginning of sexual puberty and the age of two, a period known as psychological adolescence. There are four common reasons for a cat playing too aggressively: It is feral, it was taken too early from its mother and littermates, its owner has socialized it to aggressiveness, or it suffered malnutrition. If a kitten was taken from her littermates and mother too soon (especially before the so-called sensitive period is over, at seven weeks, but even before twelve weeks), or her mother was absent or unavailable due to illness, a too-soon pregnancy, or death, look out: That kitten was deprived of valuable lessons. The same goes for feral kittens, who also didn’t get the message about what is and is not acceptable about relating to people. The archetype of play aggression (or what some behaviorists call lack-of-socialization aggression) may come from the cat that was born feral and didn’t interact with humans during the sensitive period. Imagine a child who was never told “No” during the Terrible Twos.
In addition, if the kitten suffered malnutrition for any reason, its coordination and responsiveness could suffer, and it might be overly reactive, fearful, or aggressive as a result. In other words, the best remedies—proper socialization and nutrition—for an adolescent or adult cat who exhibits play aggression are not available to you without a time-travel machine. But as you’ll see later in this chapter, when prevention is not possible, treatment is. So don’t despair.
Human-Caused Play Aggression
In too many cases, it is we humans who are, perhaps unwittingly, responsible for a great deal of play aggression. Sometimes kittens are adopted too early, often around six to eight weeks of age. It’s detrimental to a kitten’s continuing social development for her to leave her mother and littermates before she’s twelve weeks old.
Another way we can help further the socialization that will guard against future behavior issues is by promoting the adoption of two kittens. By adopting two kittens, you will allow them the chance to continue to develop their social skills and decrease the likelihood of behavior issues developing later on. Your kitten also won’t get so bored that she must direct all her playfulness onto you. I have always felt that taking a kitten away from all of her littermates was an unnecessary trauma. I strongly recommend a twofer adoption. The best course is to adopt two kittens from the same litter, but if that’s not possible, pick up the one in the next cage at the shelter. Adopting two is even helpful for socialization when one or both kittens is already older than twelve weeks. Two kittens are just more fun, both for you and for the kittens, than one.
Owners who roughhouse with their cats too much during play, unable to resist the fun of wrestling with a tiny, toothy ball of fur, need to switch to more appropriate forms of play. I’ve heard more than a few owners admit that they hand-wrestled with their kittens, using their hands to roll the kittens around as the kittens (still gently) bit and clawed at them. When the cat is still a kitten, this can all be great fun. How cute! But be careful how you train that budding tiger. Even with dogs, many researchers and trainers strongly believe that supposedly violent breeds are not so much genetically violent as conditioned to violence by their owners.7
Owners who don’t play with their kittens at all also need to change their behavior. The kitten instinctively has to practice hunting and looks for the best target. A moving target is the best, of course, and you can’t just leave a catnip mouse toy on the floor and expect the cat to get what it needs. If you’re not engaging your cat in interactive play with wand toys and other moving targets, then your moving feet and hands may become the targets of choice—by default.
Luckily the behavior issues related to inappropriate play aggression can easily be reversed or improved, and all without declawing your cats, as some ill-informed cat owners do. In fact, declawing can cause a cat to use its teeth more.
Once, when I was eight, I was, as usual, outside inspecting the animal kingdom when I spotted a baby bird. He was fresh out of the nest, wobbling on a fence rail. I slowly made my way behind him, using my best approximation of the stealth strategy that I’d observed in cats, delighted that he was not taking flight. I had gotten myself right up to the fence and was just about to reach out to the bird when a flash of brown and black picked the bird off the fence and whisked it away. The flash was Spunky, one of the barn cats I’d worked so hard to socialize.
I had witnessed a prime example of feline predatory behavior. Spunky’s emotional state was neither offensive nor defensive. It just was. Predatory cats are unemotional, all business. Predatory behavior, which starts at about five weeks of age with help from Mom, is a normal feline behavior when it’s directed at cats’ normal prey, like birdlings wobbling on fence rails. By just over a month of age, skills that will later be used for predatory behaviors have become part of healthy play. By five to seven weeks, kittens display some solitary hunting behaviors. Kittens mock-fight each other at seven to eight weeks and, as their neuromuscular control improves, become effective hunters at fourteen weeks. For a variety of reasons, kittens orphaned or hand reared may show more aggressive predatory behaviors as adults.
As with play aggression, owners often misinterpret predatory play behavior as malicious or spiteful. Thinking like that leads to abuse of cats. You may be sitting on the couch reading the paper and notice your cat peering at you around the corner of the sofa. The next thing you know he’s crouched low, wiggling his rear, and then hurling himself toward your bare feet propped up on the ottoman, where he latches on to them only to quickly release them and run away. What you just witnessed was your cat’s prey sequence.
Some experts think predatory behavior should not be called aggression at all, because it has no self-protective or social function and does not involve a shift in the emotional state, such as, Now I’m really angry! or I’m terrified! A cat in the throes of predation is emotionally neutral, just doing what is in his nature to do. Still, predatory behavior in the household, which is usually characterized by surprise attacks on the owner or other cats, is a behavior you will want to discourage.
INHIBITED PREDATORY AGGRESSION
If your cat is stuck inside, and the tasty fluttering bird is outside, he’ll be inhibited from predatory behavior. You may see his tail switch back and forth, and you can see and even hear his jaws chattering slightly, like early Jim Carrey.
Play is a normal behavior in kittens still sharpening their hunting skills, and both play and predatory behavior are normal in adults. Play is not just normal, but also crucial to cats’ mental, physical, and emotional health, as well as to preventing unwanted behaviors. That’s why the treatment techniques in the C.A.T. Plan below are intended to allow the cat to continue to play or practice hunting, but without targeting you or another animal in the household with the unwanted behavior.
C.A.T. Plan for Play and Predatory Aggression
CEASE the Unwanted Behavior
It would be difficult and not very much fun to limit your cat’s access to you, so the best solution is to be vigilant and anticipate the occasions when your cat likes to attack you, so that you can avoid them. You should be able to do this much more effectively than Inspector Clouseau, who is continually ambushed by his valet, Cato.
Avoid—No Hands, Ma
Avoid situations that cause your cat to want to prey on you in the first place. For example, any kind of movement can elicit his play/prey response, leading to biting or scratching, so be mindful of your activities. If you have been using your hands to play with your kitten, stop right away. It’s tempting to entice a kitten into playing by wiggling your fingers above its head, but you are simply training him to go after your hands. No toe play, either! Try to make any body parts that he likes to attack unavailable to him. In order to avoid surprise attacks, put a belled collar on him so you’ll always hear him approaching.
All of this may take some creativity on your part and even a bit of inconvenience. But the more your cat or kitten rehearses his play-and-prey instincts on you, the longer it can take and the more difficult it can become to end the biting and scratching.
Most important, learn to read your cat’s body language so that you will know the signs of an impending bite or scratch. The warning signs of play aggression are:
• hiding behind doors and other objects, waiting to spring on its victim
• lashing or twitching tail
• turning ears back or flattening
• unsheathing the claws
• stiffening the legs and shoulders
• engaging in the “butt-wiggle”
• lowering the head
Note, however, that some play and prey aggression postures may actually resemble those of fear aggression. These include:
• stalking—as when the cat flattens himself to the ground and moves forward very slowly
The warning signs of aggressive behavior that is predatory are:
• engaging in it regardless of whether or not he’s hungry
• showing little or no mood change
• intense concentration
• silent, stealthy, deliberate stalking, rather than spontaneous actions
• after staring and stalking, performing the rest of the prey sequence (see Chapter 5), from the chase to the grab, or the pounce and bite, and the kill bite
• lying in wait, slinking, head lowering, butt wiggling, tail twitching (body postures of hunting)
Distract and Redirect
If your cat shows any of the signs of impending aggression, try to intervene before the actual aggression begins: Distract him by maneuvering a wand or string prey target away from you, or throwing a small toy away from you. Effective diversions allow him to exercise his perfectly normal prey urges and get him in the habit of attacking the right target; equally important, they keep him from rehearsing attacks on you that strengthen the habit you wish to discourage. His prey urge may include sinking his teeth into, say, a rabbit, so in case he wants to eat his prey, offer him food or treats. You’ll further promote the idea that toys are appealing and rewarding prey targets. (See The Prey Sequence in Chapter 5.)
Place wand toys and other toys in strategic locations around the house, such as places where you spend a lot of time or where your cat often attacks you: near sofas, hallways, chairs, your bed, the kitchen. That way they will be handy to you if you see any signs of aggression. If your cat attacks only at certain times, such as when you come home from work, you can try confining him to a different room during the day in order to diminish his association with the triggering event of your arrival, or come in the door with a wand toy to divert his attention and redirect his play elsewhere. As a preventative measure, I recommend using toys with your cat even before you see any signs of imminent aggression, especially in contexts or locations where aggression often occurs.
Timing is very important. Do not wait until the cat is actually displaying aggression to distract him, or you will reinforce aggressive behavior. He’ll think all he has to do is start attacking things in order to get you to play with him.
Ignore—The Snub of the Queen
You can learn a lot from mother cats. When one of her kittens engages in behavior that is too rough, such as biting hard rather than just nipping, the queen may simply disengage from that kitten by standing up and walking away. Withdrawal of attention can be very effective when done by a human, too. When your cat goes too far, immediately withdraw your attention. Leave the room for a few minutes. Cats learn quickly. It won’t be long before he learns that biting or scratching too hard takes something away from him that is very important—you!
For Play Aggression Only:Aversion Therapy and the Act of God
If your cat still relentlessly attacks you, it’s time for an Act of God. Covertly use a water pistol or air in a can to deliver a very small squirt of air or water—just enough to achieve an interruption. You never want to traumatize or punish a cat with this technique, just mildly startle her. Do not squirt the cat in the face. Aim for the cat’s side or rear end instead. Or just let the can hiss behind your back.
Finally, never run away from your cat when he’s in predatory aggression mode. The sight of you running may excite his prey response even more.
For Natural Predatory Aggression Only:Prevention and Management
Predatory behavior toward appropriate, or natural, targets is difficult to “cure” humanely. The best solution is to prevent your cat’s access to targets like birds and other outdoor animals. Bell your cat so that his targets get forewarning and have a better chance of escaping. (Use a safety release cat collar that comes with a small bell attached.) Just don’t consider it foolproof. Cats are like martial arts masters: I’ve seen cats intuit how to move in just such a way that the bell never rings. If cats could learn to handle a bow and arrow, they would be like the Zen masters described in Zen in the Art of Archery who hit their targets blindfolded, and then split the first arrow with the second. (That said, belling is still worth doing.)
If you see that the cat has started the countdown to his prey sequence by eyeing his target, use a distraction (Ping-Pong balls, etc.). If you miss interrupting the eye stare and your cat has moved on to the stalk or chase, he may be more difficult to distract.
ATTRACT the Cat to New, Acceptable Behaviors
Now we need to show your kitten or cat what to do in the environment. Cats need to play, bite, claw, and hunt. There is no way around this. It’s what they are programmed to do at the kittenish stage in their lives. We just need to help them focus this behavior on to the appropriate targets.
Schedule a Regular Playtime
As with so many cat behavior issues, play and predatory aggression can also be diminished with routine and predictable play sequences—a homeopathic remedy, a little whisker of the cat that scratched you, so to speak. Play is also a good way for your cats to get exercise. Set up a daily schedule to maneuver interactive toys for your cat. Predictable playtime schedules will also let a cat or kitten know when it’s time to be active. For an adult cat, I recommend two playtimes daily, from ten to twenty minutes each. For a kitten, I recommend as many as four playtimes per day, which mirrors kittens’ natural preference. If your cat becomes bored easily, play for two minutes and then give her a five-minute break before resuming. (For a full description of the play/prey technique, see Chapter 5.)
You can supplement interactive playtimes with toys (such as battery-operated toys*) that you don’t have to maneuver, so you can trigger his prey drive even when you’re not around. If your cat likes to prey on you when you’re sitting down after work or while you’re in bed, think preventively and help him perform a prey sequence or other form of play before these times (i.e., thirty minutes before you go to bed) and have a battery-operated toy going while you’re trying to work.
Reward Behavior You Want Repeated
It’s easy to remember to correct (or worse, punish) a cat when it’s doing something undesirable, but one of the most effective techniques is often forgotten. Reward your cat for play-attacking the appropriate target or for being calm or showing other desirable behaviors. In addition to praising her with a soft voice, petting her, and giving her treats or food, you can also use clicker training to promote and reward specific desirable behavior. (See Appendix A for more on the very effective, advanced solution of clicker training.)
TRANSFORM the Territory
The key words here are environmental enrichment. A bored cat is a cat who may want his fangs in your ankle. Give him ample opportunities to unleash his play aggression and predatory behavior on appropriate targets. Make your home a stimulating territory with lots of places to perch, hide, and play. (See Chapter 5 for full details, including the sections Toys and Scratching Posts and Other Stimulating Gear.)
For Play Aggression Only: What? Another Kitten?
If you have only one kitten and he remains relentless in his attacks, consider adding another kitten of about the same age and size into the household. A second kitten is sometimes the best way to give your kitten another outlet for play. When I mention this idea to most owners, still nursing puncture wounds, they’re not usually in the frame of mind to have yet another kitten in the household. But when they do add another kitten, the attacks they have to endure usually either disappear or are cut by at least half. If adding another kitten is not in the cards, then you will need to concentrate on expanding the number of play outlets and interactive toys for your cat.
Be patient. Habits take time to break as well as to form, and your cat is doing what comes naturally to him. In most cases, when kittens get older, the play aggression goes away.
Next up is redirected aggression—aggression redirected from a desired but unavailable target to someone or something nearby. Redirected aggression usually starts with a fear response, and sometimes it can lead to a vicious cycle of aggression between cats.
The literature on cats reports a case in which the sounds made by a talking doll so startled the family’s cat that the terrified animal flew at the little girl holding the doll and bit her in the face. Although this is an extreme version of the phenomenon, redirected aggression—against a nearby person or animal—is a typical response when something provokes a cat’s feelings of fear, but he’s unable to get at the trigger itself. Redirected aggression is the most baffling kind, because often we can’t see the cause and have no idea what triggered the sudden attack. About half of all feline aggression toward people is actually redirected aggression, which is commonly misdiagnosed as unprovoked aggression. But the cat is not malicious; he’s just in such a highly reactive state that he is compelled to act upon his primal urges.
Here’s a common scenario of redirected aggression: Your cat Moe is sitting on the couch, looking out the window. He sees a neighbor cat walking through his territory, safely on the other side of the window. Hissing and screaming, Moe suddenly turns and attacks the Great Dane sleeping next to him. Moe saw something outside that triggered his fighting response, probably by first making him fearful. Fit to burst with aggressive energy surging through his system, he chose fight over flight, yet was unable to express his aggression onto its natural target. Therefore he redirected it onto something nearby—the dog. But windows, furniture, and largely innocent lampshades have all been known to take a good beating under such circumstances. It could also be you, sipping a cup of coffee nearby; another cat in the household minding his own business; or your spouse fast asleep on the couch. Anything or anyone in the path of an upset cat can be a target. And because cats can remain aroused for a while after the triggering event, you may never know why your cat just took a swipe at something.
I recently had a client who had purchased a large cat tree. She placed the tree by a window so her cat could enjoy basking in the sunlight, but after a few days she noticed her cat becoming agitated and sometimes aggressive. She reported to me that sometimes when she walked by the cat’s tree, her cat would lash out and attack her with unsheathed claws. After a little investigating we discovered that the placement of the new cat tree had permitted her cat to see the neighborhood cats traversing the yard. Redirected aggression strikes again! Needless to say, we moved the cat tree. Case solved.
NYUK, NYUK:REDIRECTED AGGRESSION ON THE SILVER SCREEN
If you’re old enough to have seen The Three Stooges, or you watch a lot of YouTube, you’ve seen redirected aggression in action. Moe pokes Larry between the eyes. Larry kicks Curly in the behind. Larry has just redirected his aggressive feelings toward Moe onto Curly. (Moe is usually redirecting his own aggression. He usually starts off the slapping because he’s upset at something in his environment.)
As the Three Stooges teach us, humans actually relate to the impulse of redirected aggression better than they do to most aspects of cat psychology. I once explained the concept of redirected aggression to a cat owner whose cats were exhibiting redirected aggression. “Wow,” he said. “I think my wife has that.”
But ask the animals, and they will teach you. —The Book of Job
I have always felt that we humans are more animal-like than we think. We can learn a lot about ourselves and our motivations by studying our companion animals. Reverse anthropomorphizing?
Redirected aggression can come suddenly and seemingly out of nowhere, and it can be quite upsetting to the innocent victim. Redirected aggression can be so profoundly terrifying to other household cats, and so effective at rewiring both aggressor and victim, that it can up-end the entire social hierarchy. It takes only one instance of a cat redirecting his aggression against a fellow cat to start a vicious cycle of (barring professional intervention) sometimes-permanent instability between cats. It can traumatize one or both. Imagine two cats just resting peacefully. There is a loud noise. Both cats startle and puff up and assume a defensive posture. Each then sees the other in that defensive posture and says to himself, Unbelievable. It looks like that cat is actually about to attack me. Each one then reacts even more defensively, or perhaps one becomes the aggressor. Maybe there’s a fight, and after that they’re aggressive whenever they see each other. Each cat may act as if the other started the fight. A cat who sees himself in a mirror may do the same thing, becoming more agitated as he sees his counterpart puffing up more and more. And for better or worse, when it comes to built-up associations, cats have very long memories.
“The victim’s fear becomes a sort of conditioned paranoia,” writes veterinary behaviorist Stefanie Schwartz, “transmitted in defensive body language that triggers renewed attacks by the ‘bully’ long after the initial context is forgotten.”8 To add more twists, a victimized cat may even become the aggressor at a later time. This may be the most likely outcome if the cat who initially redirected his aggression was actually inferior in status to his target. Oops. On The Three Stooges, there’s a reason you don’t see Curly slapping Moe. You don’t bully a superior cat! The superior cat will reassert his status and the poor cat who first launched an attack may find himself incessantly victimized.
If you were the original victim, your cat may now be conditioned to see you as a stimulus for attack.
Luckily, there are solutions.
MANAGEMENT OF REDIRECTED AGGRESSION
You don’t fix or cure an incident of redirected aggression. First you manage the immediate consequences—the fighting, the agitation—and then, to prevent it from happening again, you try to remove the fear triggers.
Break Up Any Fights and Separate Because they don’t have clear dominance-based hierarchies, cats can’t work things out as dogs do. Instead, generally, the more they fight, the worse their problem becomes. So if your cat redirects aggression onto another cat in the household and a fight breaks out, you will want to safely separate the cats right away. Do not get between the cats. Break up the fight by wedging a pillow or large piece of cardboard between the cats, or throw a thick towel over one of the cats. Do not use aversive interruptions like an Act of God! Adding a negative to a negative situation only makes the situation worse. If you can lure the aggressor into a separate room without picking him up, do so. A quiet, darkened room is best. If he stays where the triggering event occurred, he may feel the same tension. He might even generalize the trigger to anything in that location. If he continues to be exposed to the trigger, consciously or unconsciously, his panic response will be reinforced and a cure can be difficult.
If you can’t lure him out, leave him alone so he can calm down. Make sure he has food, water, litter, and, ideally, calming pheromones. Whatever you do, do not touch or pick up any agitated cat or dog that was in the room during the aggression. You may get bitten or scratched. Nothing personal, of course. It could take hours or even days for all the cats to calm down. The stronger the initial stimulus, the longer the recovery period. Just gently herd any other animals or people out of the room with you. Then look for any fear triggers to eliminate.
Later, you’ll use play therapy and food in the area to build positive associations. It’s possible to change your cat’s emotional state from fear to a calmer state by getting him to either actively watch a toy or engage in play (see Chapter 5).
Remove Fear Triggers I explain how to keep foreign cats off your property in Chapter 9. If deterring outside animals from your cat’s perception is not possible, Chapter 9 also explains how to block the windows your cat can see out of. You don’t need to block the entire window, just the portion through which he can see out.
Even if the fear triggers are gone for good, your cats’ relationship may be damaged. If so, you’ll want to follow the C.A.T. Plan for Territorial, Fear, and Cat-to-Cat Aggression coming up next. Pay special attention to how to bring the cats together through controlled exposure. If things are really extreme, however, you may need to perform a full reintroduction (Chapter 4).
If an incident of redirected aggression is part of an already ingrained pattern of behavior, or becomes one, you will then need to proceed to the C.A.T. Plan for Territorial, Fear, and Cat-to-Cat Aggression.
I’ll now address these three types of aggression, and give you a C.A.T. Plan that will work for all of them, and can be effective for redirected aggression, too.
Territorial instincts often lead to the aggression displayed by the solitary hunter whose instincts say, I must keep the competition away from my important resources. Territorial behavior is normal in cats after they reach social maturity, often being set in motion between ages two and four, when their biological clocks tell them it’s time to establish social rank and territorial rights. Status and territory are intimately intertwined: To get more territory or even be entitled to time-share it, your cat may try to establish equal or higher ranking; to establish higher rank, your cat must acquire more territory. Territoriality typically begins gradually, so much so that it can be invisible to the owner, which is why it may seem to have erupted out of nowhere when you do finally notice it. Often what happens is that you have two cats who are best of friends … until suddenly they’re not. Instead of curling up together to sleep, grooming each other and playing happily, they’re growling and hissing at the sight of each other.
Although cats may be more tolerant of neighbor cats they’ve seen before than of total strangers, even your gentlest cat can run another cat right off your property (and his). You may have seen him laying the groundwork for his territorial challenge: patrolling his territory and chin-rubbing and scent-marking things inside or out with his urine and scent glands. Indeed, urine marking (see Chapter 9) should be considered an alert to the underlying tension that can lead to overt aggression.
Territorial aggression toward a feline intruder is surprisingly effective: The intruder is at a psychological disadvantage and usually withdraws at signs of aggression from the resident cat. Actual fights are rare; given cats’ arsenal of weapons, the risk of serious injury is too great. Instead of outright violence, both offensive and defensive territorial aggression tend to feature highly ritualized posturing, some of it very subtle—but effective. However, if the cats do fight and the resident cat loses, he may not only be injured but lose any primary breeding status in the colony and even be psychologically castrated.
One of the most common causes of territorial aggression is the introduction of a newcomer to the household—whether it be a new cat, a new member of the family, or a guest. (See Chapter 4 on making proper introductions.) Typically, it’s the resident cat who will display territorial behavior toward a new cat, but sometimes it’s the upstart newcomer. The victim cat may begin to hide to avoid his enemy, and may even stop coming to the litter box. (See Chapter 8 for solutions to the resulting inappropriate elimination.)
Foreign smells can also make a cat aggressive, even when the cat who carries that smell is a cat he knows very well. Let’s say one of your cats, Curly, has been to the vet. He returns home. Moe begins to slap him silly.
MOE: Uggh! What’s that awful smell on you?
CURLY: It’s vetsmell and it’s not my fault, leave me alone!
MOE: What I’m gonna do is smack you again.
This returning-home-from-the-vet crisis is very common. Moe may be feeling territorial, he may be redirecting his fear as aggression, or he may be suffering from what some behaviorists call nonrecognition aggression.
When you bring your cat home from the vet (or any other outside location such as a boarding facility), he may have a foreign smell. Resident cats may have negative reactions not just to the “vetsmell” but to the appearance and behavior of the returning cat. Perhaps still not feeling well, coming down from anesthesia, or merely stressed from the car ride, the returning cat may act strangely. Faced with this goofy-acting, scent-unknown intruder (remember, cats rely on scent to distinguish friend from foe), and perhaps sensing distress in your own emotional reaction, the resident cat may cycle through fear and redirected aggression and straight into territorial aggression.
A SENSIBLE SCENTS STRATEGY
You can minimize the potential for scent-related aggression by a form of allogrooming. Before you bring the returning cat into the home, rub the resident cat with a dry towel and then use the same towel to rub down the returning cat. The home cat then smells on the returning cat … himself! What could be less threatening? Do not do this the other way around, wiping foreign scents all over the householders! Doing so could trigger fear and territorial behaviors in the cats who stayed home.
I’ve heard of or dealt with many cases of territorial aggression (possibly mixed with status-based aggression) against not only other cats but people: a cat who wouldn’t let a hospice nurse get close to his dying owner; cats who guard their food bowl even against their owners; cats who won’t let other cats near their litter box or sleeping area. I knew one cat who sat atop a video game console and took a swing at anyone who tried to touch the controls. Some cats will try to attack any visitor. (This can tend, over time, to diminish the number of guests who come to your home.)
PREPARING FOR GUESTS
If you’re having guests over and you think your cat is likely to be fearful or aggressive, put the cat in a separate room while the guests are present. The “Cat’s Diary” quoted in Chapter 1 put it this way: “There was some sort of assembly of [the humans’]accomplices tonight. I was placed in solitary confinement for the duration of the event.” Give her plenty of food and water, litter, toys, and even a treat, and leave a TV or radio on to create a noise buffer. Be sure to play with her before you close the door. For those occasions when you can’t guarantee keeping her away from a surprise—or surprised—visitor:
Trim the cat’s nails to prevent serious scratches.
Warn guests against approaching the cat, making eye contact with her, or causing big sounds or movements.
Keep on hand an interactive toy or a few toys you can toss. These are not only a distraction, but can help change a cat’s mood and emotional state for the better.
A certain amount of fear is a useful, adaptive response. Fear is what keeps all living creatures from doing unwise things that would prevent the perpetuation of their gene pool—in other words, things that could lead to injury or death. In animals, fear evokes one of four responses: fight, flight, paralysis, or submission. Sometimes a cat will freeze and urinate in fear, but cats rarely traffic in such paralysis. And the weight of authority says cats are never submissive. Instead, your cat will usually choose fight or flight. Which one he chooses will depend on a split-second decision about what he senses will best ensure his survival, but I have found that when a cat is able to flee the scene easily, he usually will. It’s when a cat is feeling cornered, unable to locate his options for escape, that his level of arousal redlines and he chooses to fight. This fighting response has undoubtedly made cats the great survivors that they are, but it can pose serious consequences for owners, vets, children, other household animals, and even the cat itself.
Anything can cause a cat’s fight-or-flight response to veer into fearful aggression. Learned reactions to a particular pain (e.g., pain experienced at the vet’s office) may quickly lead to fear-induced aggression, which you see in a cat fighting not to be removed from its carrier when you take it to the vet. Other things that may cause fear—followed by aggression—include: having a pill pushed down his throat, seeing a dog or a toddler running in his direction; hearing a sudden loud noise, such as a dish or piece of silverware being dropped on the floor nearby; and even (this is unusual but it does happen) seeing a wand toy in motion in his vicinity! Fear aggression is the most common type of aggression between cats who suddenly find themselves living in the same home without having been properly introduced to one another. Every cat has a fear-sensitivity threshold, but for some cats, this threshold is low.
BODY LANGUAGE ALERT
A fearful cat may roll over on its back, turning its head to face the aggressor with all four paws ready for protection. This might appear to some observers as a submissive posture, like that of a dog, whose belly-up posture is intended to discourage an attack by signaling Okay, okay: I’m lower ranking. But cats do not have specific dominance or subordinance displays. They convey their relative social status by a combination of offensive and defensive aggressive behaviors, avoidance, immobility, and deference. A cat on her back is a formidable opponent. Her seemingly submissive postures—This is not to say, by the way, that I bow to your authority—are simply attempts to inhibit an attack. She has at her disposal a mouth ringed with knife-tips and all four sets of claws. With her forelegs, she can grab a four-legged aggressor near his mouth while her hind legs rip away at his belly, as cats also do with prey. You have seen cats play with prey toys this way, rolling on their backs and then kicking ferociously at the toy.9
If the fear-induced aggression is directed at you, it may be that your cat had too little human interaction during the sensitive period of two to seven weeks. If the deficiency of interaction was pronounced enough, your cat’s neural wiring may be so fixed that it’s virtually impossible to retrain him to be less aggressive toward you or your visitors. (Some behaviorists call this nonsocialization aggression, the classic example of which is kittens born and raised feral, like my very first cats. A great deal of time and love will help all of them to become at least a little more sociable, but there are limits—variable as they may be. Depending on two feral cats’ genetic inheritance, one may become quite friendly, while the other will never be comfortable with human touch.)
Cat-to-Cat aggression can have many causes. Cats may fight due to redirected, status-related, fear-induced, or territorial aggression gone amok. Or they may fight for reasons known only to themselves. But whenever it happens, and for whatever reason, it’s a bad moon rising.
ARE YOUR CATS PLAYING OR FIGHTING?
Chances are they are playing if:
The cats are familiar with each other, without a bad history.
They don’t scream, hiss often, spit, growl, or swat with claws out.
They take turns being the pretend aggressor.
If, after wrestling, one cat does not chase the other cat away and neither cat seems afraid.
There are no signs of blood or flying fur.
Ears are not rotated and flattened.
If your cats are playing, let them be. Play—even when it looks like fighting to you—allows kittens and cats to show off their assertiveness and strength. It helps establish social ranking within the home and so smoothes out territorial and social issues. As long as the cats aren’t really attacking each other in a hurtful way, and their bout doesn’t appear too lopsided, let them finish so they can find the social equilibrium they need. Otherwise, their conflicts may only intensify and become more frequent. Fortunately, if the play-fighting does start to go nuclear, many cats will end it on their own.
However, if you see two cats wrestling and they don’t typically get along or play together, it’s probably aggression. And if, after wrestling, one cat chases the other cat away or they avoid one another, it’s even more likely they were being aggressive, not playful.
C.A.T. Plan for Territorial, Fear, and Cat-to-Cat Aggression
If your cats are already locked into a physically hostile, even violent, relationship—in other words, if they are actively fighting—you will need to implement the C.A.T. Plan below, and also reintroduce your cats as if they’ve just met (see the reintroduction process in Chapter 4).
But for cats who are not yet fighting, or are able to coexist with infrequent or low-level spats, here are some tips on relieving the tension before it gets worse.
• one cat’s relentless pursuit of another animal, such as another cat
Signs of Brewing Cat-to-Cat Tension
Before the arrival of outright aggression, the alert owner will spot the signs of brewing tension.
• tail flicking, lashing, puffed up like a bottle brush (piloerection)
• piloerection of fur along the spine (your cat suddenly looks fluffier than usual)
• ears flattening or rotated outward
• body stiffening
• walking with a slow, tense gait, tail held low
• dilated pupils
• head hunched
• lip licking
• vocalizing—hissing, growling, or yowlings
Signs of Imminent Fear-based Aggression
• crouching, especially backed up against a wall
• ears back, paws tucked under body, body hunched so as to appear smaller, or a combination of attack and defensive posturing (ears flattened, back arched, drawing in the neck)
• back paws aimed somewhere other than straight ahead, anticipating escape
• dilated pupils (the classic panic response) and narrowed eyes
• whiskers flattened against cheeks
• ears flattened and out to the side (like airplane wings) or rotated back
• hissing and growling
• piloerection of fur on back and tail
• avoidance of eye contact
• salivation (tongue will lick quickly)
• sometimes sudden defecation, urination
It’s really important not to let aggressive posturing or staring continue, because either one can easily lead to fighting, and you do not ever want to let your cats fight it out. Interrupting staring is particularly important, and effective. Once your cats get to the stage of spitting, hissing, relentless chasing, and fighting, it can be very difficult or impossible to interrupt. And once cats have fought, they establish negative associations to each other that usually lead to more fighting. So if you happen to notice one of your cats displaying any of the signs described above, even if it’s just staring at another cat in a very intense way, create a gentle, covert interruption. (Although staring is a way that cats can safely work out territorial rights, it can also be a six-lane highway to stalking, chasing, and thence fighting, especially if Mr. Eyeballed Cat ignores the warning.) Try tossing a Ping-Pong ball, toy, wadded-up piece of paper, small throw pillow, or other small or lightweight item on the floor nearby.
If you choose to go one step further and perform an Act of God, make it a really nice Act of God. Don’t opt for an unpleasant, annoying, negative stimulus, like shooting a squirt gun, yelling, or clapping your hands. When cats are highly aroused, you don’t want to do anything to rile them up even more, or to create any kind of negative association with each other. We want each cat to walk away from their mutual encounter without memories of even more bad things happening when they are in the other’s presence.
Redirect to Prey Target
This is a good technique to use immediately after you have interrupted your cats’ staring or posturing. It can also be a kind of distraction in and of itself. Say you walk into a room and you immediately sense it may be heading toward a bad scene. You can feel the tension yourself. If the cats are not already fighting, pick up an interactive string or wand toy to distract an aggressor cat and redirect his energy. Timing is of the essence. You must distract and redirect him with a toy before he launches an attack. If you play with him after he has attacked, you will reinforce the undesirable behavior with the reward of play.
If you have two wand toys and are coordinated enough to maneuver them separately (one in each hand, far apart), that’s a great way to work play with two cats in the same room. Stop maneuvering the toy if one or both of the would-be combatants have gotten too close. The last thing you want is for the cats to duel over the scarce resources of one prey toy and your attention. If there’s only one toy or the cats seem to be too tense to play in each other’s presence (or have a history of disliking it), place them in separate rooms and play with them sequentially to change their moods.
For cats who have gone past the imminent aggression stage and actually started to fight, different strategies are required.
HE STARTED IT!
Cat owners usually think the aggressor is the one who started the fight, but sometimes the attacked cat is the one who tried to intimidate the attacker by staring at her.
Break It Up!
The very first priority is to stop the fighting and remove them from each other’s presence in order to give them both some breathing room. See Break Up Any Fights and Separate in the Redirected Aggression section earlier in this chapter.
The length of the separation depends on the cats. It could be a few minutes to several hours or even days. When both cats have begun to act like themselves—not as stressed and reactive, eating again, wanting to play—it’s time to put them in the same room again.
Control the Exposure: The Importance of Happy Endings
If you have noticed that your cats can usually be in the same room with one another for, say, twenty minutes before the hissing, chasing, or fighting starts, then try to time their exposure to each other so that you separate them before they get upset. If you wait to separate the cats until someone becomes upset, each cat will simply file the event in her memory bank under, Bad Mojo Happens When I’m Around This Other Cat. That makes for even worse mojo.
Keep the cats far apart in the beginning, ideally in opposite cat trees or at opposite ends of the room. As long as they’re not showing fear, decrease the distance and increase the time they’re in the same room, very gradually over the course of days. For example: Leave them in the same room for fifteen minutes for several days in a row, then twenty minutes for a few days, and so on, over a period of thirty days, or longer if necessary. Try to end sessions on a positive or at least a neutral note. If they’ve been calm, give them treats. Over time, you can increase both the cats’ tolerance for one another and the amount of time they can be around one another. You want to carve memories in their cat brains along the lines of, Heeeey. Wait a minute. Every time I’m around that other cat, nothing bad happens. Or even better, Last time I spent time with him I got a treat!
These periods of the cats’ exposure to each other should be under your supervision, so that you will know if the tension starts to build or hostilities break out. If you see any of the signs of impending aggression—especially staring, ears flattening, tails lashing—separate the cats immediately. If you see signs of backsliding, reduce the time they spend together over the next few days.
Trading Places Therapy
If there is a clear bully and a clear victim, their status may have become too lopsided. You can help to right the balance by placing the bully cat in a room that is less-favored territory—not a favored room like the master bedroom or the living room, or a room with his favorite things in it. If he’s a real bully, keep him in a space where he will be near to the ground—with no cat tree to climb on or shelves to jump on. Meanwhile, put the victim cat in another and more favored part of the territory, making sure she has access to high-status locations, such as a room with a cat tree, or a window she likes to look out of—or, best of all, on your lap. Then play with the victim several times a day to build her confidence, and, separately, with the bully to help him release his aggression and any pent-up energy. Establishing these two territories will help the victim become more confident and take the aggressor down a peg or two. Pheromone plug-ins can help both cats. Cats, like people, tend to take on the status they feel themselves living out. The aggressor may start to believe the victim can’t be so easily bullied, and so may the victim. Her body postures will even change to reflect her new belief.
If there’s not a clear bully, try to keep the cats’ territories about equal in size and desirability, and switch them back and forth at least every other day. Play with them both every day, albeit separately.
For Fear of Other Cats Only
If your cat has a serious fear of another cat in your household, then you must use the reintroduction techniques in Chapter 4.
Another thing you can try, with your vet’s counsel, is psychoactive drug therapy. If it’s clear that one cat is the aggressor, and the other the victim, there are medications for victim cats that a vet can temporarily prescribe. It can lower anxiety and give the victim increased confidence. The victim cat will likely stop hiding and begin standing her ground. She may even chase the aggressor! All of this can correct a severely lopsided social dynamic beyond the end of the prescription. But medication should be part of a behavior plan, and not used on its own.
For Fear-Induced Aggression Only
Identify and Eliminate the Triggers
The best way to stop aggression caused by fear is to eliminate or avoid the stimuli that caused the fear, if that’s possible. For example, if the cat is afraid of dogs, don’t expose him to dogs. If there’s a dog in the home, either resident or guest, keep the dog and the cat in separate places until you’re ready to enlist a behaviorist to help you reintroduce them. Removing triggers like outside cats is discussed in the Redirected Agression and Territorial Aggression sections earlier in this chapter. Still, it could be a lot of work, removing fear triggers all the time. That’s why helping cats form positive associations may be a better long-term strategy.
Desensitize, and Create Positive Associations
For example, if your cat objects to visitors, have one or more of your cat-loving friends come over on a regular basis. Ask your guest to move slowly and quietly, in stockinged feet, as he enters the house, making as little noise and commotion as possible, and avoiding any eye contact with the cat, whom you have placed in the room where you and your guest are going to be. Then have your friend sit down, preferably on the floor, or, if that’s not possible, on a couch or chair (the lower the better). Keep your guest as far away as necessary to keep your cat calm. Your cat can move closer on her own as she relaxes. If your cat looks at or approaches the guest, speak gently to her and give her treats. Next, have the guest dispense the treats—and lots of them, more than the cat is accustomed to getting from you. If the cat won’t come close, the guest can slowly toss a treat, and also maneuver a wanded cat toy to improve your cat’s mood and emotional state.
Another thing you can do, over the course of several repeat visits from the guest, is to feed your cat while the guest sits quietly in the same room. If the cat eats without arousal, the guest can move closer the next time—or the cat herself will move closer. When your cat gets close enough to play with a string toy, the guest can play with her.
Watch for the signs of aggression and try to end all sessions while they are going well. Of course, this all takes time and patience. But your cat is smart. She will make the positive association you are trying to instill: These guest-types sort of rock. I think I will not bite them.
Flooding is a technique in which you expose an animal to the source of its fear in overwhelming doses.
Flooding is risky in any animal, and I never recommend trying it on cats.
Make It Easy and Safe to Flee
Cats can get relief from fleeing as well as from fighting, so to make your cat more likely to choose fleeing, give him cat trees and access to other elevated locations that will get him out of reach of whatever is triggering his fear. Also give him tunnels, empty boxes and pieces of furniture to hide in or under. If he has safe places to retreat to, his general level of fear may go down, making him more relaxed.
Picture this: A toddler walks in to the room waving a yellow plastic shovel. Your cat, seeing his five-foot cat tree nearby, dashes to the top of it, where he now sits calmly, confident that he is safe. If he were instead on the floor, backed into a corner by the child, with no escape route or safe hiding place he could easily sprint or jump to, he might react more fearfully—which is to say aggressively. Empty boxes on the floor can serve as buffers that allow cats to navigate around one another, too.
ATTRACT the Cats to a New Behavior
Play with Them
Playing with your cats helps change their mood and emotional state for the better. If they’ve been tense or actually fighting with each other, play with them immediately—before you bring them together again, while they are together, and after you’ve separated them, so that they have lots of happy associations with their reunions. End the sessions on a positive note.
Bring on the Happy Scent Brush
Use the group-scent technique from Chapter 4. Helping cats to maintain a group scent can reduce or eliminate hostility between cats and promote affiliative behaviors.
Reward Them When They’re Calm
Praise your cats and give them food or treats when they are calm and relaxed. See Appendix A to use clicker training to promote positive or neutral behaviors, such as when they’re calm, not fighting, sleeping near one another, etc.
TRANSFORM the Territory
Your cat’s wildcat predecessors did not have to share food, elimination areas, or perching or resting areas with other wildcats. They wouldn’t have liked it one bit. Your cats’ swatting, hissing, and fighting is a genetic remnant from their ancestors, one only amplified by the way you may be crowding them and their resources under one roof. As I mentioned earlier, feral cats, outdoors, are known to fight much less than our indoor cats. The more cats under one roof, the more chances for friction.
In remedying territorial aggression, transforming the territory is critical. Your cats’ competition for important resources could be the only reason for territorial aggression in your home. And again, that competition may be so subtle as to fly beneath your radar.
Implement the advice from Purrtopia: Transforming Your Cats’ Territory, Chapter 5, in its entirety. Be sure to create lots of vertical space and disperse and add around the home more scratching areas, food, water, and litter stations, environmental enrichment activities, food puzzles, and more. Also be sure to add plug-in pheromones, and maintain the cats’ group scent with the group-scent technique (see Chapter 4).
For Territorial and Cat-to-Cat Aggression Only
CREATE BUFFER ZONES
You may notice that certain areas of your home, such as hallways, stairways, and doorways—places that put the cats in close proximity if they happen to encounter each other there—are common arenas for fighting and intimidation. If a cat is fearful because he feels cornered, without an adequate escape route, his body language may send a message of uncertainty that the other cat may seize upon to intimidate him. Or maybe there’s tension when both cats are trying to hang out at the windowsill to gaze at birds in the backyard, or when they’re both running to the kitchen after hearing the sounds of their cans being opened or their food rattling around in the bag. Fostering a buffer zone between them at such times and places can help keep the peace.
Place buffers in the center of hallways for cats to maneuver themselves around. The cats can steer clear of one another and avoid altercations. Buffer items include cat tunnels, empty boxes, even cat toys. I once had a client who decided on his own to put a strip of blue painter’s tape down the center of his entire hallway. Amazingly, he reported that when his cats walked through the hallway at the same time, they stayed on opposite sides of the tape. As with all effective buffers, fights and tension were greatly reduced.
If All Else Fails …
If this C.A.T. Plan doesn’t solve the cat-to-cat aggression problem, and you have truly been very patient, then you will need to do any or all of the following: Reintroduce your cats (see Chapter 4), see a vet about behavior medication, and consult a cat behaviorist.
This is a very common form of aggression. You’re sitting on the couch. Your cat comes to you asking to be petted.
Oh, how sweet. Let me pet you.
You like that, kitty? Is that good? Yes, you like that, don’t you?
You really love it, I can tell!
Now your hand has reddish pinholes in it, and your feelings are smarting too. What just happened? There are a few possible reasons for this kind of bait and switch.
• Overstimulation Cats are wired to be extremely sensitive to stroking and you may have overstimulated him by petting. Cats’ touch receptors can get their signals crossed in the brain so that the feeling of pleasure turns into pain.
• Undesirable Style of Petting Many cats do not like being petted or stroked on their sides, below mid-back, or near their tail, and may tolerate it only for a short time. If you think about it, body petting is not a natural activity for cats, whose grooming of one another is focused mostly on the head and neck.
• Improper Socialization If your cat was not petted often as a young kitten or had a negative experience with a human hand, such as a punishing whack, your own hand may not be welcome, or may be welcome only briefly.
• Feeling Confined or Confused A cat puts itself in a very vulnerable position when it sits on your lap and allows itself to be stroked. While you’re petting your cat, he may become very relaxed, drifting in and out of awareness of his surroundings, but if the world suddenly comes back into focus for him, he may feel overwhelmed or confined, at which point his fight-or-flight response may kick in and he may bite. And not in a spirit of play!
In some cats, petting-induced aggression may overlap with pain- and so-called irritation-induced aggression, or even status-related aggression.
Cats have control issues. It’s just part of their charm.
Leave me alone! or I’ll decide when you handle me and when you stop! Like petting-induced aggression, what behaviorists term status-related aggression is directed at humans—usually a particular human whom a cat has somehow designated as someone to control. This cat may stalk the human, stare assertively at him, block his path, even hiss or growl, or bite when the person tries to pet him or pick him up—all in the name of control. This kind of aggression may appear unprovoked, or it may appear when your cat is being petted or feeling territorial. (It’s also called, variously, control, competition, or assertion aggression.)
C.A.T. Plan for Petting-Induced and Status-Related Aggression
CEASE the Unwanted Behavior
If your cat is aggressive during petting, try petting him only around the head and see if the behavior improves. If your cat is facing you, make sure you don’t make continual eye contact with him.
“Don’t you eyeball me, boy.” —Sgt. Foley (Louis Gossett Jr.) to Zack Mayo (Richard Gere) in An Officer and a Gentleman
Like Sgt. Foley, cats often see eye contact as threatening.
Watch for the body signals listed below and end petting immediately if you see any of them. If you wait until he tries to bite you and then you pull your hand away, you can actually reinforce the biting behavior by teaching him that biting pays. It gets you to do what he wants you to do (such as move). Try not to react strongly. Of course, your not pulling your hand away can get you bit, so set yourself up for success and stop any petting as soon as you see the early warning signals. Watch for the signals if your cat has been showing status-related aggression against you, too.
• tail twitching or thumping
• skin rippling
• body suddenly looks or feels tense or still, head may be hunched
• shifting body position
• purring stops
• low growl
• ears go back
• pupils dilated
• whiskers rotate forward and fan out
• a light grab of the petting hand (or foot)
• direct stare (status related)
• mouthing your arm or leg (status related)
For Status-Related Aggression Only
Put a belled collar on the aggressor to alert the human victim of the cat’s whereabouts. Use a distraction or Act of God technique to interrupt the cat’s unwanted behaviors. If you use an Act of God like a water gun or compressed air, you must use it at the exact time your cat is engaging in the unwanted behavior or it won’t work. Remember to be covert or your cat will view your actions as a challenge, and this will make the situation worse.
If your cat is showing signs of status-related aggression (growling, direct stares, mouthing), don’t pet him or pick him up for a while. If he’s on your lap when he shows these signs, stand up and let him gently drop to the floor. Do not use your hands to set him down or you might get bit. These cats will also try to control you by blocking your path, so be sure to have the squirt gun ready if he tries to bite or scratch you as you pass. Do not simply avoid him in the hallway, giving in to his controlling behavior, or you will have reinforced the behavior and taught him that you can be easily controlled. To further establish your control, don’t free-feed him. Feed him yourself, so he knows where his food comes from, and put the food down only when he is not demanding that you do so.
ATTRACT the Cat to a New Behavior
Besides avoiding and anticipating petting-induced aggression, you can also increase your cat’s petting threshold. Over time, if you are careful to end petting before your cat displays agitated body signals, he’ll learn to trust that you know his limits and he’ll become more and more comfortable with being petted by you. So if you know that you can usually pet your cat for thirty seconds before he bites or puts his ears back, end the next few petting sessions at twenty seconds—and give him a treat if he has remained calm. This will further help him associate petting with something positive. Over time, you can increase the amount of time you pet your cat and your cat will start to enjoy the petting sessions—and the treats—instead of feeling anxious that you might go too far. Again, remember to pet him only where he likes to be petted.
For Status-Related Aggression Only
The person who is the target of the cat’s aggression could use clicker training (see Appendix A) to train the cat to do tricks for rewards and to promote behaviors you want to see repeated—such as when he allows the victim to walk by him or pet him without the usual outright aggression—and to acknowledge who is in control. The target can also dish out the cat’s food so that the cat forms a positive association with him—and remembers where his food is coming from. I also recommend that the target conduct frequent play sessions with the cat, followed by a feeding. The target, in other words, should be the source of food and entertainment.
TRANSFORM the Environment
Utilize pheromones in your home to help soothe your cat. Holistic remedies are also calming. The status-seeking cat should also have plenty of toys and other diversions with which to exhaust himself.
Be patient and continually adjust your expectations. Your cat can sense any frustration, and that can dampen his mood and further delay progress. This can be a very long process, and some cats may never learn to enjoy being petted or sitting in a lap—at all, or for an extended period of time.
In a multicat household, aggression between cats, whether latent or in the form of outright fighting, is a frequent cause of misplaced urination and defecation and, of course, urine marking. Now that you understand tension and aggression between cats, we’ll discuss an occasional symptom of feline intimidation and aggression—outside-the-box elimination.
† Be aware that predatory behavior may look similar.
‡ A territorially motivated cat will not do the butt-wiggle (a playful or predatory behavior) but will ambush. The aggressor will lie in wait for his unknowing victim to mosey by, minding his own business, oblivious to the rodeo about to start.