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Aggressive Cats

Tim Cuthbertson has a long scratch down his arm, now nearly healed. It's the latest reminder of his cat's favorite game—wrestling.

"Once a day, he'll come up and bite me on the arm," Mr. Cuthbertson said. "The only time it's really annoying is when he'll do it when I'm trying to sleep. He'll come up and bite me on the face."

Cat aggression falls into several categories: play aggression, defensive aggression, misdirected aggression, and territorial status aggression.

Aggression toward people is a problem most commonly associated with dogs, but cat owners also deal with this issue. Though it's not one of the top 10 reasons for turning cats over to shelters, it plays a significant role in the number of cats turned over for behavioral reasons. A 2000 study of 12 shelters by the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy, published in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, found that about 14 percent of owners turning in their cats for behavioral reasons only listed aggression toward people as the basis, with about 9 percent citing biting. The numbers dropped only slightly, to about 11 and 8 percent, respectively, for mixed behavioral and non-behavioral reasons.

Dog bites are a community problem, affecting a larger group of people, while cat attacks tend to be a personal problem, affecting only the owner, said Dr. Kerry Muhovich, animal behavior education coordinator for the Dumb Friends League.

But cat bites can be the more dangerous injury—cats' saliva can contain particularly harmful bacteria and can cause serious infections. "I might not think of seeing a doctor for a dog bite, but I can't think of any cat bite I wouldn't think of seeing a doctor for," Dr. Muhovich said. Cat scratches can also transmit bacteria.

Cat aggression falls into several categories: play aggression, defensive aggression, misdirected aggression, and territorial status aggression.

Playing rough

If a cat begins scratching or biting out of the blue, with no previous indication of violent behavior, the owner should bring it to a veterinarian. The cat may be engaging in pain aggression—acting up because of a medical problem or injury.

But the most common violent behavior is play aggression. The behavior usually occurs as a result of the owner's actions. Owners find it nearly impossible to resist wrestling around with a tiny, playful kitten, behavior experts said.

They'll put their hand on the kitten and roll it around as it bites and claws at them, or use their fingers or feet as toys, tapping them around, letting the kitten pounce on them.

"The kitten loves it, because it's like playing with another kitten," said Betsy Lipscomb, president of Cats International. "Everyone is happy until the kitten starts to grow bigger, and suddenly it really hurts, and it starts to draw blood, and the owner thinks they have a vicious cat."

One family called Cats International after their cat bit a sleeping child on the face. They'd take the cat to a shelter for quarantine, but they wanted to know if there was anything they could do to fix the behavior and bring it home.

During family time, watching television, the children would sit on the floor, wrap blankets around their arms and encourage the cat to play, Ms. Lipscomb discovered. The bored cat had obviously decided to wake one of the kids up for a romp session.

When Mr. Cuthbertson first took his kitten to the veterinarian, two years ago, the vet noticed the scratches down his arms. He asked if he was playing roughly with the cat, Beaujolais. Mr. Cuthbertson admitted it. The veterinarian warned him against it, but like many owners, he ignored the advice.

"We got the front claws removed, and he doesn't do as much damage as he used to," he said. But the cat expects 10 minutes of wrestling a day. When he signals for playtime with a nip, Mr. Cuthbertson, if he's in the mood, will get down on the floor and let the cat pounce. "Ninety-nine percent of the time he's totally gentle," he said. "It seems to build strength in him—he's an inside cat, and if he's not doing that kind of thing he has nothing to do."

But because of the dangers of cat bites and scratches, it's best to end such playful attacks, behavior experts said. First, owners need to stop using hands and feet as playthings. Some people put on an oven mitt or puppet to play, Ms. Lipscomb said. That doesn't make a difference—the cat still understands that it's attacking you.

Instead, owners need to transfer all play activity to toys: soft toys they can throw, pole toys that put distance between the handler and the object of the attack. Cats are especially fond of pole toys, which resemble fishing poles and come with fluttering objects, like feathers, on the end of a long line. (Always supervise your cat while playing with pole toys.) Hands and feet need to be off-limit.

Becky Schultz, coordinator of the animal training and behavior programs for the Animal Humane Society, Golden Valley, Minn., recalled how her young sister would always have her feet attacked by the cat. If the cat likes to lie in wait for you as you round a corner, be sure that you have an ample supply of toys that you can toss to redirect the play activity, she said. If your child has a problem with cat attacks, let him or her wear a squirt gun on a string around the neck (assuming the kid is mature enough to use this device properly). A squirt of water can be an effective deterrent, and the kids usually love taking on that responsibility.

Other deterrents include shake cans, behavior experts said. But Ms. Lipscomb doesn't recommend those, simply because you may not always have them with you. "It has to happen the moment the cat goes after you," she said.

When a cat tries to attack, make a loud sound unlike anything that usually comes from your mouth, she said: "Your voice is something that you always have with you."

Cats International recommends an "Eek!" noise, loud and shrill enough to startle the cat and make it back off. Follow that with a sharp "No!" and then ignore the cat for 10 minutes. Don't look at it, talk to it, or touch it. "Often what it wanted when it attacked you was attention," Ms. Lipscomb said.

Getting your pet a companion can also cut down on play aggression, since it suddenly has another animal to play with. Owners can help prevent play aggression by not removing the kittens from their litter before eight weeks at a minimum. While the kittens are with their littermates and mother, they wrestle among themselves, learning through corrections from the other animals not to attack too hard or too aggressively.

Stopping play aggression can occur fairly swiftly, sometimes within a week, if owners make the necessary changes, Ms. Lipscomb said. The family whose cat ended up in a shelter brought it home, and checking in a month later reported no problems. When she caught up with them again, two years later, the cat was still doing fine. "It's just a matter of training people," she said. "If you act like another cat, it's going to treat you like another cat."

On the defensive

Cats have a tendency to become overstimulated during an activity owners think should be very relaxing—petting. When this happens, they can lash out with teeth or claws. "Different cats have different levels," Ms. Schultz said. "One cat you can pet twice and it's had enough, others are at the other extreme, where they won't let you stop petting them."

Owners need to transfer all play activity to toys: soft toys they can throw, pole toys that put distance between the handler and the object of the attack.

It's important for owners to figure out their animal's tolerance level, and to watch for signs that the cat is growing tired of the stroking. Twitching tail, laid-back ears, a sudden pointed stare—all are indicators that the cat has grown tired of the attention. In those cases, the owner should just stop petting, stand up, and let the cat go.

It's possible to increase your cat's willingness to spend time with you, but that takes time and effort. Owners need to build up a tolerance for petting by giving the cat treats for good behavior. As long as the cat stays calm, it gets treats. Gradually, over the course of days, lengthen the time between treats. When the cat wants to get down from your lap, let it, and give it a good, long break before you try again, Dr. Muhovich said.

Cats can also engage in defensive aggression if they feel cornered, or if they encounter a smell—like the scent of a veterinary office—that disturbs them. Cats don't necessarily have to have experienced a traumatic event to react badly, Dr. Muhovich said. A cat that dislikes men wasn't necessarily abused by a man. "If it's foreign to a cat's experience, it's a form of 'better safe than sorry,'" she said. "If the character of the person is different than what it's used to, it may just decide to play it safe."

In those cases, it's best to let the cat adjust gradually to the newness, using treats and play sessions to convince it of the harmlessness of the stranger. Don't force the issue.

Other types of aggression

Redirected aggression occurs when a cat becomes disturbed by an event or object separate from the target of its attack. A cat might see another cat out the window, and lash out at its owner. The best way to deal with that type of aggression is to remove the object of the cat's hostility—close the blinds.

Few cats fall into the territorial or status aggression category, at least toward people. Cats often vie for position among themselves, but it's generally understood that the person providing the food shouldn't be messed with.

But it happens. Breeds like the Siamese or Burmese seem particularly susceptible to this kind of aggression, Ms. Lipscomb said.

One woman called Ms. Schultz to say that her cat was a fine pet until it got angry—then it would chase and attack her. The woman could see by the cat's body language that an attack was coming, and would grab it and hastily deposit it outside, where it would hop up and down, trying to open the door. The cat would also chase dogs and bikes.

A cat that's being play aggressive won't make any sounds. A truly hostile cat will growl or hiss as it advances.

Ms. Lipscomb's daughter once baby-sat for a family with a hostile Siamese. The cat was sitting on top of the television, glaring at her as she tried to change the channel. When she accidentally touched the cat, it went after her. She grabbed a cushion off the couch to keep between her and the cat, and had to finally wake up the children to put the animal in the basement. When she mentioned the incident later to the owners, they said they'd been told as much by other babysitters, but hadn't believed them.

Another cat wouldn't let a caretaker get too close to her injured owner, Ms. Lipscomb recalled. The caretaker was patient enough to work with the cat until it grew accustomed to her presence, and the therapy could proceed. Cats can also guard their food, litter boxes, or sleeping areas.

Owners can tell the difference between real aggression and play aggression by listening to the cat's vocalizations, Ms. Lipscomb said.

A cat that's being play aggressive won't make any sounds. A truly hostile cat will growl or hiss as it advances.

Status or territorial aggression will often need to be dealt with by a professional behaviorist who can assess the cat's behavior, identify the triggers, and work at modifying them, behavior experts said. Behaviorists will use desensitization (repeated exposure to the trigger) and counter-conditioning (reinforcement that changes the perception of the trigger) to lessen the cat's aggressive behavior. Some will teach commands to enforce the status of the owner, using rewards and clicker training.

Owners should never hit their cats to discourage aggression, behavior experts said. The cat doesn't understand the correction, and striking it can make it fearful and more defensive than it was before.

Any kind of aggression needs to be dealt with as soon as possible, behavior experts said. Cats given to shelters because of behavior problems, according to the NCPPSP study, are usually relinquished one to two years after they're obtained. "It erodes the relationship between the owner and the cat," Ms. Schultz said. "The owner isn't sure if its going to get bitten, the cat thinks it's going to get smacked, so whenever they come together there's a lot of tension."

Taken from
Written by: Tracy Vogel, Staff Writer