Q: About six weeks ago, my wife and I adopted a 3-year-old tortoise-shell cat from the local shelter. We took her to our veterinarian where she got a clean bill of health. She eats well, is otherwise apparently healthy, and has maintained her weight.
Over the last couple of weeks, the cat has developed an annoying habit. She tries to bite my wife’s or my leg when we are in the kitchen, especially the first thing in the morning when we are feeding her. Then, after eating some of the dry food we just gave her, she will come back to one of us with her back hunched up looking to again take a nip.
While she occasionally will want to nip at other times, for the most part, this occurs primarily during mornings.
My wife and I are both retired and are home with kitty most of every day. We play with her every morning, sometimes before the second round of biting sometimes after, and at other times during the day.
Cassie loves to be petted and frequently walks by one of us rubbing up against our legs as she passes by. As I am on blood thinner meds, I bleed and bruise quite easily. Do you have any suggestions on how to stop this?
A: Thank you for getting in touch, and I think it is wonderful that you and your wife have taken this lucky kitty into your home. While a few thoughts might be helpful, my primary concern is for the well-being of you and your wife, as cat bites can become infected and, in rare cases, can cause serious illness.
This situation is, of course, exacerbated by the fact that you are taking blood thinners, which may predispose you to bleeding episodes if you are bitten/scratched. In this regard, it is a good idea to discuss this issue with your health-care provider.
With respect to interventions that may help with this biting, the first important point is that you should not use negative reinforcement, like saying “No!” or striking her. (I am sure you would not do this!) The best way to modify unwanted feline behavior is to distract by providing acceptable alternatives to unwanted behavior and then to praise a cat for taking part in that acceptable behavior.
For example, if you notice that she is starting to behave as if she will bite, distract her with a feather toy or some other toy that she likes, and if she plays with that toy, praise her with kind words and perhaps give her a food treat that she likes. If this does not work, the best thing to do is to walk away and ignore her until she is behaving in an acceptable fashion.
It’s a good thing that you seem to know when this behavior may take place, so you can be prepared with toy at the time you think she may behave inappropriately.
Of course, making sure that there are not things that may stress her in your home is important. Things that might stress her include other animals in the house, neighborhood cats or birds that she can see through a window that may be frustrating her, new people in your home. You should also provide enough dedicated play time, which you are already doing. Other enrichment ideas that may help include the use of food puzzles, cat furniture that she can climb on, or building or purchasing a catio, which is an enclosure in which she can enjoy the outdoors safely.
If these ideas don’t work, consultation with a veterinary behaviorist may help, and sometimes, medication can help calm cats that are intermittently aggressive.
I think the most important thing is that you work with your veterinarian and your health-care provider to make sure that you are keeping yourself safe while trying to address this issue.
Please send an update when you can, and best of luck.