Can’t We All Just Get Along?

There are times when our needs don't mesh with the needs of our pets. Is there any solution?

The age-old admonishment never to bite the hand that feeds us is a good-sense reminder not to alienate those we depend on for comfort and security. But this metaphor is, of course, based in the reality that pets sometimes do bite the hand that feeds them. A bite from a family pet is at the very least viewed as an insult. At its worst, the bite generates anger or even fear. Not to mention the physical pain and possibility of infection.

Can a person live safely with a cat that has threatened him with aggression? Unfortunately, theres no simple answer. Many factors come into play. Some factors are based on the cat, while others are based on the members of the household. (See related article on page 10 of this issue.)

People-Related Factors

Lets start with the human factors. Consider first a person whose immune system does not function normally. Any bite can be very dangerous to a person whose immune system is compromised by disease or by medication.

Next, consider a household with young children. Children are at great risk of serious injury when they interact with cats that have a history of biting. Cats threaten in a subtle manner, and a child might not recognize that he is being challenged. Rather than freeze or retreat from the piloerect cat with dilated pupils, a child is very likely to reach out to the little puffball. Children must never be left unsupervised with a cat that has a history of biting.

Finally, people with physical limitations that would prevent them from noticing or retreating from an aggressive threat must consider carefully whether they can safely share the home with a cat that has bitten.

Cat-Related Factors

The term “aggression” may be used to refer to a wide range of behaviors that reflect an intention of pursuing a confrontation with the option of inflicting physical harm. A cat may simply stare in an attempt to communicate his aggressive intent. The receiver may either choose to retreat or to move forward, calling the cats bluff, so to speak. In turn, the aggressor may decide to run away rather than meet the challenge. But he may instead remain to fight and bite.

Some cats are predisposed – through a combination of genes and early environment – to exhibiting threatening postures without following through. People may often live safely with these cats, as long as they are willing to pay some attention to safety rules.

Other cats, again based on heredity and experience, forgo postural threats. They barely stare, hiss or growl. They may not puff up. They just respond to a perceived threat with a bite. Naturally, it is much more difficult to live safely when there is no room for negotiation.

How to Decide?

Can you live with a cat once he has bitten you? If your cat signals before biting, if he tries to leave the situation before biting, and if you are a healthy adult, then perhaps you can manage. The first step is to agree that you will not deliberately confront your cat. If there is any indication that your cat is becoming agitated, then you do need to discontinue the interaction. That may mean walking away, or just sitting quietly. Remember, in the eyes of your cat, you are now in the midst of a fight. This is not the time to be tough or teach a lesson.

It can be helpful to keep a diary to record some early signs that your cat is heading down the path of aggression. Perhaps your cat hisses, or growls or flicks his tail. Perhaps his pupils get large. Or his ears change from their usual position. You need to learn to disengage at the first sign of a threat.

Next, create a list of the things that have elicited these postures. Try to recall any situation that led to a bite or near miss. You will need to make some important choices. Some of the triggers will need to be avoided permanently. You may be unable to casually pet your cat or snuggle with him after a long day. Can you live without these things?

On the positive side, it is likely that the aggressive response to some triggers can be considerably reduced through behavior modification. A behaviorist can help you select the triggers to work with, and will design a safe, effective treatment plan.

Before making any difficult choices about living arrangements with your cat, do be sure that your veterinarian has done a thorough examination. There are many medical conditions that cause or exacerbate aggression.

Be careful. If you do find yourself living with a special-needs cat, then keep yourself safe. And dont try to manage alone – seek professional help to manage this challenging situation. v