Do You Have a Watchcat on Patrol?

Your cat shouldn't be aggressive when guests arrive. Here's how to modify this behavior.

Over the years, I have seen a handful of cats that exhibited aggression toward visitors to the home. If you have never witnessed a cat that thinks he is a German shepherd guarding a door, let me assure you: It is a scary sight to behold.

I am referring to a cat that, upon hearing the doorbell, marches to the door, stares as guests enter, and proceeds to demonstrate postures that clearly reflect the message: “Go home, stranger.”

How does this behavior come about? I am not certain whether watchdog cats have been the subject of any scientific studies to date, so we are left to extrapolate from observations of cat populations in general.

What is Territorial Behavior?

Whether cats demonstrate territorial behavior depends on ones definition of territorial. Free-ranging cats do establish ranges in which they travel regularly. To a degree, they may protect these areas from the intrusion of other cats. However, cats are not generally observed marking or patrolling the boundaries of these areas. In fact, marking is most often apparent near prime areas in the center rather than at the edges of territories.

House cats seem even less likely to be guardians of their property, at least not against humans. Many cats in fact trot over to the door as guests appear. Their postures clearly indicate that they intend to extend a friendly welcome. Of course, there are plenty of cats that run for shelter at the slightest hint that a strange human is about to enter their domain. A guest might not even know that there is a cat in residence.

Shouldnt these choices suffice? That is, come around if you enjoy company, go elsewhere if you do not. It appears that a small population of cats need a third option: guard the house.

Why? We know that behavioral traits are based on a combination of genetic makeup and environmental influences. When a puppy barks at the door, his owner will say, “Good boy!” hoping that the puppy will offer some protection to the family as he matures. Many puppies grow into dogs that bark at the door but stop easily and remain friendly. Other dogs are similarly rewarded for barking yet do not stop barking after the guest enters. These dogs are clearly unfriendly. Both sets of dogs were rewarded for barking – that is the environmental influence. But one set of dogs became aggressive – that is the genetic influence.

How many people actively encourage their cats to guard the door? It seems that few people wish for a watchcat. Given the absence of reinforcement by people, there must be an innate tendency for these cats to express this territorial behavior.

It is also likely that there is a genetic tendency to exhibit a certain level of suspicion or fear of strangers. Sometimes, people will recall that when their cat was younger, he would retreat from visitors or hiss when approached. These fear-based postures served to keep people from getting too close. When a cat matures socially, he gains confidence. He is bold enough to move forward rather than backward when frightened.

And so a watchcat develops. This cat has an underlying predisposition to keep his space safe from intruders plus enough suspicion or fear to consider a human visitor to be a genuine threat.

Unfortunately, the situation is a rather dangerous one. First, guests do not innately fear cats the way they might fear a barking dog. A guest might be bitten as he reaches to pet a cat that has met him at the door. A family member might be bitten should he attempt to remove his cat en route to meeting the intruder.

Cats with territorial and fear-based aggression can be treated. But as with any aggression, there can never be an absolute cure. Careful management remains essential to assure the safety of all people concerned.

Treatment may involve several steps. A cat may be desensitized to the appearance of strangers. A barrier such as a screen will be needed to assure safety during this process. It is also helpful to teach the cat to willingly retreat to another room once the guests have settled. Finally, unless the cat remains separated until guests leave, then he should to be desensitized to the presence of visitors remaining in the home.

Some families understandably elect simply to isolate their cat whenever guests arrive. This is certainly a reasonable choice. It assures safety and avoids any inadvertent reinforcement of aggression or fear.

Still, treatment can be successful. Be prepared to proceed in a slow and steady manner. Seek professional guidance to help you assure the comfort and safety of all concerned.v