Mind of the Cat: 04/05

Does Your Cat Bite? Learn Ways to Curb It

At least once each month, I am called to evaluate a cat that bites the hand that feeds him. Sometimes, even after a bite, people decide to excuse the behavior. Perhaps the cat was stepped on or startled. Maybe the kids tried to dress him up. Id have bitten too! some people may claim.

Families will often tolerate a cat that seems to demand that house rules be respected. Owners agree to leave the cat alone when he is resting or eating. They understand that they had best not scold their cat or displace him from the counter. Maybe brushing and nail trims are also off limits. But still, this may be reasonable to preserve safety and harmony for the fussy but loved feline.

More frightening but nevertheless often tolerated is the cat that, upon noticing an enemy cat outside the window, becomes aroused and – unable to reach the enemy – instead bites his owner who is standing quietly nearby. Some very agitated cats will actually hunt for their owners, seemingly needing to bite before giving up the fight.

Without Any Warning
But what about the cat that seems to bite for no reason or without warning? Cats have been known to stalk household people. On one occasion, I visited a family that wore protective padding underneath their clothes lest their cat should strike. Other people find that they need to climb up onto counters or high chairs to reduce their risk of being bitten when their cat gets that certain look. Families have been known to barricade a door for hours until they are sure that it is safe to rejoin their cat.

Careful attention to details may allow us to identify potential triggers for these serious attacks. For instance, some cats strike primarily when people are active. They may attack as a person walks by them, or they may target a person who approaches a certain area of the house. Special rooms such as bedrooms or kitchens are common conflict areas as are the hallways that lead to these valuable rooms. Cats, particularly those suffering from separation related anxiety, have been known to attack as family members approach the exit door to their home.

In other cases, it is not their owners activity but the absence of activity that seems to trigger aggression. Many cats are known to attack when household members are most relaxed. Imagine sitting in a cozy chair, resting comfortably after a long day, when your cat approaches and, without a sound, leaps up and bites you. Some people report having been sound asleep until their cat grabbed their head or their arm, leaving them bleeding and in pain.

Why does this happen? What drives a perfectly loved and cared-for cat to use his teeth on his people? In fact, it is not clear exactly why some cats exhibit aggressive behavior.

It is clear that certain genetic factors interact with certain environmental factors to produce the behavioral traits that we observe. In most cases, it is not possible to name the specific environmental factors that contribute to aggression, and we very often do not know the parents of our cats. In no case should the person who has done everything possible to care for his cat in a loving manner be faulted for his cats behavior.

What should be done once aggression does surface? Call your veterinarian at once: Dont wait for a second episode. There are many diagnostic categories of aggression including fear-based aggression, status based aggression and redirected aggression. Some types of aggression are relatively easy to control.

Treatment plans generally address environmental factors to improve safety and reduce the opportunity for arousal. In addition, behavior modification can usually be implemented in an attempt to reduce the reactivity of a cat to certain triggers. In all cases, a physical examination will be conducted and any medical problems that have the potential to increase aggression will be identified and treated. Sometimes, psychotropic medication will be prescribed to reduce the cats anxiety or arousal.

What Are Your Risk Factors?
It is important to understand that, although there are ways to reduce aggression, it is not possible to completely eliminate the risk that a cat will bite. For some individuals, the risk of being bitten carries grave consequences. Some people are more easily frightened than others. Other people have medical conditions that render any bite serious. These risk factors must be explored carefully prior to making the decision to embark upon a treatment plan. Family members must support one another as they work through this difficult situation.