I recently received a letter from a concerned cat owner. Her dilemma is a common one: Her beloved eight-year-old cat bites her. This particular cat was adopted at three months of age from a lovely family and has known only gentle handling. The bites are hard – sometimes requiring medical attention – so the situation is very serious. And the owner is distraught, trying to determine where she could have gone wrong.
Where does such aggression come from? All behavior is a product of both genetic and environmental influences. Sometimes we can relate obvious environmental factors to a behavior pattern in a particular cat. A cat that was attacked by a dog may become wary of dogs. A cat that has been struck by a child may attack or flee from children.
Yet even a traumatic event can affect two cats differently. That is, the genetics of the cat determine the direction of that post-traumatic behavioral change. We all know cats that have been through a lot of difficult experiences. Perhaps they suffered a painful illness, or even physical abuse. And yet they remain congenial and calm. Other cats exhibit fear and/or aggression following just a mildly unpleasant experience.
Please do not blame yourself or another family member if your cat insists on biting. Instead, try to learn the trigger for the aggression. Once we learn a trigger and can accurately diagnose the nature of the aggressive behavior, we can set about trying to reduce the likelihood of future aggressive events.
In all fairness, it is important to examine any known past history. Be honest about any handling strategies that may have contributed to the aggression. For instance, cats often learn to respond aggressively to certain punishment techniques. Other cats learn to associate family members with triggers that elicit fear. A cat that fears fireworks may associate the presence of a particular person with that loud sound. The fear may not disappear even when the sound has gone. Both of these responses can be addressed with appropriate behavior modification.
More difficult is the situation with the cat that was described in the recent letter. This cat approaches her family members in a manner that seems to indicate that she wants some attention. She tolerates a gentle pet. But when just the slightest bit of pressure or restraint is applied, the cat bites. Hard.
Was the cat trapped at some point in her life? Not likely. Was she held down and physically abused? Not likely. It is likely that her genetic make-up is such that she becomes very frightened when she cannot control her ability to move away. Her level of suspicion, again largely genetically determined, is high. If we could guess her feelings, we might surmise that she somehow views a cuddle as a trap. So, just when her owner is lured into believing that her cat really wants some love, she is bitten.
What to do? First, do not take this response as a personal insult. This is just a frightened cat. The cat is conflicted herself, wanting to be close but just unable to remain on a lap unless free to leave. Her behavioral response to fear is also genetically determined. Some cats swat, some hiss, some struggle, some bite lightly. And, alas, some bite hard.
Create a Safety Plan
Since aggression cannot be entirely eliminated, a safety protocol must be followed. This requires that all of the triggers for biting be identified. For the cat that bites when cuddled, it is essential to refrain from cuddling, at least until there has been substantial improvement in the cats ability to tolerate this squeeze. A gradual desensitization may be used to reduce the fear response. A treatment plan must be designed carefully, as it is not without risk.
Sometimes we can learn a new and different way to interact with a cat that satisfies everyone. When the cat comes over for attention, instead of being lured into reaching for her, we can ask the cat to perform a command. Most cats will readily sit or offer a high five.
Another option is to place a fluffy towel on your lap and teach the cat to lie on the towel. Over time, the towel can be gently wrapped around the cat. Little by little, a light cuddle can be introduced. The towel will offer some physical protection from a bite. In addition, it will become a signal that the interaction, meaning a brief cuddle, is going to be a safe one.
Be careful, as cat bites are serious and not to be taken lightly. Consult with a veterinarian so that a safe, comprehensive treatment plan can be designed.