The Mind of Your Cat: 03/03

Question: Have you ever heard of a cat that bites the hand that feeds him? My cat is about one year old, and although he can be the sweetest cat in the world, he has recently begun to bite me for no apparent reason at all. What have I done?

Answer: I suspect that all friends of cats acknowledge that cats have unique personalities. Some of our cats are outgoing and friendly, others aloof or even shy. But aggressive? Well, yes. Cats are social animals, and aggression may be a normal component of intraspecific behavior in any social species. In fact, an appropriate display of aggression between two animals may actually serve to minimize the need for repeated aggressive encounters, including fights that might result in serious injury. So, although aggression of any type may be unexpected, it may be normal in certain circumstances. Even for a cat.

When aggression is inhibited – that is, when bites and swats are inflicted in a somewhat gentle manner – we do tolerate these aggressive gestures. For instance, many cats, particularly young cats, exhibit what is has been termed play-based aggression.

The recipient of play-based aggression may find herself ambushed as she attempts to move through the house. Stairwells and hallways are common areas for such strikes. The person takes that one last step, and suddenly discovers that a cat is attached to her pant leg. If one is wearing sweat pants, and is steady on ones feet, then perhaps a chuckle will ensue. But if one is wearing pantyhose, or has difficulty balancing to begin with, then being a victim of such an attack may be less amusing.

Try Gentle Intervention First
If a young cat engages in this type of pouncing  – yet is easily distracted and does not hold on with all his strength – there is a good chance that he thinks he is playing. In that case, some simple intervention should remedy the situation. First, attach a bell to the cats breakaway collar. This will help you to avoid being surprised. Second, carry some cat toys in your pocket. When you notice your cat eyeing you with a gleam, toss the balls  – a playful cat should eagerly abandon your legs to follow the balls. Finally, teach your cat to run to a favorite area – he can scamper off to the bathroom or bedroom ahead of you rather than chasing you there.

If your cat is pouncing playfully yet routinely inflicting serious injury, then further evaluation is in order. Perhaps he was an orphan, or he had no littermates to play with as a young kitten. In the absence of appropriate early reinforcement, your kitten may not have learned to inhibit his bites. Another possibility is that the diagnosis may be more complex than play-based aggression, and a more involved treatment plan will be needed to assure safety.

Some cats behave aggressively as a response to certain manipulations. Cats may bite while being brushed or medicated. The response may be based on fear. Or it may be a reflection of what is often termed status-based or even dominance-related aggression: The cat is resisting our attempts to control the situation.

Since it is important that we complete these procedures, behavior modification that includes a systematic desensitization to being handled may be designed. In essence, the manipulation would begin at a level that the cat can tolerate. With each successful session, the intensity of the handling may be increased.

The Quandary of the Love Bite
What about the cat that bites while being petted? This is one of the more difficult contexts for us to understand. A typical scenario is that the cat is sitting on a persons lap being gently stroked. The cat appears content, then suddenly turns around and bites. Ouch! Some kind folks might call such a bite a “love bite.” Assuming that no physical damage is done, I suppose. Another widely used term is a “dont pet me bite.” And in many cases, the cat gently grasps the persons hand, squeezes without leaving a mark, and then walks away.

But other cats grab ones hand with such intensity that one is left bleeding. It is not clear what triggers such a response. Some cats react suddenly in the midst of being petted. A glazed expression may be observed. Other cats appear as though the prolonged tactile stimulation has become uncomfortable or even painful, triggering the bite. Any cat that exhibits such an extreme response should be thoroughly examined by a veterinarian to rule out a physical cause for the behavior. Although laboratory tests are generally normal, it is possible that in some cases, the sudden bite reflects a type of seizure activity.

Finally, some cats that bite while being petted also exhibit a dominant or controlling personality in a variety of contexts. Once a diagnosis has been established, an appropriate treatment plan may be designed. Treatment might include teaching the cat to cooperate rather than manage. Families would learn to reward tolerant rather than insistent body language.

Aggression is clearly not a simple behavior. Regardless of the specific diagnosis, any aggression that causes injury to people must be considered as potentially serious. Humans are at risk of infection when bitten or scratched by a cat, and should always seek the advise of the family physician following such an injury.

Treatment plans designed to reduce aggressive behavior always include basic safety principles. For instance, family members must learn to be more aware of the location and posture of the cat. Sadly, in some cases, cuddling may need to be limited to insure that a bite does not occur.

Please be assured that is unlikely that you did anything to create the aggressive behavior that you have observed. It is quite normal for any underlying, genetically determined aggression to become evident as cats mature. Your veterinarian or behaviorist can help you work with your cat in order to reduce both the frequency and intensity of any aggression.