The Mind of Your Cat: 03/04

Question: My cat is a 10-year-old indoor cat. She grooms herself regularly, and holds to a strict schedule. One could almost set the clock by her routines. She leads me to her dish at feeding time, and waits by the door as I leave for work each day. Though she is not affectionate, she does sleep with me in bed at night.

One week, I stayed home to prepare for guests. My cat began to hiss at me as I walked through the house, and actually bit me as I turned to avoid her. For safety, I began to carry a squirt bottle as I walked through the house during the day. Each night, my cat slept with me peacefully. But the daytime hissing lasted for more than a week. Thinking back on the situation, I recalled experiencing the same behavior when I had taken a Monday off from work just one month earlier. Could it be that my cat behaves aggressively because I am home, disrupting her routine?

Answer: What an interesting cat. She appears to keep very good track of time, doesnt she? This implies that she pays great attention to environmental details. She undoubtedly has expectations regarding the progress of her day. A predictable routine provides needed comfort.

You may be entirely correct in your suggestion that your presence stimulates her aggressive behavior. She does treat you kindly during the times that you are supposed to be there. This indicates that she is not afraid of you, and that she continues to enjoy your companionship.

However, your cat has learned that during the day, particularly the day after a weekend, there should be no interactions with humans. Without a video recorder, we cannot know her routine. We can suppose that she lies quietly for much of the day. She may take time to play with a toy or nibble on some food. And she surely has favorite resting spots, perhaps relocating as the sunbeams shift. But she does not engage with people, and does not expect to encounter anyone as she travels through her house.

Imagine walking sleepily through a quiet house. Just as you are about to curl up in a chair, a person enters into your field of vision. Even a familiar face may elicit a startle response. Sometimes, when we are sleepy, or deep in thought, dont we jump at a sound familiar as the telephone? A startled cat is likely to experience momentary fear, generally expressed as a hiss. Unfortunately, recovery from a fear-based event is not always immediate.

Can we confirm your theory? It would be helpful for me to understand your cats response in past situations that might have involved fear. For instance, how does your cat react toward unfamiliar visitors? What does your cat do when you bring home a large package? If she hisses and remains aroused in such situations, then her overall level of fear may be higher than average. In that case, an unplanned encounter with a person might indeed trigger a hiss. Aggression following such a hiss would represent fear-based aggression.

Are there any other explanations for this behavior? Your cat may have reacted to you only by coincidence. You might not have been the primary trigger at all. Cats, particularly anxious cats, are famous for exhibiting redirected aggression. Can you recall anything unusual in the environment during the period in which aggression was observed? Was there a cat lurking outside your window? Were there construction workers or painters working nearby? Should you approach your cat while she is aroused by one of these inaccessible triggers, you could become the recipient of her aggression.

In many cases, redirected aggression is followed by fear-based aggression, such that aggression continues for an extended consecutive period. Instead, your cat appeared to recover each evening, only to exhibit the same aggressive behavior pattern each morning.

What can you do in the future? First, never attempt to handle an aggressive or frightened cat. You may use a water bottle or heavy blanket for self-defense. But beyond safety, your primary strategy should be to make your cat more comfortable with your proximity. Rather than moving quietly, announce your approach. Your cat will not be startled and, if she prefers to be alone, she may move to a more isolated area prior to an encounter. When you do need to pass near her, call her name and toss a favorite treat her way. If she loves a certain food, bring a dish along with you as you move to her space.

If there are further events, particularly if your cat remains aggressive or fearful, be sure to have your veterinarian check her carefully. Medical conditions, particularly those causing physical discomfort, may reduce a cats tolerance for routine interactions. Your veterinarian may recommend behavioral modification techniques or anxiety-reducing medication to further lower your cats reactivity and allow you to live together in harmony.