The Mind of Your Cat: 10/03

Question: I have a beautiful black cat that I adopted 12 years ago (he was about eight weeks old). I am his primary caregiver. He gets excellent care and has a beautiful home at his disposal. He is hyperthyroid and has received medication for about five years. Most of the bites are on my forearm, and they usually cause bleeding. The cat strikes very quickly. I can usually tell by looking at him – he gets a funny look and stares at my arm. He may get me while I lie on the sofa or in bed. He usually strikes and then runs off. Other than the biting, he is social and likes to be with us. I never scold him, but I feel badly that he continues to bite me. He rarely bites my husband.

Answer: Indeed, why do some cats – despite living with kindness – display aggression? In many cases, the underlying motivation for aggression can be ascertained with a relatively high degree of confidence. While in other cases, the motivation is less evident. When an underlying motivation can be determined, a diagnostic category is assigned. For instance, some cats behave aggressively when cornered. With no access to retreat, the cat may hiss, swat and/or bite the encroaching person. A diagnosis of fear-based aggression might be assigned. Once fear-eliciting stimuli are identified, a behavior modification plan can be instituted to minimize the chance of an aggressive response.

Some cats are frightened by a particular stimulus, but then turn the aggressive response to a nearby person. In this type of case, the initial trigger elicited fear, while the actual bite is a consequence of redirected aggression. Cats that exhibit redirected aggression often require a complex behavioral treatment plan to assure the safety of household people and pets.

Unlike the fearful cats are the cats that pounce upon people who are merely trying to go about their daily routine. One may notice a crouched posture, perhaps a gently flicking tail. Then, as the victim reaches a certain point, the cat springs.

This type of behavior very often represents play-based behavior. A careful behavioral history will confirm that diagnosis. Behavior modification techniques as well as management changes can be combined to reduce the risk of injury to household people.

When the playfully pouncing cat inflicts serious bites, the behavior may be a reflection of normal but misguided predatory behavior. Although play and predatory behaviors often appear somewhat similar to an onlooker, careful consideration of body posture as well as other behavioral and personality traits can help differentiate between the two. This distinction can become quite essential when serious wounds are being inflicted.

There are still other contexts in which household cats behave aggressively. Some cats guard resources including food, valuable resting places or special people.

These cats may behave aggressively when physically moved from a cozy chair or counter. Terms such as status-based or dominance-related aggression have been used to describe this behavior. The day-to-day interactions between the aggressive cat and his family members must be addressed to successfully treat this type of aggression.

A final context of aggression worth mentioning is aggression in which a cat appears to enjoy being stroked, and may even solicit this attention. Then, in the midst of being petted, and often with little or no warning, the cat bites. The bite may be inflicted in a gentle manner, or it may be quite severe. Why does this happen? The answer is not entirely clear. It is possible that certain cats may experience sudden discomfort while being petted. Another consideration is that the cat simply tires of the handling attempts to signal, albeit inappropriately, his desire for the person to stop. Although these cats deliver uninhibited bites, it is quite likely that they dont even realize they are inflicting pain upon us.

So what about your cat? First, you describe him as a social cat. It is not likely that the behavior represents fear. Since he pauses to look directly at you prior to a bite, the aggression is not redirected in nature. It is noteworthy that your cat directs his aggression toward you more often than toward your husband. Either he simply has more opportunity to bite you or he has different expectations of you.

For instance, he may consider you to be an important source of affection, and may then bite when he does not immediately receive sufficient attention to satisfy his needs. In other words, his bite may be his means of controlling your behavior, dominant behavior if you will. A detailed behavioral history would allow a behaviorist to support or refute this proposal.

A second consideration is that the aggression may be related to play or predatory behavior. Your cat may watch your arm as if it were a prey species. Then, he may seize the moment and bite you, hard of course. He may have no idea how hard his bite is. Your cat was adopted at a young age. Many kittens that have grown up apart from siblings, or without a mother cats guidance, appear less able to inhibit their bites.

Before closing, I would like to emphasize that any cat exhibiting aggressive behavior should be brought to his veterinarian for a thorough physical examination.

Many medical conditions can contribute to aggressive behavior. In fact, one of these conditions is hyperthyroidism. Since your cat does suffer from this condition, careful management is essential to avoid your cats being exposed to high levels of thyroid hormone.