When I have visitors to the house, my cats head for their favorite hiding spot. As soon as the guests leave, they come running for attention. But not all cats behave this way. Some cats have the opposite response. Instead of hiding, these cats actually attack any visitor who dares enter their domain. As the aggression and injuries escalate, people either stop having guests or get rid of the cat. There is a third option . . . behavior modification. With patience, these attack cats can be helped. The following is how I work with aggressive cats.
The first step is to have the cat examined by a veterinarian to make sure it does not have a health problem that is causing the behavior. If the physical exam and lab work are all within normal limits, I look into the cat’s history. Orphans and kittens who where weaned early miss learning many important lessons from their mothers and siblings. These cats are prone to displaced play aggression which means they mistake people for toys. People often compound this behavior by letting kittens chew on their hands or chase their feet. I also ask about any traumatic experience the cat may have had. Fear aggression is common after a frightening experience.
After a thorough history, I look into the cat’s environment and behavior. Some cats develop fear aggression because there aren’t any places for the cat to escape. I had one patient who became aggressive toward children after the client’s grandchildren came to visit. Despite their grandparent’s instructions, the kids chased the cat all over the house. When they cornered him in the bathroom, the cat struck back. Without knowing it, the children trained the cat to be aggressive because they left once he attacked. If there had been safe spots for this cat to escape to, he would have never become aggressive. Environment plays a huge role in fear induced aggression. Most of these cats are anxious because they don’t feel secure in their environment. Surprising an anxious cat with a loud noise, a stranger in the house or touching them may trigger a violent outburst.
Treatment for displaced play aggression and fear aggression are similar.
1) Remove all triggers from the cat’s environment to prevent further outbursts. If the cat is anxious, medication may be needed for a period of time.
2) Place the cat on a twice a day feeding schedule – no more free feeding.
3) Teach the “come” command. After a few days on the twice per day feeding schedule, it is time to start. I know this sounds impossible, but it really isn’t. Take half of the cat’s normal meal and use it for training. Place a small amount (one mouthful) on a spoon. Allow the cat to eat it while sitting at your feet. Now walk a few feet away, call the cat and feed it again. As the cat catches on, move further away until it will come even when you are out of sight because it knows food is waiting. Keep practicing this command until the cat will come running from anywhere when you call.
4) Stop rewarding bad behavior. Shrieking or pulling away when the cat turns aggressive is a mistake. Use a toy or a tasty treat to change the dynamic. Toss the food to them or use a wand toy to keep your hands away from harm.
5) Exercise the cat twice a day for 15 minutes to help them let off steam. I use a feather wand with my cats. Let the cat catch and “kill” the toy often. This will teach the cat to play with toys, not feet and hands. I do not recommend laser play because the inability to catch the dot can lead to frenzied play syndrome. Also, looking into a laser can lead to eye damage. Keep lasers out of your cat’s eyes at all times!
6) Provide plenty of safe places, especially high ones, for the cat. When given a choice, most cats will choose to escape instead of fight. It will also decrease anxiety.
7) Place a Feliway diffuser in the area where the attacks occur.
8) After you have implemented the above steps, it is time to teach the cat to associate visitors with good things. Have a visitor stand at the door. When the cat appears, call it to come to you for a treat. When the cat is comfortable with this, allow the visitor inside. Again, reward the cat with a special treat. Eventually, have the visitor toss the cat a tasty treat. My cats will do anything for cooked chicken. Slowly, the cat will learn that visitors bring special treats.
Remember, patience, patience and more patience! Your cat’s aggression has developed over time and it will take time to reverse it. Consistency is key with cats.