H3N2 Dog Flu Hits Arizona

H3N2 dog flu has come to Arizona.  In 2015, a new strain of canine influenza hit the Midwest sickening more than 1,000 dogs.  At first, the outbreak was attributed to Influenza A H3N8, a virus that was first observed in the United States in 2004. But further testing by researchers at the University of Wisconsin and Cornell University identified a new virus, H3N2. This avian virus was first found in 2007 in Korean dogs.  The H3N2 canine flue virus has also infected cats. So far, this influenza has not spread to humans. The virus spread across the United States until it finally came to Arizona. Now, two years later, two dogs at Maricopa County Animal Care and Control tested positive for the virus. Both are responding well to treatment.

Clinical signs range from mild malaise to anorexia, coughing, fever and a runny nose to severe pneumonia. Coughing lasts 10 to 30 days and fevers range from 104 to 106. The normal range for dogs and cats is 100 to 102.5. Deaths are rare but seen most often in brachycephalic breeds such as Shit tzus, Pekinese and pugs. Treatment is supportive as there is currently no cure available. Severely affected dogs and cats are placed in hospital isolation wards and treated with fluids, antibiotics and nebulization. The goal is to prevent a secondary bacterial pneumonia which can be life-threatening.

Since no specific treatment is available for this virus, prevention is the key to protecting both dogs and cats. I recommend vaccinating all brachycephalic breeds of dogs, immune suppressed and dogs who frequent dog parks, pet stores, boarding facilities and shelters. Since this is a new virus, dogs do not posses a natural immunity against it. There are two types of vaccines available for canine flu, one for H3N8 and one for H3N2. It is important to get the H3N2 vaccine because the H3N8 does not cross protect.  Take precautions to avoid accidental transfer of the virus from sick animals to your pets. Disinfect clothing, equipment and hands after interacting with other animals.

Sources:

-Brooks, Wendy. “Canine Influenza (H3N8)”. The Pet Health Library, VIN, Published 10/24/2005, Reviewed 4/30/2014.

-http://www.abc15.com/news/region-phoenix-metro/central-phoenix/maricopa-animal-care-and-control-tips-to-protect-your-fur-friends-against-canine-influenza

-‘Key Facts about Canine Influenza (Dog Flu)’. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

-Rishniw, Mark. ‘Canine Influenz’. VIN: Veterinary Partner, published 04/17/2015, reviewed and revised, 06/19/2017.

-Schwartz, Joe. “Midwest Canine Influenza outbreak caused by new strain of virus”. Mediarelations.cornell.edu. April 12, 2015.

 

 

Viral Papillomas (Warts) in Young Dogs

Viral papillomatosis (warts) is a fairly common condition in young dogs. Irregular circular growths appear in the mouth and around the eyes. The growths can be fairly smooth like a human wart or possess tenticle like projections that remind me of tall blades of grass. In dogs, papillomatosis is most often caused by canine papilloma virus-1. The virus infects young dogs because of their immature immune systems and adult dogs who are immunosupressed. In young dogs, usually less than two years of age, papillomas are most common inside the mouth and around the eyes. On rare occasions, the papillomas may be found on the eyelids, between the toes and on the eyeball. In adults, the papillomas can be found anywhere. The first picture is of viral papillomas in the mouth of a young dog. The second picture is a papilloma on the neck of a adult dog. The papilloma developed after the adult dog was treated with steroids and cyclosporine which both suppress the immune system.

                    

Canine papilloma virus-1 is transmitted by direct contact with an infective wart or by indirect contact by touching a contaminated surface. Most common sources are toys, bedding, collars, leashes, grooming tools and food bowls. The virus enters through damaged skin and papillomas appear within one to two months. People and other animals are not susceptible to this virus. CPV-1 only affects dogs.

Most young dogs will recover from this when their immune system matures and works to eradicate the virus. The papillomas will slowly degerate over about a two month period. Lesions that persist for longer periods of time should be biopsied to confirm the diagnosis of viral papillomatosis. Papillomas that interfere with eating or drinking may need removal. This is done with traditional surgery or cryotherapy. There is also a topical medication called imiquimod that can be applied to the papilloma or the drug azithromycin can be given orally for treatment. In really stubborn cases, papillomas can be removed and made into a vaccine to stimulate the dog’s immune system. This is a last resort because malignant tumors have occurred where the vaccine is injected.

In older dogs, the papillomas are surgically removed and sent in for analysis to confirm the diagnosis.

Source:

-Brooks, Wendy. ‘Viral Papillomas of Dogs’. VIN.com Published 09/10/2001, Reviewed and Revised 06/09/2017.

You Make The Diagnosis: Irregular Dermal Masses Found In Young Dogs

Pictured below is the mouth of a young dog who came into the clinic after her family found many growths in her mouth. The masses don’t seem to bother her although I have seen other dogs chew, rub or lick them. Besides the mouth, these kinds of growth may be found on the skin, genitals and paws. Study the picture then answer the following questions: What is the diagnosis? What causes this disease? What is the treatment?

Diagnosis: Viral Papillomatosis (Warts)

Viral papillomatosis or warts are found on the face and mouths of young dogs. The most common cause is canine papilloma virus-1. In older dogs, the warts can occur anywhere on the body. Dogs with immature or compromised immune systems become infected after direct contact (touching the warts) or indirect contact (touching objects that have been contaminated with the virus including bowls, bedding, toys and collars). In most cases, the warts will resolve on their own as the dog’s immune system matures.

For more information on canine viral papillomatosis, please seen my next blog.

Source:

-Brooks, Wendy. ‘Viral Papillomas of Dogs’ VIN.com, Published 09/10/2001, Revised: 06/09/2017.

Frustration-Related Aggression in Cats

Frustration-related aggression is a form of aggression that occurs when a cat is blocked from getting what it wants. I diagnosed it for the first time in my own cat, Genevieve. I met this adorable little furball while working at a friend’s clinic.  A woman approached the counter carrying a cardboard box.  Inside lay a kitten missing one of its back legs.  She said she found it behind a dumpster and wanted it euthanized.  When I opened the box, I saw a newborn kitten covered in blood and dirt.  A bloody stump was all that was left of her right back leg. I hypothesized that the placenta had stuck to her back leg.  The queen probably chewed her foot off in an effort to clean up her baby.  I could not euthanize Genny just because she was missing a leg.

Genny grew into a beautiful but spoiled cat. When she wanted something like food or attention, she would not take ‘no’ for an answer. If she didn’t get her way, her tail would start to twitch, her eyes narrowed and she would nip. If that didn’t work, she resorted to a full on bite. Of course, she only did this behavior with the her human family members. My friends thought she was a wonderful cat.

Frustration-based aggression is a subject of debate among veterinary behaviorists. So far, no diagnostic criteria have been established for this type of aggression. Dr. Horwitz, a veterinary behaviorist, makes the following observations that fit what I see clinically. First, the cat seems to be trying to control the behavior of people to their own advantage. Second, the aggression is usually directed toward people the cat knows. And third, the behavior occurs when the cat is denied something it wants or expects.

Frustration-related aggression seems to occur most often in hand-reared cats and demanding cats.  In my experience, not getting food or attention are the most common triggers. Another reported trigger is when a cat is denied access to a favorite place, i.e. the outdoors, special room, bed, perch or cat tree.

Treatment is based on avoiding situations that cause frustration-based aggression by controlling the environment and teaching the cat to work for things it wants. This sounds simple in theory but can be challenging to put into practice. The first step in controlling the environment is to identify the situations that trigger the aggression. I recommend a diary that includes feeding schedule, litter box usage, sleep times, active times and any unusual occurrences such as house guests or repairmen as well as attacks. Include when, where and how the cat was acting before the attack took place. After a week or two, the diary looking for things that trigger the behavior. Once the trigger is identified, remove it from the environment. For example, many attacks occur in the kitchen about an hour before feeding. The hungry cat follows their caregiver around demanding food. When the demands are ignored, the cat escalates their demands to the next level by biting. To prevent this, I recommend an automatic feeder. Set the feeder up in a room away from the caregiver. The hungry cat will smell the food and vent their frustration on the feeder.

The second part of treatment is teaching the cat to work for things it wants. This involves teaching the cat to perform a specified behavior before being rewarded. There are many behaviors that cats can learn but I find the most useful is target. The cat is taught to touch a soft ball(the target) on the end of a wand in exchange for a reward like dolphins who jump out of the water to touch a buoy for a fish. Once the cat understands, ask it to follow the wand a short distance before touching. Slowly increase the distance the cat follows until it can be lead into a different room, away from the situation that causes frustration-related aggression.

In addition to the specific treatments listed above, I recommend more exercise for cats with frustration-related aggression. In veterinary college, I was taught that tired animals don’t get into trouble. Exercise burns energy and reduces the desire to control the environment. Use the target technique to exercise the cat by asking it to run and jump as it follows the wand. Set up on obstacle course to make it more fun. Also provide fun things to enrich the cat’s environment including multiple places to rest and play. Cat trees, window perches, cat friendly videos, enclosed outdoor porches and sound tracks are a few examples.

The most important thing to remember about frustration-related aggression is that negative reinforcement does not help. In fact, in my experience, punishment will make the behavior worse. Learn to recognize the signs of frustration in the cat and then follow the steps outlined above to stop it from escalating.

Source:

-Horwitz, Debra. ‘Feline Aggression Toward People’ Australian Veterinary Association Proceedings 2012, AVA2012, VIN.

 

Fearful or Defensive Aggression of Cats Toward Humans

Fearful or defensive aggression occurs when a frightened cat attacks the human who caused their fear. A cat with fearful aggression has adopted “the best defense is a good offense” motto to deal with their anxiety. The aggression may be directed toward strangers, family members or both. This kind of aggression occurs when a cat can’t escape from a fearful situation. The trapped cat assumes a crouched position with their ears flattened against their head and their hair standing on end to look bigger. They hiss, spit and growl warning people to stay away or suffer the consequences. Ignoring these warning signs results in painful bites and scratches. After being attacked, the human leaves the cat alone which is exactly what it wanted in the first place. The cat learns to be aggressive in order to make the scary person leave.

The first step in dealing with fearful aggression is a thorough history.  Was the cat properly socialized as a kitten? Does the cat have any medical problems like osteoarthritis that makes it feel vulnerable? Who does the cat attack? When and where do the attacks take place? How does the victim and also the owner (if not the victim) react? What kind of punishments, if any are used? How often do the attacks occur? In my experience, harsh physical punishment makes this kind of aggression worse because it intensifies the fear. Great care must be taken to avoid punishing a fearful animal of any kind.

Once a thorough history is taken, the next step is a physical exam looking for health issues. The veterinarian will look for dental disease, osteoarthritis and other conditions that cause pain. They will also check the cat’s hearing and vision that can make the cat feel more vulnerable leading to fear. The last step is blood work and a complete urinalysis to look for other diseases such as hyperthyroidism, pancreatitis, inflammatory bowel disease, kidney disease and liver disease which are common in older cats.  All health issues including painful dental disease must be addressed before moving onto behavioral therapy.

Treatment for fearful or defensive aggression is based on counter-conditioning and desensitization of the cat to the person(s) it fears. Here  are the steps for dealing with fear-based aggression toward a family member:

Step One: Keep the cat away from the person(s) it fears. when the scary person leaves every time the cat hisses, the cat learns to hiss and growl when they see the person they fear. Stop the interaction to stop reinforcing the bad behavior.                                                                         Step Two: Reward the cat for calm behavior. When the cat is relaxing, give it a tasty treat. Teach it that good things happen when the cat is relaxed.  For cats who are not food motivated, try playing instead. Use a fake mouse or feathers on a long string for distance. Step Three: Introduce the person it fears. Have the scary human toss treats to the cat from a distance to avoid triggering the cat’s fear. The person should speak in soft tones, move slowly and refrain from staring to avoid scaring the cat.                                                              Step Four: Slowly reduce the distance between the cat and the person it fears. Watch the cat closely for signs of fear and back off immediately. Signs of fear include dilated pupils, flat ears, raised hair, hissing or growling.                                                                                                    Step Five: Pet the cat. When the cat is comfortable eating in the presence of the scary person, they should gently pet the cat. If the cat keeps eating, they are in a relaxed state and the petting may continue. If the cat stops eating, stop the interaction immediately.

If the cat is afraid of visitors, place a harness on the cat or put it in a carrier to keep the guest safe then follow the same steps. If the family is unwilling or unable to follow this protocol, the cat should be confined to their safe room whenever visitors are present.

Most cats with fear-based aggression will respond well to behavior therapy. In rare circumstances psychotropic medications are needed. Since these medications have many unwanted side effects, they are only used in extreme cases.

Sources:

-Horwitz, Debra. ‘Feline Aggression Toward People’ Australian Veterinary Association Proceedings 2012, AVA2012, VIN.

 

Redirected Aggression in Cats

Cats display a complex behavior known as redirected aggression. According to Dr. Debra Horwitz, ” Redirected aggression arises from the cat being in an aggressive or agitating circumstance, but unable to vent that aggression on the causative agent.” Here’s a common history. A cat is looking out the window and sees another cat invade their yard. The angry cat wants to attack the intruder lurking on the other side of the glass. Since they can’t, they attack whatever is close. This can be humans or other animals in their immediate vicinity who are innocent bystanders. The victim is in the wrong place at the wrong time. Redirected aggression can be caused by the sight, sound or smell of another cat or animal. Less frequently, unusual sounds, unfamiliar people or objects and even pain may trigger an episode.

Treatment is based on removing the inciting factor from the cat’s environment. This is often easier said than done. For outdoor cats or other animals, cover windows and remove perches and furniture from the area. Remove any sources of food, water and resting places from the yard that may attract other cats or animals. Discourage visiting cats with motion detector air canisters or water systems that provide a surprise shower. Shield the cat who suffers from redirected aggression from windows by blocking their access to the window. Removing furniture and/or covering the window will work for cats who are visually aroused but may not be enough if scent is the trigger.

Once a cat becomes aroused, it should be left alone to calm down. Create a safe room for the cat that contains a litter box, water, food and a Feliway diffuser. Gently herd the cat to the room with a broom or box. A cat in this state of arousal may inflict serious damage on people or other animals. Take extreme caution to avoid injury. If the cat must be picked up, use a thick quilt wrapped around their entire body including the head. Once in the room, turn the lights off and leave immediately. Give the cat plenty of time to calm down before entering. For some cats, it may be several days before they are back to normal. A video camera placed in the room is a great way to access their state of arousal from a safe distance. An aroused cat will have a bushy tail, dilated pupils, flattened ears and growl as they pace about the room.

If the inciting cause cannot be completely removed from the cat’s life, then counter-conditioning and desensitization may help control re-directed aggression. The cat is exposed to the stimulus at a low level and then rewarded for good behavior. Slowly the cat will learn to associate the stimulus with good things as the feelings of anxiety disipate.

Source:

-Horwitz, Debra. “Feline Aggression Toward People” Australian Veterinary Association Proceeding 2012, AVA2012, VIN.com.

 

Blue Buffalo and Wellness Voluntarily Recall Dog Food After Three Dogs Suffered From Thyroid Toxicity

On March 17, 2017, the FDA announced that Blue Buffalo and Wellness dog food companies were voluntarily recalling some of their products because of excessive levels of beef thyroid hormone. The food contained gullets which are the larynx from cows and steers. Unfortunately, the gullets were not properly cleaned and contained thyroid glands which was the source of the toxicity. Three dogs from different households including a Shetland sheepdog, Tibetan terrier and Labrador retriever became ill. Thankfully, all of the dogs recovered once the food was taken out of their diets.

Clinical signs of thyroid toxicity, also called hyperthyroidism, include increased appetite, thirst and urination. A common clue is that weight loss despite an increased appetite. Another common clue is restlessness or an increase in activity in a senior pet. Some people describe it as, ‘acting like a puppy again.’ If left untreated, chronically elevated thyroid levels may cause vomiting, diarrhea, heart disease and death.

Diagnosis of thyroid toxicity is based on physical examination and laboratory testing. Animals with hyperthyroidism have elevated total thyroid hormone levels in their blood. They may also have other blood and urine abnormalities due to the far reaching effect of this hormone.

If you feed BLUE WILDERNESS or WELLNESS, please check for the following products that have been voluntarily recalled, stop using them and contact the company immediately. Here’s the list:

WellPet 13.2 ounce cans of Wellness 95% Beef Topper for Dogs, best by dates of Feb, 2, 2019, Aug 29, 2019 and Aug 30, 2019. UPC code 076344894506. More info at https://www.fda.gov/Safety/Recalls/ucm547335.htm

Blue Buffalo 12.5 ounce cans of BLUE Wilderness Rocky Mountain Recipe, Red Meat Dinner Wet food for Adult Dogs, best by date of June 7, 2019, UPC code 840243101153. More info at:  https://www.fda.gov/Safety/Recalls/ucm547335.htm

Sources:

-News Desk. “FDA alerts consumers, vets to watch dogs for hyperthyroidism: ‘Extensive testing’ shows thyroid hormone in canned food from Blue Buffalo, Co., Welllpet” Food Safety News, March 28, 2017 email alert.

Wool Sucking in Cats

Wool sucking is a compulsive behavior seen in cats, especially in Siamese and Birman breeds. Cats affected with this medical disorder suck, lick and chew on soft materials including wool and other fabrics. Over time, they often progress to other materials including rubber, nylon, cardboard, paper and plastic.  I know of one cat who got into a closet and chewed out the inseam of his owner’s favorite jeans. Another cat suffered electrocution when she went after an electric cord.  She received a nasty bruise on the roof of her mouth but survived.

The cause of wool sucking is not completely understood. Dr. Borns-Well performed a case controlled study of 204 Birman and Siamese cats and found that small litter size and early weaning was associated with an increased risk of wool sucking in the Birman breed of cat. In Siamese, the risk of developing wool sucking increased when they developed other medical conditions. Further research by Dr. Nicholas Dodman into the genetics suggests a dominant mode of inheritance for this condition. Another common finding in affected cats is an abnormally intense appetite. These cats are extremely oral, mouthing anything in reach when they are hungry.

Treatment is based on decreasing the stress that causes this compulsive behavior and providing alternative outlets when it occurs. Here’s how I tackle patients with wool sucking:

  1. Medical examination – The work-up for a cat with wool sucking always starts with a thorough veterinary examination and lab work looking for other medical problems. Cats are good at hiding their illnesses until they become severe.  Through blood work and physical examination, I find many of these patients have chronic problems when their family thought they were healthy. The behavior decreases and sometimes stops when the underlying problem is resolved.
  2. Environmental examination – The next step in the work-up for wool sucking is evaluating the cat’s environment for specific stress inducers as well as behavioral enrichment areas. Cats have a pretty simple routine – hunt, eat, urinate/defecate, groom, rest. A healthy environment will provide specific areas for all of these behaviors to occur. Stress occurs from lack of resources, other housemates that may bully the cat, outdoor cats and the lack of outlets for normal behaviors. Cats view valuable things like resting spots, food and litter boxes as valuable resources. Problems occur when there aren’t enough to go around. Ideally, there should be one litter box for each cat. Place the box in a private area with at least two escape routes to prevent another cat or dog from cornering the cat. The same rule applies for food and water bowls. Use a large dog bowl for water as cats like to drink from large flat surfaces. For resting areas, variety is the key. I like to give the cat a choice between low places (basket in a closet, blanket under a bed, cat tunnel, etc), medium places (chair when pushed under a table, sofa back covered with a blanket, inbox on a desk, etc) and high places (perch on upper window, closet shelf, cat tree, etc). If outdoor cats are a problem, keep the perches far away and cover windows with blinds.
  3. Normal behavior outlet – Entertainmental areas are important for giving the cat an outlet for their normal behaviors. In the wild, feral cats hunt, stalk and then kill their prey. Behavior enrichment for indoor cats should provide the means for expressing these behaviors. Window perches by a bird feeder, aquariums, cat trees and cat videos appeal to the hunting instincts of cats. Scratching post scattered throughout the house are fun as well. Use posts with vertical as well as horizontal surfaces for scratching. Interactive toys including feather wands, stuffed mice on a string, while balls and wads of paper are great for stalking and exercise. Remember to let the cat catch and kill the toy every few minutes to simulate normal hunting. My cats come running when they hear me get the feather wand out of the closet. I have to put it away between plays times because they will chew it up. I am not a fan of laser pointers because some cats develop frenzied play syndrome because they can never catch and kill the dot.
  4. Outlets for wool sucking behavior – Even with a good environment, some cats will still exhibit the wool sucking behavior. The key in dealing with this is to redirect the behavior away from the expensive inappropriate items to safe toys. Soft cat toys and stuffed animals work well for this. A small amount of cat nip or lanolin may be rubbed on the toy to help attract the cat. Place the toys in areas where the wool sucking behavior occurs. With time, the cat will learn to seek out their special toys when they feel the need for oral stimulation. Since many of these cats seem to have extreme hunger, break up their meals throughout the day. Put food in puzzle feeders or treat balls and then scatter them throughout the house. Make the cat work to find the food. Encourage the cat to play and then reward them with small bits of food. Because of their food motivation, many of these cats can learn to do all kinds of tricks.
  5. Severe Cases – In some cats, the compulsive behavior is ingrained and drug therapy is required. For these cats, I also recommend creating a safe room filled with soft toys for mouthing until the compulsive behavior is better controlled.

Sources:

-Borns-Well, S, et. al., A case-control study of compulsive wool-sucking in Siamese and Birman cats (n=204). J. Vet. Behav. November/December 2015:10(6):543-548.

-Dodman, Nicholas. Recognition, Management and Genetic Findings in Canine and Feline Compulsive Disorders. Tuft’s Canine and Feline Breeding Genetics Conference 2015.

Petting-Related Aggression in Cats

Most cats enjoy human interaction especially if it involves petting. As the saying goes, ‘Cats are connoisseurs of pleasure.’ Most love a good head rub, especially when the sides of the face by the whiskers are stroked. Unfortunately, petting may stimulate some cats to bite. The most common history I hear is that the cat was lying next to or on their owner. The owner was scratching their chin, face and/or back when suddenly, the cat bit the owner and ran away.  Most of the time, the cat will inhibit their bite which means only use light pressure but I have seen a few deep wounds during my career.

Petting-related aggression is a clinical syndrome in cats that is poorly understood. The cause is thought to be pain or exceeding the cat’s tolerance for attention. Cats with back pain from arthritis or disc disease will often cry and twitch when their backs are stroked. If the petting continues, they may bite to stop the pain. There is also a condition called feline hyperesthesia syndrome that causes a normally sweet cat to suddenly bite. Cats with this syndrome seem to experience episodes of extreme pain that cause some to lash out at anyone around them. Petting the lower back can cause an episode but I have also seen cats trigger without any stimulation.

Overstimulation is the other cause of petting-related aggression. Some cats seem to have a low threshold or tolerance for human interaction. Some behaviorists speculate that there is an internal conflict occurring between the adult and juvenile response to human attention because many of these cats will solicit attention. They will purr and head butt but then bite when touched.

Treatment starts with keeping the humans safe. I recommend using some sort of inanimate object to stroke the cat like a wand or towel. Watch the cat closely for signs of overstimulated. Look for dilated pupils, flicking the tail, flattened ears or raised hair along the back. If observed, stop touching the cat immediately and slowly back away. If the cat is on your lap, slowly stand up allowing the cat to jump off without injury.

Once the warning signs are known, slowly build the cat’s tolerance to human interaction by rewarding it for good behavior. When the cat is hungry, offer small bits of their favorite treat. Once the cat is comfortable taking the treats, start petting them. Pet once then give a treat. Gradually increase the cat’s tolerance to more petting between treats. Remember to stop immediately if any signs of over- stimulation occur. Hopefully, the cat will learn to control their stimulation to get more treats. Keep the sessions short and vary the food reward for maximum effectiveness.

 

Source:

-Horwitz, Debra. ‘Feline Aggression toward People’, Australian Veterinary Association Proceedings 2012, VIN.com.

Misdirected Play Aggression in Cats

Scratching and biting are common kitten behaviors. Their predatory nature motivates them to explore the world looking for prey. They stalk, pounce and bite anything that moves during play. Unfortunately, this natural behavior can become a serious problem in some cats as they grow and the strength of their bite increases. Beside the physical trauma from their large canine teeth (fangs), cats carry several bacteria in their mouths that can cause serious infections. People can also develop cat scratch fever from the bacteria Bartonella henselae that is found on some cat’s nails.

Misdirected play aggression is usually seen in cats under two years of age.  They are often the only cat in the household or live with other cats and/or dogs that do not play. The worst cases are seen with orphans who were raised alone. These little ones didn’t learn to inhibit their bites during play because their was no queen(mom) or siblings around to let them know when they bit too hard. The other common history findings are rough play with humans as young kittens and being left alone for long periods of time. One of the biggest mistakes people make in raising kittens is allowing them to bite hands and scratch during play. Rough play teaches kittens to surprise attack without the normal warning signs. What was once a cute little nip turns into a deep wound.

Diagnosis of misdirected play aggression is made by observing the cat or kitten in their environment before, during and after the bite. Most often, movement is the trigger. In my experience, feet moving under the covers, making the bed and walking down the hall are the most common triggers. It is also reported that walking up and down stairs as well as  coming out of a closet will trigger play aggression. Most kittens assume a crouched position with an intent look on their faces before striking. Usually their ears are forward in anticipation of doing something fun i.e., biting. They do not growl or vocalize during play. This is a very important point to remember to differentiate misdirected play aggression from other forms of aggression. If the kitten hisses, growls or screams, the behavior is not play related.

Treatment is based on giving the kitten or cat a different outlet for their energy. As I was taught in veterinary college, ‘A tired cat is a good cat.’ If the home can accommodate another feline, adding another slightly older kitten or cat that likes to play is a great solution. Beside giving the troublemaker an outlet for their energy, another animal will get a home which is a win for everybody. Consult with your veterinarian about the proper methods for introducing cats and go slow. Dumping a new cat into an environment and letting them ‘work it out’ is not recommended. Make sure the new addition is free of disease before the introduction. A two week quarantine is recommended just in case the kitten was exposed to a virus during the re-homing.

If a new feline roommate isn’t an option, then play is the key. A variety of toys should be placed in the environment to stimulate the kitten. Remember that cats and kittens will habituate which means become bored with toys quickly. Change the toys frequently to keep them engaged. Create several play stations in their environment to keep them moving. Here are some examples:

  1. Cat nip infused scratching post tucked in the corner of the room. Provide a horizontal as well as a vertical scratch pad. Cardboard scratch pads work well for the horizontal surface.
  2. Hang a toy from door nobs in multiple areas. Make sure the toy is secured well to prevent swallowing a string.
  3. Boxes and/or bags left out to explore. After grocery shopping, leave a few paper bags on the floor to give the kitten something new to explore. When the kitten becomes bored, put them away until the next day or place some cat nip inside.
  4. Perches placed by windows provide ‘natural T.V.’
  5. Outdoor fully enclosed ‘catio’ will keep the cat safe while allowing them to experience the great outdoors. The screened in area should have multiple perches placed at different heights to help the cat exercise. Some cats may also enjoy munching on container grass.
  6. Fabric tunnels placed along walls or behind sofas give the cat a ground level space to explore.
  7. Ping pong balls in the bath tub work well for curious cats.

Beside the play stations, cats also need interactive play. Four to six fifteen minute active play sessions per day are recommended. Cat fishing rods, wads of paper to retrieve or bat around, balls and feather dusters work well. Stimulate the actions of a mouse or bird with the toy by pulling it under and around furniture. Make the motions unpredictable, slow then fast, smooth along the ground with pops up into the air. Many cats can’t resist the whirling noise made when a feather toy is spun over head. Many people make the mistake of throwing the toys directly at the cat which frightens them. Remember, cats are used to chasing prey. The toy mouse jumping into their face is illogical to them.

Be extremely careful with laser light pens. Direct eye contact may result in blindness. Also, some cats develop ‘frenzy play syndrome’ because they can never catch, touch and kill the dot. If using a laser, stop every few minutes and give the cat an actual toy they can bite and scratch. When the cat feels the toy has been ‘killed’, go back to the laser.

Food dispensing toys or feeder toys are great for burning off energy. Instead of regular meals placed in a dish, make the kitten work for their food. Place small amounts inside and then let them roll it around until something good falls out. Treats may be hidden around the house to stimulate exploration. A few kibbles placed in a water bowl can provide entertainment as the kitten works to get the floaters. Remember to vary the flavors of food often (every 2 or 3 days) for added interest.

Battery operated toys that simulate prey can be a nice addition to a cat’s toy box especially when the humans need a break. Although some cats like the battery operated vacuum cleaners and robots, most seem frightened by these machines. Stick with ‘Panic Mouse’ and similar toys.

Now that the cat has an outlet for their play drive, it is time to teach them not to attack humans. First, evaluate the environment where the attacks occur. If possible remove furniture or other items that are the launch point. Second, obtain a noise maker to startle the cat. Compressed air or pennies in a soda can work well. When the cat shows signs of stalking behavior such as raised hair, twitching tail or slinking on the ground, startle them with the noise. Third, re-direct their attention to an appropriate toy. This is the most important step as they must have an outlet for the behavior. Negative punishment does not work because the cat associates the bad thing with the human, not their behavior of biting the human. Cats subjected to punishment often become more aggressive as they adopt a ‘I’m going to bite you before you can spank me’ approach. Some cats may become fearful and start urinating outside the litter box. As veterinary behaviorist, Dr. Debra Horwitz states, “It is important to redirect the behavior, not punish it.”

Source:

-‘Cat Scratch Fever’ www.cdc.gov/healthypets/diseases/cat-scratch.html.

-Horwitz, Debra F. ‘Feline Aggression Toward People’ Australian Veterinary Association Proceedings 2012, VIN.com.

-Thomas, Nicole & Brook, Itzhak. ‘Animal Bite-Associated Infections’ Expert Rev Ant Infect Thor. 2011;9(2):215-226.