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Ask The Behaviorist
Cats: Dr. John Wright answering questions
Please be aware that the following suggestions are
general advice and are not intended to be a
substitute for taking your pet to a veterinarian.
Posted February 18, 1998 | previous set


Question:

My 13-year-old female cat has exhibited this behavior since day one. She runs from any attention I try to put to her, as I approach with the food dish, she'll run away, if she meows up at me, and I bend down to pet her or scratch her cheek, she'll bolt and run away. However, once I'm settled down and sitting, she'll come and flop at or near or sometimes on my feet, so I can scratch and massage her. If I bend down to try to pet her, she'll bolt and act frightened for a while. What causes this behavior?
Thank you very much,

Vladimir Vooss
Del Mar, CA
vvooss@ucsd.edu



Response from Dr. Wright:

Vladimir has a female cat who avoids Vladimir when he bends over to pet her and runs even when he approaches her with food. The cat will gladly approach him when he's seated, and she allows him to pet or massage her only then. This tendency to avoid hands reaching down from above is common in cats who either are "skittish" as a trait, or who have had a bad experience with someone who looks like the person bending down to pet (or maybe do something that doesn't feel good). Your cat may not be willing to wait around to see if you're attempting to stroke her (a pleasant outcome), or to lift her up (perhaps her worst fear, or at least something she is probably not very fond of). Sometimes "one trial learning" occurs when a cat has a bad experience that results in fear. It's like placing your hand on a hot stove. Once burned, you're not willing to try it again, even if it's clear that the stove is turned off. In this case, your cat may also feel less afraid of you when you're in a sitting position than if you're standing and reaching because of a couple of reasons:
  1. you don't seem as impending and large to her when you're seated.
  2. you can't move as fast when you're seated.
When cats perceive that they have control in social situations they are more prone to risk closeness and share affection.



Question:

Our family just had to put down our 20-year-old cat, Clyde. Poor guy had a stroke, and went downhill fast (about four hours). My question is about Boo, the eight-year-old neutered male still remaining in the house. He's always been a "spooky" or nervous cat (very vocal and affectionate, though), and now he's even more unsettled since the loss of Clyde. Any ideas on how to reassure him/help him settle down a bit? Talking, petting, and treats work well during the day, but he's pretty restless at night.

(name witheld by request)



Response from Dr. Wright:

The loss of a sibling can be as rough on his sibling as it is on his owners. Boo had lived with Clyde long enough to depend on him for both initiating and responding to a variety of social behaviors. Now that Clyde is gone, you can count on one thing; Boo will change in some way. He may become more affectionate or less, more outgoing or less, more willing to take a risk or less. Each cat posed with such an adjustment needs to have someone (or another animal) "stand in" for the other cat either in maintaining the same patterns of familiar activity (playing, eating, resting, grooming, etc.) or establishing new ones. If Boo tends to be a bit anxious at night, try to approximate the situation he had with Clyde. If he used to sleep with Clyde, is there a place Boo can sleep now with another live, soft individual (many cats jump right up on the people's pillow if given half a chance)? Is there a place in or near your room that he can sleep in a warm, soft bed (think of ways to make his bed approximate the presence of Clyde)? If grooming was part of their pre-bedtime ritual, try stroking him there just before you retire. Give him some time to work through the loss and to decide for himself what he wants to do. You can help him adjust by being open to fulfilling his need for you to be a Clyde surrogate in the mean time.



Question:

My seven-month-old male kitten has slowly become very aggressive (he was neutered two months ago.) Lately, his biting and pouncing behavior are unpredictable. Although he has always tried to bite during play and petting, now he attacks me unprovoked. When I punish him by squirting him with a bottle or yelling, he becomes very fearful and won't come near me at all. I just don't know how to deal with this and, if it's normal.

Lisa Klein
Boston, MA
lklein@hbs.edu



Response from Dr. Wright:

Lisa has noticed that her seven-month-old recently neutered kitten has become more aggressive and is beginning to attack her without warning. He goes in the other direction and won't come near her when she brings out the squirt gun. If these behaviors become organized into a ritualistic pattern she will wind up with a cat who avoids her or attacks her—not what Lisa has in mind, I'm sure. The first recommendation is to throw out the squirt gun. You've discovered the hard way that squirting your cat merely makes him associate you with unpleasant feelings and it doesn't stop the attacks. Second, only use toys to play with, not hands. If the aggressive play started before the neutering occurred as you've indicated, chances are he started clasping and biting your hands early on—redirect his aggression away from you during play so there is something he can displace his attack on; meanwhile, keep your hands away from him, and still when he's in close proximity to you. If you also remain motionless (don't walk away) while you toss underhand, a ping pong ball or other toy he should learn to go after that which moves, and learn to associate your hands with things that feel good, like stroking. Hope these suggestions get you started in the right direction.



Question:

One of my female cats started attacking one of my other two cats to the point that the attacked cat is terrified of being under attack all the time. She hides most of the time and when we tried to put her in our bed at night, she will keep a constant vigil and any noise will keep her on her toes ready to jump and hide. The attacking cat is the latest arrival to our home, though it has been living at our home for years since we found her in the street and had no previous problems with the other cats. The cat being attacked is one of two "sisters" that we brought to our home about nine years ago. Sometimes the behavior of the youngest cat will make the sister cat join her in attacking this cat, but this is rare. How can I stop this problem, and if I succeed, how can I make the attacked cat stop being afraid all the time? Thanks for any advice you can provide me.

Gerardo Santos
Hattiesburg, Mississippi
Gerardo.Santos@usm.edu



Response from Dr. Wright:

The problem described by Mr. Santos is quite similar to the one described by Leslie Singleton. The solution to part of the problem would be the same procedure, an exposure technique, where the two cats are placed in two separate carriers for about 30 minutes a day, and gradually (over the weeks) brought closer to one another in the presence of something that makes each cat feel good (treats, play items). In this case, you may find that your veterinarian will recommend an appropriate medication for both cats to reduce the arousal of each cat while you do the exposure procedure. The "skittish" cat may well serve as a stimulus for the other's attacks, making the attacking cat more likely to continue the attacks in the future. By reducing the arousal of both cats you are likely to proceed more quickly to a point where each cat is desensitized to the other cat. Of course, your veterinarian will probably also recommend weaning your cats off the drugs once peaceful co-existence has been achieved. Good luck.



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