Pet Connection: Lengthening your cat’s short fuse

08/26/2013 11:37 AM

08/26/2013 11:37 AM

My two cats are both beautiful – I may be a little biased, but I’m pretty sure it’s true. When it comes to temperament, though, their similarities end.

One cat is relaxed and easygoing, a born lap kitty. The other is easily aroused, sometimes reacting to petting by scratching the person in whose lap he finds himself – which, more than likely, of course, is mine.

Over the years, I’ve worked to lengthen his short fuse, starting with the most important rule when it comes to dealing with feline aggression: Never, ever hit your cat.

If punishment won't work, what will? You need to understand the reasons why cats lash out and learn to read feline body language, while also retraining and managing your cat to prevent bites or clawing. Here's what makes cats go crazy and how to correct these problems:

• Overstimulation: You’re petting your cat, and suddenly he grabs you with his claws and teeth. Don’t struggle or fight back, or you may trigger a real bite. Sometimes, smacking your other hand loudly against a hard surface – a tabletop, for example – may startle your cat into breaking off the attack. If you stay still, however, he will usually calm down and release you.

Cat lovers often think such attacks come without warning, but they’ve missed the warning signs of a cat who has simply had enough. The tail is the key. If your cat starts twitching his tail in a jerky fashion, it’s time to stop petting.

And you can often keep him from getting to that overstimulated place by petting along the side of and under the chin only, avoiding touchier spots like the back or the belly.

•  Play aggression: Never let your cat view you as a plaything, not even when he’s an adorable kitten. Wrestling barehanded with your cat or kitten is a no-no, because you’re setting up a bad precedent.

A stuffed sock is a great substitute for a human hand when it comes to playthings – let your cat bite, claw and bunny-kick to his heart’s content. Give your cat lots of other exercise, frequent sessions that burn his youthful energy, such as playing with a fishing pole-type toy.

What if he persists in seeing you as a plaything? As with an overstimulated cat, stop the behavior by freezing if he has you in a painful grip. If he’s ambushing you, water from a small squirt gun might help convince him that this is not a game worth playing.

• Redirected aggression: Your cat sees another cat, an intruder, outside your living room window. He becomes enraged. You walk by, and he nails you.

This is redirected aggression, and it’s a management issue. Motion-detecting sprinklers can discourage strange cats from being in your yard.

If you can’t keep feline intruders out, block your cat’s access to the window through which he sees the other cats. And again, be aware of your cat’s body language. A cat that’s looking for trouble is one that’s best avoided.

The trick with cats is to eliminate the triggers for biting or scratching and work on your cat’s tolerance levels. If you’re patient and consistent, your cat may well improve over time.

If you’re not getting anywhere, talk to your veterinarian about a referral to a behaviorist experienced in feline behavior.

Additionally, veterinary behaviorists can prescribe medications that can help ease your cat’s anxiety while you work on permanent changes to his behavior.

While my jumpy cat will never be the completely relaxed purr-machine his housemate is, he’s incredibly more tolerant of petting. His purrs let me know that he’s as happy with the changes as I am.

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