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How to Fix Feline Aggression

Understanding Petting Aggression

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Photo of Angry Cat

This Cat is Waaaay Past the Petting Threshold

Photo Credit: © iStockPhoto/Anna Sematkina

Cat lovers frequently ask for steps to help stop aggressive behavior in cats—but there are many kinds of aggression and a one-size-fits-all program won’t work. Of the several kinds of cat aggression, none confuses, frustrates and frightens us as much as petting aggression, also called status-related aggression. The cat begs for attention, loves the petting, but then bites you after only a few strokes. These cats use the “leave me alone” bite to stop interactions such as petting, being lifted or approached, or moved from a favorite perch.

Bully Cats

The cat usually aggresses only toward people who give in to kitty demands. Petting aggression seems most common in young energetic cats taken early from their litter, and left alone for long periods during the day. Smacking the cat makes the aggression worse, since bully cats view physical correction as a challenge. Petting aggression can be explosive and dangerous, so learn to identify and avoid situations that might lead to aggression.

Know the Warning Signs of Impending Cat Attack

Cat communication varies a bit between cats, just as human speech can include different accents or colloquialisms. But body language offers clues to what the cat intends to do.

  • An active tail and turned down ears point to impending attack.
  • Sudden dilation of the cat’s eyes indicates arousal.
  • Purrs that transition to low growls warn you to back off.
  • Rippling skin on the back suggests aggravation or irritation.
  • Any single or combination of these signs means, “Incoming bite!”

Retraining the Feline Bully

As long as bites work, he’ll continue to use them to control interaction. Make biting unnecessary by avoiding situations that prompt bites, and/or manage them so he never gets a chance to bite. Be consistent, though, and practice tough kitty love. Bad habits often become worse just before they go away. Behaviorists call this an “extinction burst,” so it means you’re on the right track.

The Petting Threshold

Cats accept grooming from other cats on the head and neck, and full body strokes may feel “unacceptable” and stimulate the biting. Limit your petting to the cat’s head or the back of his neck. Then identify the cat’s petting threshold. In other words, count the number of strokes he allows before aggressing; watch his body signals so you stop before he bites. It may be three strokes, five, or more. Once you’ve identified his limit, stop before he “tells” you to quit so that YOU control the interaction. If he’s on your lap, don’t push him off or he’ll grab your hands. To end the petting, simply stand up and dump him off without touching.

Nothing in Life Is Free

Teach pushy cats that all good things in life (play, food, affection, attention) must be earned and that YOU call the shots. Then rewards and resources can be used to motivate the cat to properly respond. For instance, teach Tiger to “come” by using dinnertime to your advantage.

Before the cat gets the food bowl, say, “come” in a cheerful, strong voice—“come, Tiger!”—and then turn on the can opener, shake the bag of kibble, or pick up the treat jar. Cats have already learned these cues and what time to run to their bowl, so you just teach them to associate the “come” command with the action. When Tiger obeys, pay him with the treat or bowl of food.

Kitty Bribes Are Legal

Use a treat or toy to lure kitty off furniture or out of the way, instead of pushing or lifting him, which puts your hands within the strike zone. Say, “move” and toss the treat on the floor or entice the cat down with a feather. If he’s in your chair, “earthquake” him by tipping or shaking it to get him to leave on his own. Eventually, just say the word “move” and offer a sweeping gesture for the cat to obey—and, you’ve avoided an encounter that could otherwise cause a bite.

Desensitization

Finally, if you like, you can desensitize the cat and improve his petting quotient. If he tolerates three strokes before his ears and tail signal distress, add one more stroke and then stop, and dump him off your lap before he can bite. By adding one stroke each week, over time you can increase his threshold while avoiding his teeth.

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