As a cat behavior counselor, one of the more common problems I am asked to solve is about a cat who seemingly attacks out of nowhere. In order to solve the mystery of what is triggering this behavior, I need to get my clients to think like their cat. Such was the case with Ray.
I received from Ray's owner: "I adopted Ray about 8 months ago and while he is normally a wonderful, cuddly cat, he has this total split personality in which he attacks me, unprovoked. I am not sure if this is a normal behavior for cats and he is just acting it out, or if there is something I am doing that is causing this somehow."
First, I needed to figure out the trigger. I asked if Ray ever bit her hand while she was playing with him. Sometimes people use their fingers as toys to entice cats to play, which sends a message that biting flesh is acceptable. Some cats also use biting to solicit playtime, so I asked if she ever threw Ray a toy after he bit her.
I advised her to be sure that all playtime involved an interactive toy. The fishing pole type toy is the best option because that would put a safe distance between the owner and Ray's teeth.
I also thought that biting may have become an effective means of communication for Ray, so we needed to figure this out. He may have been biting for a variety of reasons -- he needs more stimulation, more interactive play, he wants attention and so forth.
Another question involved redirected aggression. This one involves some detective work. This is often misdiagnosed as unprovoked aggression because it appears as if your cat is lashing out for no reason at all. This often happens when you are just walking by, which sounded like what was happening with Ray.
Redirected aggression occurs when a cat is unable to directly react and deal with the primary source of his agitation, so he lashes out at whatever is nearest. Being in such a highly reactive state, it was possible that Ray did not realize he has just attacked his closest companion. The most common occurrences of redirected aggression take place when an indoor cat is sitting at the window and spots an unfamiliar cat in the yard. The reason this type of aggression is so easily misdiagnosed is that the cat owner may not have seen the outdoor cat.
I also asked about Ray's favorite cat tree or window perch. Was it at a window where he can see a neighbor's cat? If so, I advised the owner to move those items to a neutral window. I also suggested some environmental modifications to see if that helps - cover the windows, draw the blinds etc
My last thought with Ray could be what is called "Predatory Aggression." With predatory aggression, the cat stalks you and pounces on you. Cats who display predatory aggression need more appropriate outlets for their prey drive. In this case, I would recommend at least two interactive play sessions per day with Ray. With this type of cat, it's absolutely critical that you use a fishing pole type toy and wind down the action toward the end of the game to allow Ray to relax. After the game, I advised the owner to give Ray a portion of his meal or a treat to show him that predatory behavior toward the appropriate object is filled with rewards. To help Ray engage in normal predatory behavior between interactive play sessions, I suggested puzzle feeders and tunnels, or the owner could hide toys in boxes or paper bags.
After going back and forth, it was clear that Ray had predatory aggression. I taught the owner how to use the distraction-redirection method, which goes like this: When you are in motion and you sense he is going to attack, distract him with the toy and redirect him away from you. When you distract him with the toy, you trigger his prey drive, which will shift Ray out of that aggressive mode and into the positive one of a hunter. Even though he may have been planning an attack on you, Ray would prefer to go after the prey. Then conduct an impromptu interactive play session, moving him away from where he was about to attack you and allowing him to work out his tension in a positive, rather than aggressive, way. Follow this with a special treat that you know Ray really loves. You remain safe and Ray gets to release his anxiety. The good thing about distraction and re-direction training is that it is a positive way of retraining. This method will break the negative behavior pattern and gives Ray a reason to stop attacking you because he's getting playtime, positive attention and treats when he does not attack you.
Two weeks later I received this: "Thank you so much for your help! We’re going on 2 weeks with **no** attacks! Not only have the attacks ceased, but I feel like our bond is stronger. You hit the nail on the head with his hunting instinct frustrations and deflecting his frustration onto me. I have what I consider the world's most wonderful cat now. "
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