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When your mild cat becomes a wild cat: Managing play aggression in cats

You know it, because you’ve seen it:  that look in your cat’s eyes right before he dive-bombs your ankles, cuffs your sleeve or bites your arm.  He might appear to be enjoying a petting session, then suddenly grab your hand in his mouth; other times, he may charge you on the way to the bathroom.  You may wonder, especially if biting or scratching is involved, if it’s in play or if your cat actually means to harm you.  While each case is individual, the following methods may help restore calm to your human-feline relations:

  1. Make sure no one is encouraging rough play.  Using hands or fingers to rough-house with cats teaches them that such things are acceptable playtoys.  Never encourage your cat to jump on, cuff at or bite your hands and fingers, because he might get really good at it!  Use appropriate toys such as “cat dancers” (plastic wands with feathers on the end), streamers or catnip toys as chasing/pouncing outlets.
  2. Don’t punish.  This may sound like strange advice, but cats don’t generally respond well to physical or verbal punishment.  Playful cats may interpret the reaction as a game and bite harder, while fearful or aggressive cats may think they are being attacked, and – you guessed it – bite harder.  Bored cats may learn that such tactics are a successful way to get a reaction.
  3. Provide plenty of environmental enrichment.  Cats in the wild cover a wide range of territory and spend large amounts of time – up to 6 hours – seeking food.  Owners of busy/hyper cats need to approximate that hunting activity, especially if they are gone during the day.  One method is to buy a food-dispensing toy (such as a Roll-a-Treat) and feed the cat’s meals exclusively from it.  The cat can then spend his time rolling the toy around and eating each piece of kibble as it falls out, providing mental as well as physical stimulation.  For cats that don’t like such toys, the owner can simply scatter kibble in various parts of the house.  One warning:  the cat may start searching for food where there is none, such as between sofa cushions, behind shelves, etc.
  4. Provide interactive play (as described above) at a set time, perhaps when the owner comes home.  Play for the amount of time you choose (ex. From 6pm-7pm), then put the toys away and ignore the cat.  If the cat “attacks” in an attempt to solicit attention, give him a time-out.  While some owners may use a separate room, keep in mind that cats provide their own entertainment, and may view a time-out room as a reward, depending on the environment.  If the cat is kept active in the manner described above, confine him instead to a pet carrier for a set time (ex. From 7pm-8pm).  The cat may remain in the room, if the owner chooses, but without interaction.  This is only fair if the cat is kept active during the day.  If the cat starts to vocalize, don’t let him out until he is quiet.
  5. Rotate the cat’s toys.  Keep them off the floor, take out 1-2 at a time, and put them away when the cat is done playing with them.  This will prevent him becoming bored with them and provide further stimulation when the toys are out.
  6. Consider adding a second cat.  Young, hyper cats sometimes benefit from a playmate with whom they can play hard and who may provide an education on appropriate cat-to-cat manners.  Cats typically either pin each other down or “whap” each other without claws, and thus can communicate rules in a way that humans cannot.  Note:  Do not try to “act like a cat” in this way:  if you do, your cat will either think it’s play or an attack.  If you do add another cat, try to find one your cat’s age or slightly older, with preferably a less-reactive temperament.  The sex of the second cat is up to you.  For information on integrating a new pet and a resident pet, click herePlease note the following cautions:  the new cat and the resident cat may not get along, the original problem may not be resolved, and getting a new cat will not teach the resident cat to be gentle with you.
  7. Try to stop interacting with the cat before he becomes aroused.  If that “wild look” comes back when you are petting Fluffy, stop petting.  If he is in your lap, stand up and let him jump off.  This both keeps you safe and prevents the cat from interpreting a negative reaction (“OW!  Stop it!!”) as an invitation to more play.  If Fluffy has a history of charging when aroused, walk out of the room and shut the door for a few minutes.
  8. If the cat is already aroused, and attacking, try to do nothing.  This is a lot harder than it sounds, and use your best judgment.  Reacting to the behavior (yelling, swatting, moving around) reinforces it, even if the reaction is negative.  Turn your back on the cat (if you’re not being attacked further) or leave the room if necessary.  You can also redirect the cat to an appropriate toy, such as the interactive toys described above.  

If the measures described in this flyer either do not reduce the behavior or seem to make it worse, a visit from a behavior specialist may be necessary.  He or she can help you with a behavior modification plan and determine whether medication may be helpful as part of that plan.

Please call the AHS Training School for assistance with your cat or for a referral at 763-489-2217.

All information courtesy of Terri Derr, DVM, of Vet Behavior Options