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Toy with biting cat to redirect energy
Dear Dr. Spiegel, We have a male cat who is eight months old. He is a gray tabby and was neutered at six months of age. He is basically good about clawing "permissible" areas, so rather than declawing him we clip his nails biweekly. He is, however, a biter. If you attempt to pick him up or pet him, he bites. He will bite legs as we walk past, he chases feet up stairs and bites. He will suddenly attack out of nowhere and bite whatever skin he happens to come in contact with. On rare occasions, he will sit nicely in a lap or curl around a neck. Even then we cannot touch him or he bites. It seems the only time we can pet him is when he is hungry. He will rub up against hand or legs until you feed him, then it's back to "normal." We got him at eight weeks of age. We play with him sometimes with strings, feathers on sticks, and things of that nature. His favorite "solo" toys are pipe cleaners. He goes crazy with those. We realize he is still just a kitten, yet having grown up with cats, we have no memory of such aggressive behavior. Is it possible to curb this behavior, or are we going to have to live with "the cat from hell?" Any suggestions would be appreciated. Thank you for your time and attention. Scarred and hoping, Mr. and Mrs. M.T., Hockessin
Dear Scarred and Hoping (...or is it Scared and Hopping?!?), Yours is a problem shared by many. But does the overly aggressive personality of your "cat from hell" mean that demons lurk beneath that soft and sleek exterior? Have you ever seen his head revolve 360 degrees, have his eyes glowed like fiery embers, or has he spit pea-green soup at you? Should we contact The National Enquirer? I think not. Rather, what you have is a highly energetic only child who receives great pleasure from playing with the tools (or weapons) that nature has given him. He is a hunter whose love for his sport is not well suited to family life. When cats like this are raised with littermates, such biting problems typically resolve on their own. When a kitten gets too rough with a littermate or bites too hard, the victim screams, hisses, and swats. This response scares the attacker, and from this he will learn to inhibit his biting in future encounters. In dealing with a situation like this, your goal is two-fold. First, you need to be able to recognize when he is likely to bite. A cat lying in wait, watching, and poised to chase and pounce can easily be redirected to a more appropriate object like a stuffed toy mouse attached to a string or a ball of yarn. Put the toy in his line of focus, move it about briefly, and then roll or toss it past him. If you should see him about to go after you and you are not armed with a toy to redirect his play, stop in your tracks, look at him, and stomp your foot loudly and suddenly towards him. This will likely send him running off away from you. If he is already racing towards you or has bitten you, let out a loud, sharp scream or drop a book or set of keys to the floor to scare him off. Trying to push him away or hit him will put him into defense-mode and then he will get nasty and bite with painful and damaging force. So avoid those tactics at all cost. Getting out the energy is key. Sometimes a bit of catnip at times when he tends to get wired, can get him so wound up that he'll get the energy out quickly and then crash and just want to sleep. Your observation regarding feeding times is astute and relates to the second part of treating this problem. Pre-feeding times bring forth a very tolerant and affectionate cat. These times should be taken advantage of. Sit on the floor with him, pet him, pick him up briefly, let him rub his head on your fingers, and rub him behind and under his ears. Stroke him along his back and up his tail. Gradually over time stretch this period out from a few minutes to 15 or 20 minutes. You can also further this effort by setting up three or four smaller meals throughout the day. Don't attempt this sort of physical contact at any other times except when you come home from work and he wants to greet you. If he climbs onto your lap, offer him your finger to rub against his mouth/cheek and then rub his ears briefly. Limit any petting at this point to one or two brief strokes then stop. Over time you can increase the frequency and duration of petting. Another time he may accept brief petting is when he is very relaxed lying in a sun spot. If you limit attempts to pet/pick up to times when he will accept these actions, and do not agitate him at other times when he is more stimulated or excited, he will come to value this physical contact and begin to permit it, if not seeking it out, at other times.