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Fear drives loner cat into a frenzy
A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to meet with a particularly interesting cat. Her name is Dixie and she is a 6 year old female spayed tortoise shell colored domestic shorthair. When Dixie was a bit younger her owner, J.B. knew she was an unusual feline. Every time the opening music to The Tonight Show would come on, Dixie would race up the stairs, plant herself in front of the t.v. set and sit focussed on Johnny Carson as he delivered his monologue (though her owner never heard her laugh or even crack a smile). When the monologue was over, she would jump off the bed and leave. Once Jay took over, she quickly fell out of this routine. But this is not why I was called in to work with Dixie. Dixie, it seemed, had always been a somewhat aggressive cat. But lately it had been getting out of hand, and her owner was getting genuinely concerned and rather scared as well. Dixie for most of her life was a one person cat, and her owner J.B. was a one cat person. The two shared almost everything - bed, snacks, and time outside gardening (during which Dixie would watch the birds). Dixie followed J.B. wherever she went and they enjoyed each other completely. Dixie did not tolerate visitors. Anyone that directly approached her or attempted to pet her was greeted with a threatening opened-mouth hiss and Dixie would then typically bolt up the stairs, returning several minutes later after she had regained her composure. If people left her alone, she left them alone. Although, she never failed to sit close by staring at them and taking in their every movement. All but the most ardent cat haters find a close feline presence such as this too irresistible to pass up. This became especially troubling when J.B.'s boyfriend moved in about 3 months ago. He is a true cat lover, and despite Dixie's aggressive gestures, he continued to seek her attention and attempt to play with her. The two of them had gotten to where they would sit across the room from one another staring into each other's eyes. When Dixie would finally break her stare and leave the room, the boyfriend would race after her in an attempt to play, at which point Dixie would attack him with hisses, spits and teeth and claws flying. The disruption of her peace and routine (as caused by the boyfriend's presence) has led to a few particularly troubling incidents. One involved Dixie getting herself stuck in a plastic shopping bag and subsequently attacking and cornering everyone in the room. The other occurred when J.B. was outside gardening. Dixie was lying in the grass and suddenly began getting dive bombed by a bunch of birds. They repeatedly swooped down at her and she became terrified. When J.B. let her into the house and then followed her in to comfort her, Dixie rushed at J.B. With her claws bared and growling fiercely, Dixie scratched up her owner's arm and sunk her teeth into J.B.'s flesh. A very distressed J.B. could not get back in her own house for over an hour. Through this partial history that I've shared with you and observation, it became clear that Dixie's aggression is fueled by anxiety. When she gets scared, she attempts to control the situation through displays of aggression. When she gets particularly aroused, as in the situations with the bag and the birds, she loses it and goes into an all out attack the intensity of which seems to match her level of distress. The problems with the boyfriend enter into the realm of territorial and defensive aggression, but for the most part Dixie is a cat in whose life fear plays a very significant role. When her fear takes over, she attempts to control it by getting aggressive. She could easily go off and hide, but she wants to be near her owner in most situations. To maintain her close affiliation with Jane, she resorts to aggression in an effort to keep the fearful stimulus at a safe distance. When in a panic, every invasive movement is threatening to her, and not even her beloved owner is safe in those events. As such, relieving Dixie's anxiety becomes essential to treating this problem. Through medication and environmental modifications, and by providing J.B. with several means of getting this cat out of problematic situations, Dixie's progress thus far has been significant.