Cat Behavior Problems – Aggression Redirected

What is redirected aggression?

Redirected aggression occurs when a cat is aroused by another animal, person or event, but is unable to direct aggression toward the stimulus. For example, your cat is sitting on a windowsill and sees another cat out on the property. Your cat becomes very agitated, begins to focus on the other cat and shows aggressive body postures, hisses, or growls. If a person or animal in the home were to walk into the room, they may be the recipients of an aggressive attack. When this happens between resident cats, sometimes they will no longer tolerate being together and will fight whenever they see each other. The initial stimulus that arouses the cat is most frequently another cat, but it could be any sight, sound, or a source of discomfort that leads to a heightened level of anxiety or arousal.

What should I do if that happens?

“First and foremost, you must avoid the cat until it calms down.”

First and foremost you must avoid the cat until it calms down. If the aggression is being redirected toward a second cat in the household, the two cats may have to be separated. In some cats, separation to another room with water and litter may only be required for a few minutes, but it is not unusual for it to take hours, or in some cases days, until the cat is calm enough to be reintroduced safely to the other cat. In some cases, regardless of the length of confinement, the cat remains aggressive to the other cat after it is released. This is most likely if the redirected aggression was met with retaliation, punishment or another fearful event (perhaps in an effort to separate the cat from the victim). In addition, if the attack leads to a change in relationship between the cat and the victim (fear, defensiveness) then the aggression may persist.

The best way to calm an agitated cat is to put the cat in a darkened room and leave it there. If the cat does not retreat into a room where it can be confined, or cannot be moved safely into the room, then a large blanket, thick gardening gloves, or a large piece of wood or cardboard should be used to protect yourself while maneuvering the cat into the room. Alternately throw a large blanket or comforter over the cat, wrap it around the cat and quickly deposit the cat in the room, blanket and all. If the problem is recurrent, you should work to devise a safe method to enable quick and effective future confinement. While the best solution would be reward training so that the pet immediately comes to its room on verbal cue or perhaps a shake can of treats. Other options would be to leave a leash and harness attached at times when problems might arise, or to use a citronella spray, water spray, or noise deterrent device to chase the cat to its room.

“The biggest mistake that owners make in trying to resolve this problem is to try and bring the cats together too soon.”

Once confined, the cat may need to be kept in the room anywhere from several minutes to several days. You can go in, turn on the light, offer food or a favored treat, and if the cat remains fearful or does not accept the food, turn out the lights and leave. If the cat continues to remain aroused for a couple of days, make certain that there is a minimum of food, litter, and water in the room, and offer favored treats or play toys each time you open the door. Be certain to read the cat’s actions and attitude to determine if it is calm enough to be released. If aggression has been directed toward a second cat in the home, it is very important to wait until the cats are calm before reintroducing them. The biggest mistake that owners make in trying to resolve this problem is to try and bring the cats together too soon. The use of pheromones in a spray or diffuser (Feliway®) may help calm very agitated cats.

How should I get my cats back together again?

Reintroductions are best done slowly. Food rewards should be used to facilitate calm, nonanxious behavior. The cats need to be far enough apart (10 to 20 feet) so that they are relaxed and will take food or a treat while in the presence of the other cat. For safety and control, it is often advisable that the cats have harnesses and leashes on them. If the cats will not eat, then they are too anxious and probably too close together, and should be moved apart. In this situation, try moving the dishes further apart. If the cats still will not eat, separate them until the next feeding. If the cats eat at that time, allow them to remain together while they eat, and then separate them. Repeat at the same distance for the next feeding. If things go well the next time, the dishes can be moved slightly closer together. If the cats are comfortable, you can leave them together to let them groom, and then separate them.

This is a slow process; you cannot rush things. Allowing the cats to interact in an aggressive manner sets the program back. The cats are separated except when they are distracted, occupied, and engaged in an enjoyable act (feeding or playing). The goal is to make sure that good things are associated with the presence of the other cat. It may be helpful to switch litter pans between the cats. Another technique is to rub the cats with towels and switch the towels from one to the other, mixing their scents.

If the aggression has not been severe, it may be possible to get the cats reacclimated to one another through play. The best toy is a rod-type handle with a catnip mouse or feathers on the end for chasing and pouncing. With each cat on either side of a slightly open door introduce the toy and see if they will play with each other.

Another possible way to reintroduce cats is with the use of a crate. Place one cat in the crate while the other cat is loose in the room, usually starting with the victim loose so that it can find a comfortable distance and feel secure. This might best be done at feeding or play times. Allow the cats to become comfortable in the presence of one another. Then, the next time, switch occupants of the crate for the session, unless the occupant of the crate is too frightened. An alternate method is to use a screen door on a room to separate the cats but allow them to visualize each other and get used to the sight of one another. Feeding the cats on either side of the door can also be used to facilitate the process. The use of pheromones in a spray or diffuser may help calm very agitated cats.

If the problem is severe, one or both of the cats may need to be medicated. This is a step that needs to be discussed with your veterinarian and all the risks and benefits explored (see Aggression – Treating Intercat Aggression in the Home and Introducing New Cats).

Can redirected aggression be directed toward people?

“Resolving the aggression requires that the source of the arousal, agitation, or aggression be identified.”

Yes. Aggression can also be redirected toward people when a cat that is highly aroused by a stimulus is approached or disturbed by a person. Avoidance of the aggression-producing situation is necessary. Situations include the sight or sound of intruder cats on the property, especially in the spring and fall, new people or pets in the household, the sight or sound of prey, loud or unusual noises, and a variety of other new or novel stimuli that are sometimes difficult to identify. If the problem arises, the owners must avoid the cat until it is calmed down. As with redirected aggression to other cats, the immediate treatment is to avoid the cat, preferably by finding a safe way to confine the cat in an area away from people, and then releasing the cat only after it is calm. Again this can take a few minutes to a few days and each time you open the door to check on the cat, you must determine if it is calm and safe to release. Offering food, treats, or a play toy can help to determine whether the cat is sufficiently settled.

How can redirected aggression be treated?

Resolving the aggression requires that the source of the arousal, agitation or aggression be identified (see Aggression – Introduction). Although desensitization and counter-conditioning would be the best way to resolve the anxiety associated with the stimulus, this is seldom practical except perhaps for noises (which might be presented at varying gradients of intensity) or when the arousal is due to other cats or people in the home (see Desensitization and Counter-Conditioning, Implementing Desensitization and Counter-Conditioning – Setting Up for Success, Fears and Phobias, Aggression – Play and Predatory and Multi-Cat Households – Adding a New Cat). It might also be possible to teach the cat to settle and take food rewards in the areas where it gets aroused by stimuli such as other cats (e.g., on the windowsill). Avoiding exposure to the arousing stimuli is, at least from the outset, the safest and most practical means of preventing further aggression.

This might be achieved by confining your cat away from the doors and windows, where the stimulus might be seen, heard, or smelled. Keep it out of the room (this may only be necessary at times when the stimuli, such as other cats, are livkely to be around) or use booby-traps such as motion detectors to keep your cat away from the doors and windows. Installing vertical blinds or shutters, or placing sticky tape or upside down carpet runners along the windowsills or in front of the doorway may be sufficient. Alternately remove the stimulus or keep an intruder off the property by using repellents or outdoor booby-traps such as ultrasonic devices or motion detector alarms or sprinklers. Keeping garbage locked up and removing bird feeders can reduce the chances that animals will enter your property and disturb your cat (see Behavior Management Products and Prevention and Punishment of Undesirable Behavior). Drug therapy may also be useful in some cases to prevent excessive arousal.

 

This client information sheet is based on material written by: Debra Horwitz, DVM, DACVB & Gary Landsberg, DVM, DACVB, DECAWBM © Copyright 2013 LifeLearn Inc. Used and/or modified with permission under license.

Cat Behavior Problems – Aggression in Cats, Fear and Territorial to Other Household Cats

What is territorial aggression?

Territorial aggression is aggression that is exhibited toward people or other animals (usually cats) that approach or reside on the pet’s property. Aggression can occur toward outside cats or to cats that live in the same household, especially new cats coming into the territory. This can occur with the addition of another cat, or when resident cats reach social maturity at 1 to 2 years of age. Another situation is when one cat is removed from the household (perhaps for routine surgery or boarding), and aggression is exhibited when the cat is brought back into the home. This aggression may be a combination of territorial and fear-based aggression (perhaps the returning cat smells, looks, or acts unfamiliar in some way).

Territorial aggression can manifest as stalking, chasing, and aggressive encounters.

Territorial aggression can manifest as stalking, chasing, and aggressive encounters, which may lead to injury. At times the aggressor will prevent the victim from having access to certain areas of the home, resulting in a cat that lives on top of furniture, bookshelves, or under beds. This may in part be related to the social relationship (status) of each cat and can lead to other problems such as house soiling and non-litter box use. Although the aggression of one cat to another may be due to territoriality, there are also components of fear, sociability and social status that contribute equally, or perhaps in some cases more, to the aggressive response (see Aggression – Introduction).

What is fear-based aggression?

Fear is a physiologic, behavioral, and emotional reaction to stimuli that an animal encounters. The physiologic reaction results in an increase in heart rate, increased respiratory rate (panting), sweating, trembling, pacing, and possibly urination and defecation.

Behaviorally, an animal will exhibit changes in body posture and activity when afraid. The animal may engage in an avoidance response such as fleeing or hiding. A fearful animal may assume body postures that are protective such as lowering of the body and head, placing the ears closer to the head, widened eyes, and tail tucked under the body. If the animal perceives a threat, the response can also include elements of defensive aggression. Whether an animal fights or flees when frightened depends on its genetic predisposition, previous experience (what it has learned from similar situations in the past) and the environment that it is in. Previous experiences with other cats in the home may influence future responses.

How can territorial aggression be prevented?

Territorial aggression can be prevented or minimized with early socialization, patient and slow introductions of new cats, and providing adequate resources, including litter boxes and food bowls plus sufficient space for climbing, hiding and dispersing. However, when a new cat is introduced (or reintroduced) into a household with existing cats, problems can best be prevented by slowly introducing the new cat to the environment, by keeping the new cat in a separate room with water and kitty litter, and by supervising all interactions. The correct time to begin cat-to-cat interactions can be highly variable. If both cats have had adequate socialization with other cats, and are not too timid or fearful, it may only be a matter of a few days to a few weeks before the cats work things out on their own and are able to share the territory with little or no aggressive displays.

Behaviorally, an animal will exhibit changes in body posture and activity when afraid.

However, in some homes, the aggression between cats persists. In these cases, a lengthy separation is likely to be required in addition to a more formal desensitization and counter-conditioning program (see Aggression – Treating Intercat Aggression in the Home and Introducing New Cats).

How can fear-based aggression be prevented?

Fear-based aggression may come about when cats are forced into social circumstances due to inadequate resources or different temperament types. In a multiple cat home it is essential that the resources (food, water, litter pans, and resting areas) be adequately distributed through out the home so that each cat has access to them. In some situations a cat may feel confined to one or two locations due to the social interactions with the other cats. If they do not have access to the resources they need in those locations, they may attempt to enter other areas of the home. If they are fearful and anxious, they may respond aggressively when they encounter other cats.

This client information sheet is based on material written by: Debra Horwitz, DVM, DACVB & Gary Landsberg, DVM, DACVB, DECAWBM © Copyright 2013 LifeLearn Inc. Used and/or modified with permission under license.

Cat Behavior Problems – Aggression – Petting Aggression

When I am petting my cat, why does she turn around and bite me?

This type of behavior in cats is usually quite confusing to owners. Initially, the cat acts like it enjoys the physical contact and may even purr and rub against the person. However, after a variable period of time, the cat may become agitated and turn and bite the hand that is petting it. Usually these bites are inhibited, but they can be injurious and severe in some cases.

This has often been called “go away” bite. What appears to be happening is that for a period of time the cat enjoys the interaction, but at some point the physical sensation of being stroked and scratched is no longer pleasant. The cat then endeavors to change the situation by an aggressive outburst.

Is there any way for me to predict when this is going to happen?

For some cats, it is important to realize that interaction with the owner may not always be a solicitation for petting. Sitting nearby or on the lap may not mean that the cat desires petting. Subtle signs of a change in motivation are usually present, but owners often miss these signs that the cat no longer wants physical contact. The cat may show very slight changes in body posture including tail twitching, body tensing, dilated pupils, or ear movements such as flattening the ears against the head, or more obvious signs such as growling or hissing. In some cases, if you stop all physical interactions, the cat will become calmer and will not bite. In other situations, the cat may bite and then move away or leave the situation.

“For some cats, it is important to realize that interaction with the owner may not always be a solicitation for petting.”

The behavior is often directed toward familiar people, but can also be displayed toward unfamiliar people. Fear is the most likely cause if the cat does not allow any petting or interaction by strangers.

Are there other reasons my cat might bite me when I attempt to pet her?

Anxiety, pain or skin conditions may all be contributory in a cat that resists physical contact. Dental disease or other metabolic conditions or illness may increase irritability and lower the cat’s threshold for aggressive responses and tolerance to handling. If the behavior is new, a veterinary examination for medical causes is warranted. For some cats, it is important to realize that interaction with the owner may not always be a solicitation for petting. If the cat was not handled as a young kitten, or was poorly socialized, it may not be familiar with nor desire physical contact with people.

“Anxiety, pain, or skin conditions may all be contributory in a cat that resists physical contact.”

Once this behavior begins, owners will respond to the cat’s bites in one of a number of ways. If you respond by no longer petting the cat, you will reinforce the cat for biting. If you punish your cat or become increasingly upset or anxious, you may add to the problem, since the cat may allow petting in the future but also be anxious and nervous at the same time. This is known as a conflict behavior (competing motivations).

How can I treat this condition?

The first step is to become aware of the warning signals that the cat gives as it is becoming agitated (e.g., twitching tail, ears back, dilated pupils). At the very first sign of these signals, all petting and physical contact must cease. In some cases, this will prevent the aggression from escalating and may be enough to control the problem.

In other situations, it may be possible to teach the cat to tolerate increased physical contact without an aggressive response. This entails identifying the threshold for the aggressive response (i.e., “how many” or “for how long” the petting is tolerated before the cat begins to become agitated). The goal is to stop petting the cat before that threshold is reached, and to reward the cat with a tasty food tidbit for tolerance of petting. If the cat shows aggression, the petting session must be stopped. Over time it may be possible to increase the number of “pats” before the cat no longer tolerates the interactions.

“It may be possible to teach the cat to tolerate increased physical contact without an aggressive response.”

In some circumstances, it is more realistic to understand and embrace the type of interaction that the cat desires. For some cats, this means that the cat sits close by or even on your lap without physical contact. Other cats may tolerate light scratching around the neck and chin rather than long strokes down the back and sides.

Petting interactions can be supplemented or replaced with other types of interactions that are mutually satisfying to owner and cat. These might include play time with toys, wand toys, teaching tricks or games.

At no time should you yell at the cat or use physical punishment. These actions will tend to increase anxiety, fear and arousal rather than teach the cat not to be agitated. If the cat begins to show anxiety or aggression, calmly but quietly leave the area even if it means slowly standing up and allowing the cat to jump off your lap.

For some cats the use of pheromone diffusers (Feliway®) are quite calming and may be a useful adjunct to treatment. Keeping the cat’s nails trimmed may also diminish injury. If the problem is severe, the cat may need to be confined away from small children and people with physical disabilities or immune compromised status.

This client information sheet is based on material written by: Debra Horwitz, DVM, DACVB & Gary Landsberg, DVM, DACVB, DECAWBM
© Copyright 2013 LifeLearn Inc. Used and/or modified with permission under license

Aggression in Cats – Towards Other Household Cats – Treatment

What is the best way to safely introduce (or reintroduce) a cat into the household?

In order to ensure that there are no injuries and that all introductions are positive, a desensitization and counterconditioning program is the best way to ease or re-introduce a cat into a household (See our handouts on behavior modification; ‘Behavior Modification – Implementing Desensitization and Counterconditioning’, ‘Aggression in Cats – Territorial and Fear Aggression To Other Household Cats’).

“This arrangement provides a separate territory within the home for each cat… ”

Begin by confining the “new” cat to a separate room or portion of the home with its own litter box, food, bedding, perching area, play toys and water. Allow the existing cat to continue to have access to the rest of the home. This arrangement provides a separate territory within the home for each cat, and allows both cats an opportunity to adapt to the smell and sounds of each other, without the possibility of direct contact or physical confrontation. If the new cat is housed in a screened-in porch or a room with a glass door, it may also be possible to allow the cats to see each other through a safe partition. Be certain to provide sufficient play, social interactions and even a little reward training with each of the cats. If you are planning to use a crate or a harness and leash for exposure exercises, be certain to spend some time training the cats to accept the harness and to get accustomed to their crates. A FeliwayTM diffuser or FeliwayTM spray on the cat’s bedding or in its crate may help each cat to adapt and settle more quickly. Offer small meal portions (rather than free choice feeding) and treats on opposite sides of the common doorway to increase the proximity of the cats.

Remember that, by separating the cats, you are not only providing an opportunity for them to adapt to the presence of the other cat, but also to prevent threats, fearful displays and attacks which would only add to the fear and anxiety. When the cats show no fear, anxiety, or threat toward each other behind closed doors, it may be useful to switch positions, with the other cat confined while the new cat is allowed household access. The next step is to progress to controlled exposure exercises. Training should occur when the cats can be occupied in a highly “rewarding” activity such as feeding, play, or treats. Provided both cats are far enough apart to minimize the possibility of aggression, and the reward is sufficiently appealing, the cats will focus on the rewards rather than each other. In addition, if the rewards are saved exclusively for these introduction times, the cats will quickly learn to expect “good things to happen” in the presence of each other (counter-conditioning). In addition to ensuring that the cats are at a safe enough distance to minimize fear, both cats (or at least the one that is likely to be the aggressor) can be confined to an open wire mesh cage or a body harness and leash. This will ensure that the cats can neither escape nor injure each other, and provides a practical means for controlling the distance between the cats for desensitization and counterconditioning.

If the cats have been in cages during the first training session, they can be placed in each other’s cages at the next session (so that each cat is exposed to the other cat’s odor). By using cage confinement of one or both cats, or a leash and harness on one or both cats, the cats can be brought progressively closer at each subsequent feeding session, as long as there has been no fear or anxiety and both remain interested in the food. Over time, the cats are fed closer together until a point where the cats can eat or take treats in each other’s presence.

Another way to integrate cats is with play therapy. Some cats are more interested in play, toys or catnip than they are in food. One of the best toys is a wand or fishing rod handle with a stimulating play toy such as a catnip mouse or feathers on the end for chasing and pouncing. Begin by having both cats play at a distance from each other. Or, keep one cat in a crate with food while the other is out with play therapy. Over time, put the toys between the cats and let them play with the toys together.

“Odor may help cats learn about each other and enhance harmony…”

Since odor may help cats learn about each other and enhance harmony, rubbing each cat with a towel and then bringing the towel to the other cat may help them get used to the smell of each other. Counterconditioning with favored food rewards when presenting the towel or rubbing the cat with the towel may also help facilitate the introduction. Be sure to wipe the towel gently over the areas where scent glands are most prominent (i.e. the face, back and tail) first on resident cat, then using the same towel rub the new cat and leave that towel there. Repeat the process in reverse, rubbing the towel on the new cat and then on the resident cat and leave the towel with the resident cat.

What if neither cat seems to get comfortable with the other cat?

Introductions must proceed slowly. The cats need to be far enough apart that they are relaxed and will take food or a treat while in the presence of the other cat. If the cats will not eat then they are too anxious and probably too close together, and the introductions are not accomplishing the goal of learning to associate the other cat with pleasant things. If the cats will not eat in each other’s presence, try moving the dishes further apart. If one or both of the cats still will not eat, separate the cats, do not give any food, and repeat introductions with food in a couple of hours. If the cats eat at that time, repeat using the same distance at the next feeding. If things go well, you can move the dishes a little closer together at the next session.

If introductions where the cats can see one another are not successful, you will have to start with a much milder level of the stimulus. You might begin by keeping the cats in their own rooms and feeding on opposite sides of the door. A glass or screen door would allow you to add the stimulus of sight while you feed the cats on opposite sides of the door. While they are usually aware of the other cat, the fear or anxiety might be diminished and the cat will eat. If you don’t have a glass or screen door on the room, the next step would be to prop the door open a few inches so that the cats can see each other while they eat

“…you cannot rush things.”

This is a slow process; you cannot rush things. Allowing either cat to interact in an aggressive manner sets the program back. The cats must remain separated except during times such as feeding when the cats are distracted, occupied, and engaged in an enjoyable act. In other words, good things are associated with the presence of the other cat. If the cats are doing well, you might want to increase their time together. However, if there are specific times, specific resources or specific areas of the home where threats or aggression are likely to recur, long term or permanent separation at all times except for supervised social play, feeding and training might be necessary. Although preventing recurrence is the goal, there may be occasions where aggression begins to recur. At the earliest signs of fear or anxiety, it would be preferable to distract the cats with a “come” command (if the command has been reward trained), or by pulling on the leash and harness, if one has been left attached. In this way the aggressor is inhibited and the fearful cat (which might be stimulating further chase and attack by the aggressor) may begin to feel more confident when the owner is around to supervise and inhibit the aggressor. Counter-condition and reward the fearful cat for not running away. Reward and countercondition the aggressor cat if it comes to you, settles down and leaves the other cat alone. With enough different litter boxes, climbing areas and places to hide, it should be possible for many cats to adapt and remain together (or perhaps be separated while the owners cannot supervise).

Another option is to install an electronic cat door through which one cat can escape to its own room. These cat doors will only open for the cat wearing the activation collar.

“Despite slow and careful progression, some cats may continue to display aggression…”

Despite slow and careful progression, some cats may continue to display aggression, and it may be necessary to accept that they may never be compatible housemates. Although cats do live in social groups, they also have the opportunity to leave them if they do not feel welcome. The social groups we create in the home do not provide that opportunity. The only way to avoid territorial competition in these cats may be to find a new home for one of the cats, or to provide separate living quarters for each cat within the home. If the cats get along at certain times of the day, they can then be allowed limited exposure and interaction at these times. A leash and harness, or perhaps an air horn or water rifle, could be used to safely separate the cats should any aggressive displays emerge. If the problem is too severe, it may be helpful to medicate one or both cats. The option of drug therapy should be discussed with your veterinarian.

This client information sheet is based on material written by: Debra Horwitz, DVM, Diplomate ACVB & Gary Landsberg, DVM, Diplomate ACVB

© Copyright 2009 Lifelearn Inc. Used and/or modified with permission under license.

Aggression in Cats – Play Predation

My cat’s play is starting to lead to injuries. What can be done?

Under stimulation, an excess of unused energy, and lack of appropriate opportunities for play can lead to play-related aggression. This may be exhibited as overly rambunctious or aggressive play, which inadvertently leads to injuries to people. In some cases, the play can include a number of components of the cat’s predatory nature including the stalk, pounce, and bite, which can be extremely intense. Although play is usually more common in kittens, it may persist through adulthood, especially in cats under two years of age that are have no other feline companions.

“Providing ample opportunities for self-play, interactive play with owners and social play with other cats may aid greatly in reducing or eliminating inappropriate play with owners.”

Moving objects that can be stalked, chased, swatted, or pounced upon best stimulate cat play. (See our handouts on ‘Kittens – Play and Investigative Behaviors’ and on ‘Play and Play Toys in Cats’). Providing ample opportunities for self-play, interactive play with owners and social play with other cats may aid greatly in reducing or eliminating inappropriate play with owners. Successful interactive toys include wiggling ropes, wands, dangling toys, and items that are thrown or rolled for the cat to chase. In addition, before you consider using one of the interruptions (water sprayer, alarm, and compressed air), the cat should first receive a sufficient number of play alternatives. Anticipate your cat’s need to play and initiate interactive play sessions. You should not tolerate aggressive play that is initiated by your cat and directed toward you. Owners that allow the cat to initiate affection and attention-getting behaviors run the risk of these behaviors escalating into more aggressive sessions should the owner refuse the cat’s demands.

If your cat does not seem to be interested in these play sessions, try a variety of toys with a variety of textures. Some cats prefer small, light toys that are easy to manipulate. Others prefer balls or small stuffed toys. Make sure the toys are safe and not small enough to be swallowed. Playing with a few different toys in a play session is recommended since cats may tire of chasing a particular toy, but may be still willing or in some cases even more interested in continuing the play session with a new or novel toy. Stuffing the toys with food or treats may stimulate the pouncing, biting and eating associated with predation.

“Using a few choice food tidbits as rewards, most cats can be taught to sit, come, fetch, or shake a paw.”

Cats can also be trained to do a number of tricks. This is an excellent way to stimulate your cat to interact with you in a positive way and to gain some verbal control over your cat. Using a few choice food tidbits as rewards, most cats can be taught to sit, come, fetch, or shake a paw. In fact, cats that are taught to respond to these commands can often be interrupted with these commands (tricks) if a play attack or other inappropriate behavior begins to arise. (Also see our handout on ‘Kittens – Introducing to a New Home’).

For self-play, the cat can be provided with toys that roll such as ping pong balls or walnuts, toys that dangle, batteryoperated and spring-mounted toys, scratching posts, and toys within containers that deliver food when scratched or manipulated. For cats that enjoy exploration, climbing and perching give opportunity for these activities. Hiding treats in various locations stimulates searching behavior that many cats enjoy. Bird feeders outside of windows occupy some cats, while others might be interested in videos for cats. Catnip toys and toys with food or treats that can be obtained by scratching or manipulation help to stimulate play and exploration. Cats with a strong desire for social play benefit from the addition of a second kitten in the household to act as a playmate, provided both cats have been adequately socialized to cats.

How can I tell if play is about to become aggressive?

Often it is possible to see a change in your kitten’s behavior that will signal to you that the play session is getting out of control. The first sign may be intense movement of the tail from side to side. The ears may go back and the pupils, the dark part of the eye, may become larger if you observe any of these signs, it is best to end the play session before the kitten becomes too agitated.

What should I do if the cat begins to exhibit play-related aggression?

Wherever possible, ignoring the cat, or perhaps even walking out of the room, will teach the cat that there will be no interaction or reward when he or she initiates play. Play with you should be initiated by you, and not by the cat.

Physical punishment must be avoided! First, pain can cause aggression; so if you hit your cat, you may increase the aggressive behavior. Second, painful punishment may cause fear and owner avoidance. Third, attempts to correct the playful aggression with physical contact may actually serve to reward the behavior.

“For a deterrent to be effective it must occur while the behavior is taking place and be timed correctly.”

For a deterrent to be effective it must occur while the behavior is taking place and be timed correctly. Punishment also should be species appropriate. Noise deterrents are often effective in cats. For very young kittens, a “hissing” noise may deter excessive play behavior. The noise can be made by you, but if not immediately successful a can of compressed air used for cleaning camera lenses may be more effective and is less likely to cause fear or retaliation.

Some cats need an even more intense deterrent. Spray cans containing citronella spray, water sprayers, and commercially available “rape” alarms or air horns should be sufficiently startling to most cats to interrupt the behavior. What is most important in using these techniques is the timing. You must have the noise-maker with you so that you can immediately administer the correction. (Also see handout on ‘Undesirable Behavior in Cats’). However, unless you provide ample appropriate play opportunities, punishment and distraction techniques will not be successful on their own.

What should I do about my cat that hides, stalks or jumps out at family members and me?

Another component of aggressive play behavior is hiding and dashing out and attacking people as they walk by. Often the kitten or cat waits around corners or under furniture until someone approaches. This can be a difficult problem to solve.

First, keep a journal of occurrences, including time of day and location. This can help identify a pattern that can be avoided. Second, you need to be able to know where your cat is. An approved cat collar (one that has a quick release catch or is elastic) with a large bell on it is helpful. If the cat always attacks from the same location, you can be ready, anticipate the attack and become pre-emptive.  As you prepare to walk by the area, toss a small toy to divert the cat’s attention to an appropriate play object. Another tactic is to use your noise deterrent to get the cat out of the area, or block access to the location (such as under the bed) so that the cat is unable to hide there and pounce out at your feet. Again, these techniques are most successful when combined with plenty of opportunities for appropriate play.

Is there a way to prevent this behavior?

You must provide ample outlets and opportunities for play on your terms. These should be aerobic play sessions so that the cat gets plenty of exercise. Keep a diary of when the cat is most active and when the play attacks are most likely to occur. Then schedule the play sessions in order to prevent and pre-empt these attacks before they are likely to occur, at a time when the cat would be most stimulated to chase and pounce. For example, if the cat seems most active or destructive in the evenings, try to circumvent problems by offering play at approximately the same time that the cat would begin. Should the cat begin to initiate the play “session” before you are ready, remember that you must ignore the cat (or use one of the interruption devices) and restart the session after the cat has calmed down. Next evening, begin a little earlier so you can “beat the cat to the punch”.

“You must provide ample outlets and opportunities for play on your terms.”

To try and maintain interest in toys, you might consider a daily rotation of toys so that the cat is presented with a few new or different items daily. Pick up all the toys and place them in a box or basket out of the cat’s reach. Every day take out a few toys, or a bag or box and set then out for the cat to play. Increase novelty and interest by stuffing or coating the items with food or catnip.

This client information sheet is based on material written by: Debra Horwitz, DVM, Diplomate ACVB & Gary Landsberg, DVM, Diplomate ACVB

© Copyright 2009 Lifelearn Inc. Used and/or modified with permission under license.