MAKING A NASTY CAT NICE
September 23, 1997
Submitted by: Klea Talbot
WHAT IS FELINE PLAY AGGRESSION?
Feline play aggression can be a very annoying and unsettling problem for any cat owner. Play aggression can be loosely defined as aggressive interactions, between the problem cat and another cat or between the cat and one or more people. The cat shows the aggression by giving signs (body postures) of fighting, exploring, predatory behavior or investigating toward the victim involved (more commonly directed to a person than another cat therefore this paper will merely discuss this aggression in terms of a human victim).
Play aggression is most common in cats two years old or younger, although it has been noted in some older cats. The aggression is usually initiated by the movement of the victim and is perhaps time of day and location specific (examples: when owner returns from work or wakes in the morning). The victim may be only one specific person or may be any person that passes through a selected area. This aggression may involve stalking, ambushing, or closely following a person and then quickly, silently rushing at the person and attacking them. The feet and legs tend to be the common target areas of cats engaging in play aggression. During the attack the cat may wrap itself around the victims limb, swat, claw, bite and kick. The cat may frequently run away from the victim after the attack is over.
WHY DOES PLAY AGGRESSION DEVELOP?
Play aggression tends to develop when a kitten has no other young cats to interact with. This commonly occurs if the kitten is weaned from its mother and litter mates too early and is placed in an environment with no other cats or the only cats the kitten has contact with are too old to play.
Early weaning deprives a kitten of proper social interaction. Social interaction between kittens is important and allows them to engage in play which includes behaviors used in fighting, stalking and killing prey, exploring and investigation techniques. Playing kittens may seem like they are being aggressive to one another, but they are continually giving each other signals to indicate that the interaction is meant as play and not as aggression. If one kitten gets carried away at play (bites or scratches too hard), the other kittens will usually correct the offender. The correction may be in the form of a growl, a serious bite or the play will simply stop. A kitten's mother also plays a role in socializing the kitten to interact properly with other cats and even with people. If a kitten bites the mother too hard while it is nursing the mother will correct the kitten with a swat or a low growl. This will teach the kitten to inhibit its bite so that it learns how to bite others without actually hurting them. The socializing that occurs between kitten and siblings, and kitten and mother allows the kitten to learn how aggressive the kitten can be before it hurts its playmate. If a kitten successfully learns social behavior, the kitten is less likely to hurt a playmate. Unsuccessful socializing is not the only component leading to play aggression. It can also be caused by an active cat being confined and not allowed to release its energy often enough. This is evident when play aggression occurs after periods when the cat has had little interaction with the owner (after owner returns from work or when the owner wakes in the morning) and the cat has had little opportunity to play.
CAN ANYTHING BE DONE ABOUT PLAY AGGRESSION?
Play aggression can be treated. Treatments could involve a companion for the cat or center around behavioral modifications that tend to redirect the aggression, interrupt the aggression, reward appropriate behavior (calm) or wear the cat out so it has no need to express the behavioral problem.
If the owner can anticipate when the cat is going to be aggressive the owner could do two things. The owner could present the cat with an alternative victim or choose to scare the cat and interrupt the behavior. An alternate victim may be presented as a toy that distracts the cat and demands a vigorous response from the cat. The owner may also choose to attempt to scare the cat so that the behavior is interrupted and will hopefully, eventually cease.
The owner may choose to reward the cat with food treats and attention (interactive playing with a toy or petting) only when the cat is behaving appropriately and ignore the cat (walk away) when it displays aggression. This will hopefully teach the cat that it will only get the interaction it seeks if it approaches the owner in a calm manner.
The owner may wish to actually increase the amount of time spent vigorously interacting with the cat in an attempt to decrease the cats desire to be aggressive. This can be done with toys that move, or toys that are small enough for the cat to carry. The owner could also engage in indirect wrestling between the cat and owner through a toy. It is important that the owner does not give the cat the opportunity to bite and scratch them. If the cat does bite or scratch the owner the cat may be encourage to repeat with those acts later.An owner may also choose to provide a companion cat for the problem cat. The companion should be of approximately the same age. The companion may be helpful in decreasing the problem cats desire to attack the owner by giving the cat a play mate.
HOW CAN PLAY AGGRESSION BE TREATED?
It is important that the owner understand that, no matter what mode of treatment they choose to use on their cat, they must be consistent and always react the same way to the cats behavior.
If redirection of the cats aggression is chosen, it must be implemented before the cat is actually engaged in aggressive action. For example, as soon as the owner notices signs that the cat is going to be aggressive, the owner must create an alternate victim for the cat. This can be done by throwing a toy out to catch the cats attention so the toy will be used instead of the owner as the target for the aggression.
If the owner decides to interrupt the aggressive behavior and attempt to stop it, the owner must also be able to recognize when the cat is intending to become aggressive. The owner should implement some means of startling the cat before the aggressive behavior actually commences. The owner must use a humane method of punishing the cat. Noise making devices (fog horn), water pistols or compressed air may be used on the cat. It is important that the mode of punishment not be directly associated or physically related to the owner or the cat may experience fear aggression toward the owner.
Rewarding proper behavior and ignoring or avoiding inappropriate behavior are also possible treatments for play aggression. The owner should control when the cat can have contact with the owner by only giving the cat attention (treats, petting, interactive playing) when the cat is behaving appropriately. When the cat is about to become aggressive, the owner should minimize any contact with the animal, so that the owner can not be the victim of the cats aggression. Again the owner must always react the same way to the cats behavior, and must never tolerate or encourage aggressive behavior.
The owner may be able to schedule specific play times for the cat. These play times should be at key points in the cats day in order to increase the cats activity and decrease the cats tendencies to be aggressive. The owner may choose to interact vigorously with the cat early in the morning and again later when the owner gets home from work. The owner should always to be sure to only initiate the interaction while the cat is being good and before the cat has the opportunity to be aggressive.
A companion for the problem cat may discourage the aggressive behavior. A companion may decrease the cats boredom in the hours of the day that the owner is not spending time with the cat. If the companion is a good play mate the two cats will play together and wear each other out so that the problem cat will only seek affection from the owner instead of attacking the owner, because the cat is more tired.
A problem cat that displays play aggression can become a nice cat if the owner is willing to spend the time to help the cat correct the aggressive behavior of the cat.
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