How to deal with unexpected cat aggression


Last updated 1/8/2020 at 4:06pm

I took in a 10-year old indoor/outdoor cat who needed a home. I am a senior and she is the only pet, but I have had cats before.

After about a week, she started becoming acclimated to me and the condo. I was told she could not be picked up and held. She allows quick head and belly rubs and has become a lap and bed cat at her discretion.

The problem is, she attacks me mostly on the arms by leaping at me without warning. She has drawn blood several times. I know not to provoke her and pet her only when she is sitting quietly on my lap. I cannot see any obvious reason for her quick, unexpected mean behavior. Minutes later, she will approach me as if nothing has occurred.

Can you give me any ideas what to do in this case? I've given her the calming chews, but I don't know if they are effective.

- Karen, Bristol, Connecticut

Dear Karen,

Feline aggression can be scary and yet is a fairly common problem reported by cat owners. Cats are sensitive to their environments and may react aggressively if overstimulated (through petting) or are afraid (through poor early socialization or stressful living conditions).

Redirected aggression, which happens when they see a stimulus, such as an outdoor cat or squirrel that they can't get to, also can result in a sudden attack from an agitated cat. Most cats will settle down over time if their owners learn to watch for what bothers them.

First, rule out a health problem with your veterinarian. Cats who are in pain will sometimes attack their owners. Have a vet come to the house so the cat is not stressed with a trip to the vet.

Second, become very observant of her behavior. While it can seem like the movements are coming from nowhere, the truth is, cats often show subtle signs they are about to attack. Their ears may flatten back, their eyes may dilate, and they may make themselves a bit smaller right before they pounce. If you see any of these subtle body changes, turn your back to the cat immediately to give her a moment to settle down.

Next, learn what your cat will tolerate. If your cat attacks your hands after five minutes of petting, only pet for three minutes. Always use a toy to play with her, never your hands. And, play with her for 10 minutes, three times a day to rid her of pent-up energy.

Finally, add a feline pheromone plug-in to the house or put a pheromone collar on her for the next 60 days. Pheromones only last 30 days, so you will have to replace it midway. Keep giving her the calming chews, and hopefully, she will begin to settle down for you.

Dear Cathy,

I have a small dog who loves to run and I was taking him to a fenced park where he could run. Then he discovered he could fit under the gate at the park. Now I can't let him run free.

I play ball with him and take him for a walk, but he really wants to run. When I walk him, he spends the time pulling on the leash. He's small, but his pulling hurts me. Do you have any suggestions for what to do with a dog that needs to run?

- Kathy, Tucson, Arizona

Dear Kathy,

Your dog can't be the only small one going to the dog park, so call the parks department and ask them to fix the bottom of the gate, so small dogs can't escape. They can attach some sort of flap to cover the open area that allows the gate to open and close, but prevents a dog from slipping out under it.

Until they fix the gate, take a beach towel or rolled-up blanket to the dog park to put under the gate when you are there. Then, stand near the gate and point him in another direction if he heads for it.

If that doesn't feel like a good option to you, your only other options are to run with your dog yourself, find or hire someone to run with your dog, find someone with a back yard where your dog can run around freely, or put a long lead on your dog and take him to a wide open space where he can run around on the lead.

Let me know what works.


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