An opinionated feline in Edmonton, Canada who lived with a retired cat behaviourist, Greyce provided behavioral advice to cats in need until her death in July 2014. Because her entries are useful even today, the blog remains posted.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Oliver's Twists

Dear Greyce, As you can see from my photo I'm an adorable one-year-old Holstein cat and I am VERY spunky. I share my home with four humans and there is usually someone around to keep me company, except at night when I sleep in the basement on my fuzzy blanket on the couch. Everyone tries to take time to play with me and I usually have two play sessions a day (5 to 10 minutes) at morning and at night. I have a variety of toys - fishing pole type (which bore me), mice toys (who cares), balls ( I am SO over them), laser pointer, and the like. What rings my chimes are pipe cleaners tied in a knotted circle (to keep the pointed ends from poking me); I like to hide them under furniture and then seek them out at another time. I even put them in my food and water bowls.

As you can guess, I'm an energetic guy who needs a lot of action. Sometimes when my purrson walks into a room, I will stalk her and then leap out and bite her hard in the legs. Sometimes if she reaches out to me, I bite and don't let go; instead I wrap my body around her arms and bite down hard. Needless to say, she is concerned; so this is a problem for both of us and I'd like your help.

Just in case it is relevant, you need to know the following:

First, I like to bite other things too: wooden things especially the legs of chairs, as well as plastic and rubber (corners of laptops, corners of laundry baskets and rubber slippers). I can't resist rubber slippers. And none of the deterrent sprays (smelly or bitter) can stop me.

Second I stay indoors. There are a lot of wandering cats in my neighbourhood and they even come into my backyard, so my folks don't want cat fights. Besides I get to focussed on whatever it is I am chasing that I don't notice what is happening around me; and that can be dangerous. I am fearless and approach anything I am afraid of; even loud noises don't bother me much. But I am also clumsy - bumping my head when chasing a toy or miscalculating my step and having quite a fall.

And third, like Elvis, I shake - even when I am calm and usually when I am falling asleep or already asleep. I look like I'm shivering. I am completely aware and responsive when I'm shaking, so I don't think I'm having seizures. (At least that is what my vet thinks.)

To be honest Greyce, the biggest issue is my biting my folks. The rest they can live with. What do you advise?

Dear Oliver, Let's cut to the chase and deal with what you see as your most pressing matter: biting people.
What you are exhibiting is called predatory aggression, that is, fighting-related activity that is part of our normal hunting cycle. In the wild you would stalk your prey and at the right moment, you'd pounce for the kill. And that is exactly what you are doing - except you are NOT in the wild and your victims are NOT your normal food sources - they are much larger than you and I venture to say, hardly as tasty as a plump mouse.

So why do you do this? Probably for three reasons.

Reason #1: As you say you are a cat who likes a lot of action. So you have a lot of pent up energy that needs to be dispersed. In fact, we all do and we tend to release it by hunting activity several times a day. So-called experts (meaning people who study cats) say that we hunt around eight times a day (not always successfully) in order to eat. In domestic situations, of course, food is not an issue - it comes in a bowl or on a plate either at regular times or on a free-feed basis. So much for the need to hunt - for food; but we STILL need to hunt because our bodies are wired to do so. And if we don't, our arousal level rises and if not properly exercised, it continues to rise and rise until we cannot do anything about it! Then the least bit of motion will set us off - and a hunting (pouncing and biting) we WILL go!

Reason #2: You get a desirable reaction. When you bite into prey that puts up a fight, it just spurs you on. You can't help it! Moving prey is worthy of continued action on your part. So any yelping or attempts to fight you off just makes you want to bite down and hang on even harder. And this is exactly what your human victims do. They don't think of it as a reward but that are, in fact, rewarding you for the very behaviour that is causing them so much pain.

Reason #3: Even when your folks see you in stalk mode they don't know how to divert you from the bite-the-human path. And it doesn't seem like they are very good at anticipating when you are getting to the point of being up to no good.

Let me move on to solutions.

First, you must educate your folks on the signals you give that you are up to no good - ear positions, staring, stalking and the like. If they are not great at observation, then they need to look at a book of photo illustrations on cat behaviour. Refurr then to my blog entry, The Pungent Scents of Comfort. Urine Marking #4 which includes some sketches (as best as Herself could draw). If they can get hold of Bruce Fogle's Know Your Cat (a wonderful picture book full of cat poses and explanations) from the public library, that would be useful, too. Unless your folks know the correct signals, they will not be able to prevent you from engaging them in ways that are painful - to them. (They also need to realize that for some cats, trying to pet the belly or the top of the head can stimulate the biting behaviour -- and they should then avoid this if it is a trigger for you.)

By paying attention to your signals they will also pay attention to theirs, giving them two benefits: 1) they should start to see a pattern (certain signals, behaviours on their parts, etc. that serve as triggers) and then avoid doing whatever it is that you find so provocative; and 2) they can intervene in the early stages. Intervention means distracting you by throwing a toy in a direction AWAY from where they are going (since you love to fetch), and that should get your mind off naughty things. And if need be, giving you a time-out. This means scooping you up and taking you unceremoniously into another room and closing the door to give you time to cool off. Five minutes might do it, but if when the door is opened you revert to unacceptable behaviour immediately, the time out needs to be extended (and you'll need a litter box and water in that room). And yes, that might mean that they need to wear a thick jacket or oven mitts corral you using a corn broom, so that you don't sink your teeth into soft flesh when they are trying to confine you. It is important that they NOT give you ANY attention when you receive a time-out or they will be rewarding the very behaviour they wish you would stop.

Second,  on to the the act of biting and this IS the hard part. They need to learn NOT to react when you chomp down. The more they yelp and struggle, the more they behave like live prey and the more you will continue. So for example if you are chomping on an arm, that arm so go motionless and stay like that. Dead prey is NOT interesting. You WILL lose interest. To speed matters up at the same time, the victim can blow in your face (something cats dislike - a lot) or make a sharp noise; that will get your attention and should get you to stop.

There is probably one family member who is the recipient of more of this behaviour that most -- your desirable victim, probably the one who most behaves like prey when caught. If s/he has a pair of thick, old jeans, s/he should affix Sticky Paws (strips of tacky adhesive available from pet supply stores) or wide double-sided tape to the pant legs from below the knee, down. As you know, we hate getting our paws messed with because it interferes with our scent marking ability. So when you lunge for a tasty calf that is walking by (attached to the rest of a human leg) and it is sticky AND that calf stays motionless on impact, you may very well learn your lesson. (Face blowing - if possible - and sharp noises are also welcome deterrents). Ditto for arm chomping. So the key is to have the human go limp and once you have released your grip, SLOWLY remove the body part.

So much for the short-term measures. The longer-term and much longer lasting measures are those that will help you get the action you need so you don't have to bite your folks instead.
You need to exercise your predatory cycle more often and for longer periods, on a daily basis to get this out of your system. Now most would suggest an interactive play session twice a day - once in the morning and once in the evening (since dawn and dusk are the primary hunting times for us cats). "But I do have play sessions," you are likely to retort. Obviously what you have is NOT enough for you. I suggest that your folks work on extending your sessions from the 5 - 10 minute variety to the 15 - 30 minute type. And they need to know how to play with you - which means how to stimulate you intellectually as well as physically - so you have a really good workout. They can gets some tips on this from the blog entry Only  On My Terms (12/20/09).

But for many cats like yourself, this may not be enough. Go to the vet and the usual solution proposed is to get another cat so you can run off steam with each other. I'm reluctant to suggest that because it's like an arranged marriage - you never know what you could be getting and whether or not the two of you will hit it off. Should your folks get it into their heads that you need a companion, they MUST read the blog entry, May I Present? Another Cat!  FIRST and be well prepared.

If not a cat companion, then what?

Well here it comes - my controversial solution but one that I think has merit for lots of cats, including you. Outdoor activity - some cats, such as yourself, just need a lot more activity and stimulation than others. And for humans it can be a bit much. Our indoor environments are relatively unchanging compared to the outdoors where mere shifts in the breeze and the change in temperature over the day can change the array of smells and movements that come our way. For a cat like you, your indoor environment is too boring by far.

And in case you think I'm off the wall when I say this, let me tell you some facts. North America has the highest rates of confinement (that is, keeping cats indoors entirely) AND the highest rate of behavioural problems. And even though may humane organizations, cat fancy associations and behaviourists have rallied around the 'keep all cats indoors' slogan, some are beginning to change their tune. Because it's just too difficult for most humans to provide the varied, ever-changing pattern of stimulation that an outdoor environment can provide.

Now before you show this to your humans and they go off the deep-end with comments such as, "Sure. Now what are we supposed to do? Throw you outside to the mercy of those toms and get used to huge vet bills? Resign ourselves to the idea that you'll run in front of a car while you're chasing a butterfly and all we'll have left of you are memories?" Yes, humans can get this way. BUT there are options.

Walks on a leash and harness. I don't advise that you go out on leash and harness because you don't strike me as that kind of guy. You'd have to be walked and most humans don't have the patience for the kinds of walks we like. And if they just tethered you, you'd be out of the harness in a flash.

A cat enclosure. My friend Tibby who is an active kind of guy (even at 16+, let alone when he was a frisky teen) adores his cat enclosure which has an entry from a basement window so he can go in and out at whim (at least when his purrson is home).

A cat fence to keep you inside your back yard but prevent other cats from getting in. I LOVE my cat fence.

I've been meaning to write about these things and am now inspired to do so. So stay tuned for relevant blog entries this month that provide a lot more detail. Encourage your folks to read them because I think they should give them serious consideration. Beside they will need to save you some of your catnip allowance, in order to pay for them.

Now on to a related matter. You've mentioned an enjoyment of biting a whole host of materials. Some cats have favourites but you are distinguished by the wide variety of items you choose. Other than keeping items out of harm's way I'm not sure what can be done at this point. The usual intervention (when sprays with bitter tastes don't work) is anti-anxiety medication - just enough of it to take your interest away from such materials. But before you even consider that, I think you need to pursue your shaking with your vet (because some cats with such problems also exhibit more than a passing interest in certain materials).

The kind of shaking you describe can have a host of causes. In some cases, it is relatively easy to figure out the cause and in others, the cause is difficult (if not impossible given the state of medical knowledge) to determine. Even in the latter and depending on the situation, some medicines can help control the shakes. You need to talk with your vet who has access to veterinary websites and can arrange distance consultations with a specialist if that might prove fruitful. And no, I'm not advocating mortgaging the house to pursue this  - BUT it may very well be that your shakes can be relatively easily managed and their management might have some spillover benefits in terms of the rest of your behaviour. So please consider purring on your vet's lap to pursue the matter.

Meanwhile I've offered a number of tips that can get you going in the right direction. Let me know how things turn out.