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.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Predatory Aggression: Cat Stalks, Pounces, Bites People

Dear Greyce,

I am a 3.5 year old neutered male (shorthaired brown tabby) and have been told that I have a lovely purrsonality – bright and curious. And I’m in good health. For the past 18 months I have become aggressive towards Himself and Himself only. I don’t bother the rest of the family. It’s become a problem.

Knowing you, you will want the details. So here goes.

First – About My Life

Here is my daily routine. I greet Himself in the morning and sometimes ask for a tummy rub. He feeds me a soft food breakfast. I graze on kibble throughout the day.

I explore the house and then watch Himself get read to leave. Herself awakes and pets me. We chat a bit and she gives me a treat. I follow her around while she makes the bed and starts her day.

I like a trickle of water from the bath tub faucet. Then I settle on the back of the chair for a short nap.

Upon awakening, we play and then I follow her around while she does her chores. I run up and down the stairs. And then I settle down on Themselves’ bed for a morning nap.

I can see the birds out the window.

The afternoon routine is much the same.

In the summer, I go with them into the backyard on a 20-foot leash.

I like to be in the kitchen when Herself is making supper. I sit beside the table when they eat.

I have playtime in the evening – love those stairs. Herself and I play with the feather, the cat tent, the cat tunnel and the throw toys. I have two baskets full of toys (wand/feather toys, soft toys and twist ties to chase and run after). And I have two scratching posts, a cat condo and a cat bed. Himself is kind to me but doesn’t’ play much since I’ve become aggressive toward him. And we all spend the evening together.

I like pets from Herself – and a few others. Sometimes from Himself, depending upon how I feel. I’m not a lap cat but I love when Herself carries me on her shoulder.

I don’t get to sleep with them at night because Herself has allergies.

What can I say, Greyce? It’s a good life.

Now For My Problem

I stalk, pounce, swipe and sometime bite Himself. And only him.

I started when I was about two years old, just after being picked up from a 10-day stay at the cat kennel. We’d had visitors just before that, too.

And then ‘it’ started. Himself would be walking and I would chase after him and paw his legs as if to trip him up. Initially he ignored me. Now it can happen if I walk past him or he walks past me. I like to chase him and sometimes bite him in the leg.

Also I go after him when he is sitting on the couch. I stalk him slowly – sometimes from behind so that he doesn’t see me. I jump up from behind and swipe his head with my paw (claws in).

Or sometimes I slowly walk to the side of him, stare, jump up and bite. Either way, it is very entertaining because he jumps up (as if surprised) and lets out a squeal.

The only time Himself feels safe is first thing in the morning, because he feeds me soft food. I am not aggressive in the mornings. And there are many times of the day when I am most loving and happy to be in his company.

What They Have Tried

The vet told him to play with me more, but it didn’t help.

They spray me with a water bottle.

They try distraction: Shaking a jar of coins or throwing a toy in another direction, if they catch it before it happens.

They remove me from the scene of the crime. They lift me to another room for 5 minutes or so. I curl up on a cosy bench. When they come to open the door, I’m very relaxed.

I have a Feliway diffuser (as the vet advised), but it doesn’t make any difference.

Frankly Greyce, this situation is not a problem for me. But it really seems to bother them. And since I do care about them in my own, wonderful way, I would like to help.

So Greyce, what do you advise?



Dear Zuri,

You have a problem which is easy to name. It is known as predatory aggression.

All cats are predators. We are born hunters. And hunt we must – each and every day. In the wild, we would hunt several times a day because many of our attempts would be unsuccessful. We’d have about 8 small meals a day and that’s a lot of work on our part, because we can’t go to the grocery store like humans do. Now humans think we a cuddly companions but even us pets need to hunt because we are wired just like our wild counterparts.

As wired hunters, our brain encourages the hunt through our arousal level. Simply put, it’s a kind of feeling – like anxiety – that makes us want to go on the prowl. It’s Mother Nature’s way of telling us to go make dinner.

So we perk up and begin the hunt – often at dawn or dusk, the times when (in the wild) our prey would most likely be about.

As highly intelligent creatures, our hunting skills are not merely physical but are also intellectual. We scan our territory for prey, watch patiently, quietly stalk (and can stay in a stalk position for some time) to plan the attack and then we pounce! A killing bite and the prey is swiftly dispatched. And then it’s time to snack.

In domestic situations we are fed freely, or on demand, or at regular intervals. This means that we don’t have to work for our food (and are often prone to putting on a few pounds as a result). But instead of just becoming plump, lazy pussycats, many of us become increasingly aroused. Our anxiety levels rise and we try to work off the excess energy by racing about the house like mad fools from time to time.

Sometimes even this is not enough. We are wired to engage with another living being (usual to eat them). In the domestic situation, we need interactive play – with fishing pole type toys, or by chasing and/or retrieving things – to take the place of hunting. Most of us would benefit from two, daily 15-minute sessions like this IF done properly. And some of us take it out on our feline counterparts by engaging in games of chase and play fighting - which sometimes escalates to the point that claws may be out and bites exchanged. We can get out of hand - just like kids!

Now your folks have tried many things. BUT they don’t seem to work.

You wrote that the vet told Himself to play with you more, but it didn’t help. Well the vet was on the right track but probably didn’t provide detailed instructions about the kind of play that would be most useful.

Interventions: Your wrote that they spray you with a water bottle. And so, how is that working for you? Are you the kind of cat who doesn’t object in the least and just goes on your merry way? You also wrote that they try distraction: Shaking a jar of coins or throwing a toy in another direction, if they catch it before it happens. Okay, some hints here please. You are obviously giving them purrsonal signals that you are up to no good. Exactly what signals do they respond to?

They remove you from the scene of the crime. They lift you to another room for 5 minutes or so. You curl up on a cosy bench. No big deal. Do they fuss over you in any way ?

You have a Feliway diffuser (as the vet advised), but it doesn’t make any difference. I wouldn’t expect that it would. Feliway is great at dealing with cats who spray, and with helping cats adjust to new situations (like a cat carrier, or moving), and alleviating general anxiety. But your problem is different. (Unless you are an anxious, high-strung cat and are not telling me!)

So let’s get down to brass tacks on the two key issues at hand:

First, some of the recommendations you were given are on the right track. I suspect that they are not being effectively implemented. I also suspect that if I continue to ask for more details, you will get fed up and go for a nap.

So here is your assignment:

I want you to read the following blog entry because they give specific details about exactly the kind of play you need: Only on My Terms posted on Dec. 20, 2009 (scroll down to Improvement #1 and continue through The Rules of the Game). This is the most important reference for you.

Once you have made Themselves read that entry, they can refine their manner of play with you.

But don’t stop there.

I want you to create a more predatory environment for your play times. This means that if you are playing in the living room, the tunnel should not be in the middle of the room but say, beside the couch, and there could be a cardboard box (or two) with some entrances or windows cut out to use as escape hatches and ‘blinds’ from which to watch the action – again in strategic locations. Some pillows could be propped here and there – for things to go behind. Tissue paper loosely crumpled on the floor makes a great topping underneath which a toy or two can hide. And if the wand or feather goes under the paper, all the better.

Then if Themselves observe the rules of the game I outlined in that blog entry, they can make you work at hunting instead of making it too easy for you.

Work it man! Both mind and body! Preferably two, 15-minute sessions a day; one most especially in the evening.

Make sure that when you are nearing the end of playtime, your toys start to slow down too, so you can wind down slowly. Follow your play session with a small food treat.

And speaking of food: I want you to take a portion of your kibble (no more than ¼ to start) and use  a  homemade food puzzle . That way, you have to work to get your food. You got it: intellectual stimulation.

The second area I want you to look into more carefully is the relationship you have built up with Himself.

Things got off to a bad start because of the way he reacted (and continues to react). Have a look at the blog entry, Oliver’s Twists and his follow-up entry, An Octopus Makes It Right! To get a better understanding of what he needs to do.

I suspect one or more of the following three things is going wrong:

1) He is continuing to react by squealing or moving and thus just sets you off more. Usually cats with predatory aggression single out one victim in the family - the one who gives them the greatest reaction. He needs to learn that if he walks by you, is unable to distract you and you pounce, then he must freeze. No motion – dead prey is uninteresting.

Now this is easier said that done especially when uncertainty and fear are involved. For that reason, I am going to give another suggestion for those times he is seated on the couch. Consider setting up a SSScat Spray (a motion detector spray cat that lets out a harmless-to-you spray) or a Scat Mat (a flexible mat that is slightly electrified). Both are available at pet supply stores usually found in the section with cat repellents;which one to use depends on that couch, its location, etc. In other words, they will have to take layout into consideration, the usual area from which you launch your attack, and figure it out from there.

I would never recommend these devices for any cat who is easily frightened, but I think it might be suited in your case. You strike me as quite resilient.

And as importantly, we have to get Himself's confidence back - and then I can train him further for dealing with attacks when you pass by each other. But that is for a later blog entry.

2) They are delivering interventions (like the coins, water or whatever) far too late. And no cat learns if the intervention is delivered more than 30 seconds after the onset of the undesired behaviour.

So they have to get smarter at the signals you give and intervene quickly (preferably before things escalate). And if that means having a few bunches of toys in strategic locations – including his pocket (so that when you pass each other he has a distraction for you), so be it.

3) The time-out is rewarding you - by accident. I suspect that either they are inadvertently giving you negative attention (and you crave attention so that is fine with you), the time-out isn’t long enough to matter, or they fuss over you when they let you out of the room (thereby inadvertently rewarding you). Again the blog entries I’ve listed provide more details.

So now Zuri, the ball is in your court. You have a lot of reading and thinking to do. I want you to go over the details and carefully discern what needs to be done. I truly suspect you have a problem with implementation and that once that is addressed, Himself and you can start a new phase in your relationship.

I want to know of your progress, so please keep in touch.