PUBLISHED: 06:45 02 June 2014
Reader Kevin Witt from Norwich wrote in to ask for advice about his seven-year-old ginger tom, Billy:
Sometimes Billy can act very aggressively towards people, from a swipe at you as you walk past, to hiding under the bed and launching a full on attack. He can be quite happy sitting on my lap being stroked, then suddenly get this look in his eyes, his ears go flat and he attacks. I now know the proceeding behaviour of these attacks and put him on the floor before he has chance to attack me.
He isn’t always naughty and loves to be brushed and stroked, though generally he is very timid with strangers. He lives in a large house with three other cats and a small dog, and gets on well with the other animals. Billy has always been an indoor cat – he has the use of a cat flap but he never leaves the boundary of the house.
I got Billy from an RSPCA rehoming centre when he was a kitten, but unfortunately when the time came to take him home, the centre was in quarantine due to an outbreak of something and it was another six weeks before I was allowed to pick him up. I wonder if this time could have anything to do with his behaviour, as I read that the first few weeks a kitten spends without its mother is the time when they should be socialised and handled to get them use to other people.
I am merely a vet, but I will do my best to give advice on this problem with the help of some veterinary behaviourists.
Aggression is a sign rather than a diagnosis, a manifestation of an underlying problem. Dealing with the problem requires an accurate assessment of the emotional basis for the behaviour. There can be many different stimuli - other animals in the house, outside the house, people, etc – that come together to elicit the emotional response.
First we must establish that Billy is in good physical health. We need to consider any diseases that may make him painful, any neurological diseases or hormonal imbalances. If he is found to be healthy, then we need to look in detail at Billy, the people involved and the environment at the time of aggression. Cats will exhibit play aggression where they stalk, chase, pounce and lie in wait for people passing by, then bite and scratch inappropriately. It is important to differentiate between this and fear aggression.
Potential causes for fear aggression include:
A previous traumatic experience involving people or past use of inappropriate punishment in the past.
Kittens that have not had appropriate handling between two and seven weeks may grow up wary of people and be more likely to overreact in a defensively aggressive manner.
Remember, aggressive responses are part of the normal behavioural responses in a cat. Billy may be afraid, frustrated or be suffering from social stress. He could be inappropriately acting out some predatory behaviour.
Have Billy checked over by a vet to make sure he isn’t suffering from any medical problems that may make his behaviour worse. Then seek the help of a behaviourist recognised by a trusted body, such as the Association of Pet Behavioural Counsellors, who would probably need to come to your house and assess the whole picture in order to help you and your very nice, but sometimes angry cat, Billy.