Captain Jack Sparrow sits curled beside me watching Pirates of the Caribbean. Calm down. Johnny Depp hasn’t moved to the Vineyard. This Captain Jack is our cat. I absent-mindedly stroke his furry head as swashbucklers duel onscreen. Jack purrs, but after a few minutes glances back at me, squinting his eyes. I don’t notice and continue petting. His ears flatten. His body tenses ever so slightly. I don’t notice and continue petting. The tip of his tail starts flicking up and down. Uh oh! I finally take note of the subtle cues that indicate he has had enough, and withdraw my hand just in the nick of time to avoid being bitten. Jack is one of those cats who actively solicits attention and initially enjoys physical interaction, but then abruptly reaches a threshold where he can no longer tolerate being touched. Some cats with this problem will suddenly hiss or run away. Many bite or scratch without warning. Well, not exactly without warning. Captain Jack had been quietly signaling me. The flattened ears, tense expression, twitching tail are all feline body language meaning Stop It! Aggressive behavior in cats may stem from many causes, including predatory, pain-induced, maternal, territorial, inter-male, play, fear, and redirected aggression . . . but today we are focusing on one specific situation. It’s called “petting-induced aggression.”
If a cat has always loved being patted, but his behavior suddenly changes, consult your veterinarian to rule out medical problems or other behavior issues. Maybe Jack has a sore back or a skin condition making it painful to be touched. Maybe he has an endocrine imbalance, infectious disease, even cancer, making him feel sick and irritable. Maybe there’s emotional stressors. A new pet. A baby. A move to a new location. A stray cat lurking around the yard. Once things like these have been ruled out or treated, we are left with a diagnosis of petting-induced aggression. Many cats are just born with this personality, although early socialization and environmental influences probably contribute.
What can you do about it? The most dependable way to eliminate undesirable behavior is to eliminate the provoking stimulus. In other words, simply stop petting him. If you don’t pet him, he won’t bite, and you won’t get hurt. This approach works for some people, but most of us enjoy social interaction with our cats and want to be able to pet them. Learn exactly what triggers Jack and how to identify signs that he is reaching his limit. Really tune in to his body language. Notice when and where aggression occurs. Perhaps he doesn’t like his lower back or tail touched but is better about his head. Most cats are sensitive on the belly, so even if he rolls over for a tummy rub, it’s safer to pet another spot. Once you feel tuned in, begin “retraining” sessions. Initiate a very brief interaction. Keep well below his tolerance threshold. This may only be a few seconds at first — one or two pats. Then stop and immediately give a delicious food treat. Very gradually increase the length of the sessions, always being extremely careful to stop before he is annoyed, and always rewarding with treats. Never yell or hit him even if he bites, as this will almost certainly make things worse. Over time, Jack’s tolerance threshold may improve. If not, at least you will have learned when to quit and, hopefully, how to avoid injury. If “retraining” fails completely, talk to your veterinarian about psychotropic medications. Sometimes drugs like fluoxetine can help manage feline aggression.
All the people in our family have learned when to leave Captain Jack alone – the dog knows to back off – and we all cohabit happily and safely. Not so in the case of Turner, a big, handsome grey tiger cat who resides at a local B & B. As a young cat, Turner was normally affectionate and loved the many guests passing through his home. Then, at the age of five, Turner got sick. Very sick. He began acting disoriented, crashing into things, staring off into space, and yowling. Turner had developed some kind of neurological disease. Our differential diagnosis list included everything from Lyme disease to toxoplasmosis to a stroke or even a brain tumor. Short of sending Turner off to see veterinary neurologists and infectious disease specialists for procedures like cerebral spinal fluid tap, MRI, or CT-scan, we were limited to making our best guess and treating him symptomatically. Doxycycline for tick borne disease. Clindamycin for the protozoal parasite toxoplasma. And lots of Tincture of Time as his owner nursed him lovingly. We were never able to make a definitive diagnosis, but over the next six months, Turner’s symptoms gradually abated until he was more or less back to normal. But behaviorally, he was a changed cat. Just as many humans with brain injuries cannot tolerate excessive stimulation, since his illness Turner has a lowered threshold for interaction, resulting in a case of petting-induced aggression.
It has been four years now. Turner turns ten in August. He’s great with his family, who know his limits, but living in a B & B is too much for him. Guests don’t understand. They want to pet him. Like Captain Jack, Turner enjoys being petted. . . until he doesn’t. His owner has tried for years to get guests to leave Turner in peace, but some people simply can’t follow instructions. ” I love cats,” they insist, stroking his head. Until Turner bites them.