Visiting Vet: Captain Jack

Subtle signals can warn of aggression, or call attention to underlying concerns.

Captain Jack —Michelle Jasny

Captain Jack was a bad cat. Even as a tiny kitten, found abandoned in a church alleyway in Worcester, he had cattitude. A little, long-haired tabby, he strutted in his cage at the city shelter like a lion. I wanted him. One daughter agreed, so we brought him home, along with an orange tiger kitten for my other child. In his prime, Jack was a huge fluff ball. Like most Island folks with big, shaggy tabbies of unknown ancestry, we claimed he was part Maine coon — a breed thought to be descended from Norwegian Forest cats, brought to the East Coast on merchant ships where they were kept for pest control. The Norwegian cats interbred with local cats, eventually developing their quintessential dense coats to weather long New England winters. Their name comes from their geographic origin and their characteristic bushy tails, reminiscent of raccoons.

Maine coon cats are touted as easygoing and affectionate, without being overly dependent on their humans. Hmm. Jack did not exactly fit this description. He was a bad cat, at least with everyone but me. Walk by the counter where he sat, and Jack might casually swat you as you passed. Try to pick him up? Get out the Band-Aids. But every night when I sat on the couch watching the news after work, Jack would jump up to sit on my lap. Well, that was actually too dangerous. I would put a pillow on my lap to protect myself, and Jack sat on that. Like many cats, Jack had strong opinions about where he would allow humans to touch him, and how long he would tolerate petting. If you have a cat like this, learn to watch carefully and read their body language. Many like being patted on the head and neck, but object immediately to being touched on the lower back, legs, feet, or belly. Many will love your attention and welcome physical contact … until they don’t. It’s not unusual for cats to go from happy, purring pussies to vicious, attacking demons with only subtle warning signs.

Swatting, scratching, and biting can be play-related aggression gone wild. Roughhousing with Baby Blackbeard when he’s a kitten, and letting him bite your hand, may seem cute, but it teaches him bad habits. When he gets bigger, these become problematic, especially when overexcited. Better to always use toys as the objects of his playful attacks. Then there is redirected aggression. That happens when Blackbeard is overstimulated by something like viewing a strange cat outside, through the window. He wants to drive the intruder away. He gets all riled up. Then you come over and try to pat him. Boom! Blackbeard turns around and bites you. He’s not mad at you. He’s mad at that cat invading his territory. He’s mad he can’t get out to beat him up. So he bites you instead.

Captain Jack’s bad behavior wasn’t play or redirected aggression. It was mostly simple “petting-induced” aggression. He actively solicited my attention every night, seeking me out and climbing onto my lap pillow. He loved when I patted his head and the top half of his back. But — if I touched any other part of his body, he would try to bite me. If I patted him for too long, he would try to bite me. Every cat is different. Figure out (cautiously) where your cat likes to be touched, and for how long. Watch for subtle signs in body language that he’s done, or better yet, stop petting before he reaches his limit.

If Blackbeard has historically been a gentle cat, then suddenly starts showing aggression, check with your veterinarian. He might be grumpy because he’s sick. He may be injured or dealing with arthritis, making any touch actually painful. Sick cats tend to hide it, so don’t assume Blackie is fine just because he isn’t showing any other symptoms. I knew Captain Jack had significant osteoarthritis due to a chronic hip problem. I also knew he had recently developed an abdominal mass, probably cancer. I could feel the tumor through his belly wall when he sat on my lap, but any attempt to really examine him led to immediate aggression and running away. I did my best to treat him with pain medication, but at 15 years old, and being one of the worst patients I have ever had, more thorough diagnostics and interventions were not easy. (Did I mention I couldn’t even pick him up?)

Once we think we know why a cat acts aggressively, we can address it. Never punish him. He’s trying to communicate. Punishment will likely make it worse. Medical concerns can be treated. Environmental adjustments can be instituted. Most importantly, you, the responsible human being, can modify your behavior. Learn what triggers your little marauder. Don’t rile him up. Pay attention to his body language. Use your common sense.

My daughter asked if I had a patient in the office that morning. It was my day off, but she heard meowing. We followed his voice upstairs to find him on the bedroom floor, open-mouth breathing, often a sign of distress. When I went to touch him, he dragged himself across the floor, unable to use his hind legs. He was impaired enough that I was able to pick him up and examine him. Jack had feline aortic thromboembolism, also known as FATE, an excruciatingly painful condition usually associated with underlying heart disease. A clot had lodged in his aorta, cutting off the blood supply to his legs. I considered his age and abdominal tumor. I considered his pain and limited tolerance to any medical intervention. I considered the prognosis. And I knew I needed to let him go. 

I am glad he is at peace now. A postmortem test confirmed he had mast cell cancer, in addition to FATE. Captain Jack was a very bad cat, but I miss him every night when I sit on the couch with an empty pillow on my lap


  1. Ah, overpet. You probably remember Red Cat our huge red tabby. I miss him too. Scars on my hand remind me of his amazing self. Thank you for taking care of him Michelle.

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