WHY FRIENDLY CATS ATTACK

By DR. MARTY BECKER

One minute you are enjoying a tender moment petting your purring cat and then, all of a sudden, your lovey-dovey kitty whirls around and attacks you.

Cat lovers pull away wondering, "What just happened!?"

"Most of these problems can be linked to people who acquire kittens too young in the belief that they'll develop a closer bond with the cat," explains Carolyn Osier, a breeder of cats for more than 30 years and an all-breed judge for the Cat Fancier's Association.

Having watched almost 300 litters of kittens develop, Osier notes that, just like children, certain feline social skills develop at different times. A kitten acquired at 6 weeks of age may be fully capable of eating from a dish and using a litter box, but still needs to master social skills such as learning how to fight and play together.

Kittens learn their more serious fighting and predatory skills by engaging in what look like serious tussles, but actually are play battles that don't involve the use of teeth or claws. If a kitten chomps or claws too hard, the game is over and he learns, in no uncertain terms, that he has to control himself with family.

Given the importance of these skills for the cat's survival, missing these lessons sets the stage for problems later.

Kittens who are denied access to other kittens and adult cats to assist them during in this important developmental period will try to learn these critical lessons as best they can by interacting with people. They will tackle ankles or arms, biting and kicking with their hind legs just as they would another kitten. But because humans don't know the appropriate "play gentle" signals, nor have they sharp little teeth and claws to fight back, these kittens don't learn that such aggressive behavior hurts.

Osier says that 12-week-old kittens who experience the necessary "basic training" to develop these social skills will be no less bonded to people later.

Dr. Myrna Milani, a veterinary ethologist and author of "CatSmart," adds another dimension to this fur-nomenon. Milani says that cats may bite and claw people because these folks inadvertently stimulate the animals sexually when they rhythmically stroke them.


A normal feline female partner holds still when a male grips her neck with his teeth and holds her with his front paws, then may lash out with their claws after sex.

Unfortunately, people who don't know this often panic when they feel the firm, but not harmful grip of teeth and front paws in response to that stroking or lash out at the cat who takes a swipe at them. This bizarre human reaction naturally startles the cat. The confused cat naturally panics, too, and may then trade in the gentler sexual teeth and claw displays for the more serious fighting or predatory ones to protect himself from this irrational human.

Some people mistakenly think neutering will eliminate this behavior. But neutering only removes reproductive organs, not brains. Granted, it dulls sexual urges but the hard-wiring remains. Dr. Larry Lachman, co-author of "Cats On The Counter," says the problem occurs in a wide variety of cats -- young cats, un-neutered and unspayed cats, cats given outdoor access, cats who reside in environments shared with nasty neighborhood cats, abused cats, cats not adequately socialized with people during their first six months of life.

If petting your cat sometimes makes it swat or bite, you may be dealing with a bossy "alpha" cat, says Dr. Nicholas Dodman, author of "The Cat Who Cried for Help." In such cases, ration petting and learn to read the warning signs, such as flattened ears, furtive sideways glances and tail twitching. That's a good time to quit.

So the best way to avoid these miscommunications is to pay closer attention to your cat and learn to recognize the signals, which, while subtle to us would read loud and clear to another cat, that it is time to stop the petting.


Put another way, it can happen with almost any cat, so your best bet is to be an educated owner.

Dr. Marty Becker is the co-author of the book "Chicken Soup For The Horse Lover's Soul."
 


 

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