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