Accept feline need for independence

Hi Dr. Spiegel,
Help! A cat is in trouble and what can we do?
What causes a cat to viciously attack and bite an arm? Otherwise, the cat is usually very nice. But twice in the last few months he bit and hung on.
The cat is on his way out of his happy home. The owner is afraid for her grandchildren’s safety. And rightly so.
Lucky Lady is at least 3 years old, declawed and spayed.I am a neighbor and I know from experience because I was just bitten. My neighbor has just experienced some health problems. And the cat she loves is causing her more stress.
Any suggestions you can give would be appreciated.
Thank You,
M.B., Newark

Dear M.B.,

As far as biting cats go, I can’t say that I’ve ever had the urge to bite one. I know, that was pretty bad! All kidding aside, this is a very serious matter.

For the most part, cats seem to view themselves like little princes. We, of course, are little more than servants. They hop upon our laps when they want a warm cushion to rest on. They bring us their prey to show off their prowess as hunters. When they can’t get to prey, they use us for target practice. And when they want to be left alone, they have little or no regard for our desires for affection. The only time you can absolutely count on a cat to display tolerance toward handling is right before mealtime. I think the way we spoil them may have a large role in the way they see themselves in relation to us.

The fact of the matter is that, when it comes to social behavior, cats, relatively speaking, are a very aggressive species. The real wonder of the situation is why so many of them aren’t as aggressive as their wild relatives. And this, whether cause or effect, is undoubtedly linked to why most species in the cat family lead predominantly solitary existences. In the wild, when a more self-assured cat, or the “master of a territory” doesn’t want to be disturbed, (s)he will lay into the unsuspecting victim with a vengeance, as if to say, “How dare you attempt to have your petty needs fulfilled when I am the king.” They are often vicious in their attacks in an effort to make their points crystal clear, and to instill a lesson that will not soon be forgotten. We humans, thinking that this cat is a “pet,” seldom learn this lesson — that to the cat, we are the pet. With no way to explain the inappropriateness of this attitude to the cat, it is best to manage their aggressive nature with intelligence and respect.

First of all, if you are bitten by a cat, don’t fight back. You won’t win, and you’ll be risking significantly more serious injury as cats get genuinely vicious when they’re put on the defensive. Also, don’t try to jerk away from the bite, as this tends to cause fangs to rip through flesh. What I generally do is to hold the bitten arm or leg still, and with a free hand circle my thumb and middle finger around the back of the cat’ neck so that these two digits come to squeeze gently on the throat (trachea) of the cat. This is the most vulnerable part of the cat, and (s)he knows it. After all, when they go in for the kill, this is their target. This tactic causes the cat to release its bite and hold still. Hold this grip for a second or two. To further communicate your disdain of the attack in a language the cat understands, when you release your grip, you can stomp at the floor towards it to send it running out of the room. Follow it out and repeat this stomp once with a loud growl to accompany it. One final tactical note, when you release your grip, do it slowly. If the cat makes any attempt to bite again, you can resume your grip till it realizes you are worthy of its respect.

This, however, is a situation that for the most part you want to avoid. So recognize what types of handling annoy your cat, and don’t pursue them. You can’t force cats to be loving. If they’re not in the mood, you’ll wind up with the exact opposite. Be cautious and test the waters of petting before you dive right in. That means watch your cat as you interact with it. A sharply swishing tail (or for some cats, merely the tip of the tail) means he’s becoming agitated. And don’t assume that if he’s enjoying your petting one moment, that you can glue your eyes to the t.v. set and just continue petting. Some cats will only tolerate so much, and when they’ve had enough, it’s best to stop. Also, avoid playing pounce-on-the-hand-under-the-cover game. By encouraging this, they learn that you like and accept their attempts to sink their teeth into your flesh.

While this discussion may not paint the most attractive picture of cats, it must be remembered that individuals vary widely. Many cats display little or no aggression and are ideal companions. And even for those who have cats with some aggressive tendencies, recognizing and respecting the nature of the beast in your midst can go a long way in avoiding problems and maintaining a very good relationship with your cat.

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