Lewis had a reputation for using his claws to communicate his bad moods to passersby in his hometown of Fairfield, CT. But after he attacked the Avon lady in December 2005, the police slapped Lewis's owner with a restraining order that forbade the black-and-white cat to go outside. Local media quickly dubbed him "Psycho Cat."
Fortunately, say feline behaviorists, extreme "bad kitty" behavior like Lewis's is rare. "I've seen three cases like that in 15 years," says Daniel Estep, PhD, an animal behaviorist in Littleton, CO. But plenty of cats get cranky sometimes, and Estep and other experts say owners can use gentle ways to change undesirable behavior.
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First, you have to know when your kitty has crossed the line. "Some people think cats are supposed to be aggressive or mean under certain circumstances," says Jane Brunt, DVM, a Baltimore vet and president of the American Association of Feline Practitioners. "They're not."
When the Claws Come Out
"Play aggression" describes the rough-and-tumble of two cats, or even a cat and a dog roughhousing. It's normal social behavior, as long as it doesn't get too rowdy, says Ilona Rodan, DVM, a board-certified vet in feline practice in Madison, WI.
Nevertheless, a cat may act truly aggressive when it's fearful or defending its territory, or if it's been hurt, says Estep.
When Catharine Hamm of Glendale, CA, volunteered to care for her vacationing mother's 9-year-old Abyssinian, she wasn't prepared to be a lion tamer. Little Mo, who was known for her surly disposition, was so frightened by the sudden change in her routine that she hid in Hamm's guest room for 2 weeks.
"The night I was to take Mo back to Mom's, I needed to put her in the cat carrier," Hamm recalls. "I eventually got her in, but it was like a 13-round prize fight." Hamm had to go on antibiotics to prevent infection in the 15 bites she received.
Despite Mo's less-than-winning personality, Hamm could have short-circuited some of the cat's aggression, says Estep. These tips would have helped her do so--and will help you turn your own tiger into "nice kitty."
Use Odor Power
Get Feliway spray, a synthetic version of a cat's facial pheromones, which are scents that animals use to communicate, Rodan says.
Spray it in the room, and the cat is likely to perceive the environment as friendly.
Give Him Space
"Cats can hold a bad mood for a long time, an hour or more," Estep says. If he's in a snit, don't make the first move, he advises. Instead, learn the Best Ways to Calm a Cranky Cat.
"Let him approach you." This is especially important if your cat's aggression was provoked by the sight of a strange cat--one he can't reach. If he's unable to attack the target, he's likely to go for the dog, another cat in the house, or a nearby human
Some cats become overstimulated while being petted and may bite. You can train a feline to accept more attention by looking for warning signs of her annoyance while you stroke her--her ears will flick, her tail will twitch, and her head will swivel to look at your hand. Take your hand away before she bites and give her a food treat.
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Get the Vet
If these steps don't work, your cat should have a thorough checkup to rule out medical problems that could trigger the aggression.
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Your vet may also recommend that you consult an animal behaviorist who can teach you more advanced techniques for turning snarls into purrs.