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Ask Dr. Michael Salkin Your Own Question
Dr. Michael Salkin
Dr. Michael Salkin, Veterinarian
Category: Cat Veterinary
Satisfied Customers: 28500
Experience:  University of California at Davis graduate veterinarian with 45 years of experience.
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How to get a cat stop nipping at my legs or feet?

Customer Question

How to get a cat stop nipping at my legs or feet?
Submitted: 1 year ago.
Category: Cat Veterinary
Expert:  Dr. B. replied 1 year ago.
Hello & welcome, I am Dr. B, a licensed veterinarian and I would like to help you with your wee one today.
How long has Ginger had this behavior?
Does he or did he previously have any cat companions?
Does he have outdoor access or is he indoor only?
What are you doing at the times he attacks?
Any changes in routine, people, or life at home?
Customer: replied 1 year ago.
He is an indoor cat and has no companions, and I yell at him and sometimes hit him after he nips. No changes in his routine. It began about a year ago. I think he suffers from boredom and needs more stimulation but I am not sure. He recently gained a few pounds in the last year or so, and seems happy as he lies on his back with his paws up, but I can't play with him anymore, because this causes him too much stimulation. If I play with him when he is on his chair he does not attack me however. Since it is not so close with contact. Much of the time he is sweet. He is now on half a dose of Amitriptyline once a day for his moods in the last 6 months changed and he would attack my head and bite me. He is unpredicatable. I thought you were a animal behavorist. and I am trying to avoid this possible costly ordeal. He used not behave like this. Food has not changed either. With the medication he no longer attacks the way he did, and now just nips. Do you know of behaviorist online?
Expert:  Dr. B. replied 1 year ago.
Hi again,
I am not sure if we do have a behavior specialist on this service online. Therefore, as that is what you are seeking, I will re-open your question to my colleagues to see if one can come forward to aid you or advise you on whether there is another venue for such a specialist. (Do note that you do not need to reply to this as it will prevent them from seeing that I have reopened the question).
Take care,
Dr. B.
Expert:  Dr. Michael Salkin replied 1 year ago.
Aloha! You're speaking with Dr. Michael Salkin
I'm sorry that your question wasn't answered in a timely manner. I have advanced training in feline behavior and am pleased to discuss Ginger's behavior with you. I need to preface my discussion by telling you that feline aggression toward the owner can be challenging to manage. Many cats display aggression toward their owners when displaying assertiveness. Cats that have this type of problem usually display a confident temperament. They exhibit assertive or status aggression by biting or threatening when the owner attempts to approach or handle them or to simply show their displeasure or anxiety with their place in the hierarchy in your home. The bite behavior may be an attempt to control these situations. Assertive displays, pushy attention-seeking behavior and attempts to control the environment by blocking access to doorways and refusing to be moved from perches or sleeping areas may also be displays of social status. One sign that might signify this type of aggression is aggression toward members of the household that a cat can control (you), avoiding aggression with family members that control the cat and do not routinely give in to its demands. The prognosis is guarded as these cats may be dangerous and the problem may have both innate (he may have been feral as a kitten) and learned components (he may not have been socialized prior to the important age of 7 weeks). Too many of my owners have ended up hospitalized due to cat bites. You must decide whether Ginger's risk to you is warranted vis a vis attempting to manage his inappropriate behavior. If you're willing, management involves the following:
Make the situation safe - identify stimuli leading to aggression - avoid confrontation and any stimuli or interactions that elicit aggression - teach simple commands such as "come" or "sit" by using food lures whenever Ginger is receptive to food or play.
Withhold rewards unless earned - Ginger should be taught to defer to you for any treats, affection or play. For instance, play, affection and treats should never be given on demand but can be given if he responds to a command. After a few weeks of teaching deference, he can be taught to accept stimuli that have triggered aggression. You would need to begin by performing a behavior that has triggered aggression in the past but in such a muted way that no aggression is elicited. If no undesirable behavior is exhibited, he is given a very tasty food reward or play. Once he's conditioned to accept a mild level of the stimulus, the sessions can progress with stimuli that very gradually become stronger.
Punishment (yelling at him, hitting him) must be avoided but undesirable behavior can be interrupted with alarms or a can of compressed air. Care must be taken with this approach since some strong stimuli can make a cat more aroused and aggressive.
Uninhibited aggressive displays that appear impulsive, explosive or excessive may be reduced with psychotherapeutic drugs - SSRIs - such as paroxetine (Paxil) or fluoxetine (Prozac). The SSRIs appear to be more effective than a tricyclic "antidepressant" such as amitriptyline. I'm not a fan of drugging cats for what, in essence, is normal behavior for many cats. Drugs, however, are an important resource for the determined owner.
As mentioned above, Ginger is a significant danger to you and others to whom you might rehome him. I like the idea of keeping these sequestered to a quiet and dimly lit room until their level of arousal abates or perhaps allowing him to be an outdoor cat - where he needn't socialize to an extent past that which he's amenable.
Please note that nipping at feet and legs often indicates prey behavior. You'll need to substitute suitable prey - a "bird on a string" attached to a pole, a ping pong ball he can chase around the floor, e.g. - for your feet and legs. Because prey behavior is innate it can be particularly difficult to control and so extended play with the substitute prey is indicated.
Please respond with further questions or concerns if you wish.