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Ask Dr. Michael Salkin Your Own Question
Dr. Michael Salkin
Dr. Michael Salkin, Veterinarian
Category: Cat
Satisfied Customers: 29784
Experience:  University of California at Davis graduate veterinarian with 45 years of experience
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Our two-year-old Burmese cat, Ivor, keeps attacking us. We've

Customer Question

Our two-year-old Burmese cat, Ivor, keeps attacking us. We've had him since he was three months old and he's always done it - we've tried various things to help but now are out our wits' end. When we first got him we kept him indoors but played with him a lot, and he would launch himself at us and bite us (we assumed out of boredom, as he has a LOT of energy). So eventually we got a cat fence around our garden and let him out, but he still did it (this is with two hours of play each day!) After that, we decided to open the gate when we are home so he could roam further afield - we both work at home so he can get out into the neighbourhood most of the time, other than when we're out and at night (he still has garden access at these times though). Although he possibly attacks a bit less, he still does it! He's just leapt at my bare legs and bitten me - I have blood running down from my knee! Ivor is a gorgeous cat most of the time - very friendly and affectionate. He plays with the neighbours' cats (and yes, it is playing most of the time - they don't avoid each other and we've seen them bump noses!), although we know he also breaks in through their cat flaps and eats their food. He's very confident. Indoors, we have a lot of toys and cat furniture for him and he sleeps in our bed at night, so is rarely on his own. He has a good, grain-free diet with a few servings of raw meat every week. We play with him every day, although he's more interested in finding the other cats outdoors. I really don't know what else we can do for him. When he attacks, we don't react but pick him up, drop him out of the room and shut the door until he stops miaowing. It doesn't have much effect but we don't know what else to do!
Submitted: 2 years ago.
Category: Cat
Expert:  Dr. Michael Salkin replied 2 years ago.

Aloha! You're speaking to Dr. Michael Salkin I have advanced training in feline behavior and 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. ("He's very confident.") 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 (they may have been feral as a kitten/not likely if Burmese!) and learned components (they may not have been properly 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 Ivor'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 Ivor is receptive to food or play. Withhold rewards unless earned - Ivor 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 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 - and it sounds as if there are many - may be reduced with psychotherapeutic drugs - SSRIs such as paroxetine (Paxil) or fluoxetine (Prozac). 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, Ivor is a significant danger to you and others to whom you might rehome him. If you're highly motivated to keep him in your home, I would suggest your seeking council with a board certified veterinary behaviorist who will come to your home and examine the dynamics therein. Ivor's vet should be able to refer you to such a specialist or you can find one here: www.dacvb.com. I like the idea of sequestered him when necessary (but perhaps longer until his level of arousal abates further) as you've done or perhaps making him a purely outdoor cat - where he needn't socialize to an extent past that which he's amenable. Please respond with further questions or concerns if you wish. I'm sorry that your question wasn't answered in a timely manner.

Customer: replied 2 years ago.

Thanks Dr Salkin. That's really useful. I wouldn't consider rehoming Ivor. He really is a lovely, affectionate cat most of the time. I like all your ideas. The only thing that's a bit difficult is knowing what triggers the behaviour as it seems quite random. For example, it isn't normally triggered by petting. yesterday, the attack came when i was just sitting in the garden doing a bit of work - Ivor came in, miaowed, wandered around then suddenly launched himself at my leg. I suppose it could be attention seeking actually, as you say, as he sometimes bites me when I'm on the phone. He's probably as bad with my husband but I spend more time with him. I hadn't thought of it as being to do with status so that's interesting. I don't think he'd want to be an outdoor-only cat - he's actually very sociable and likes being around people. You have made me realise we need to get proper help from a behaviour expert, though - will speak to my vet. Thanks very much!

Expert:  Dr. Michael Salkin replied 2 years ago.
You're quite welcome. Yes, it's the impulsiveness that makes his behavior so dangerous and unpredictable. Please don't underestimate the risk he poses to you.
I'm going to check back with you in a few weeks for an update. Feel free to return to our conversation - even after rating - prior to my contacting you if you wish.