NMVMA listserve Veterinary Behavior Tip #7
Jeff Nichol, DVM
Behavior resident in private practice training
Veterinary Emergency and Specialty Centers
Albuquerque and Santa Fe Kitten with human-directed aggression
Saw a young kitten, about 12 weeks, this morning and the owner complained that at times it gets aggressive, with dilated pupils, rushing and biting at the client. Other times it’s fine and acts normal. No clear trigger for these episodes.
In case it’s just being aggressive play, I suggested diverting it by using a chase toy with a string and have the kitten hunt that instead of the owner’s arms. Any thoughts about what might be causing this? Anything you would recommend doing other than the diversion that I recommended?
Mark Terry, DVM
Very often our clients want quick, simple, and reliable behavioral solutions. It’s hard to respond succinctly. You gave a great answer for a problem that is especially common in young cats.
Punishment by water pistol or, worse, with physical retribution might seem logical but with his dilated pupils this kitten is already agitated. Owner retaliation could only ratchet up the hostility and cause this confused youngster to associate aggression with the sight of his person. Instead, his leader can build trust by teaching him that only good things will happen when they are together.
There is a healthy push to keep cats indoors but this wisdom has its downside. Without playmates for appropriate sparring, trees for climbing, and rodents for hunting this kitten can find only one creature with a pulse. His primal requirement to stalk and pounce has but one target. His owner needs to stop being the surrogate mouse.
The motivation behind the aggression you describe is actually normal. At his age he is still in his sensitive socialization period, a time when frequent rough play with litter mates would teach him how and with whom he can exercise his inner tough guy. He is also a budding predator who is doing what comes naturally. But, as is too often the case, he was weaned too young. The kid needs proper boundaries and a feline-specific structure from his owner.
Your client may be open to adding another kitten. (An adult cat would have a different agenda, which could lead to conflict.) A myriad of indoor feline environmental enrichments for engaging in normal wild cat behaviors will be essential. I have a good list on my website, drjeffnichol.com.
Even with an ideal feline-specific home there may still be times when this wild child turns a predatory eye toward his owner. As the leader figure in the relationship it is the human who must be ready to derail the behavior early-when a nefarious idea is first germinating in that little feline brain.
You were spot-on by telling your client to have a feathers-on-a-stick type of toy handy so she can quickly redirect her kitten’s normal murderous proclivities. We don’t punish a pet for reminding us that it is a member of a different species. We provide for its unique needs. Evenings, the natural time for feline hunting behavior, is best for remote (no human body parts) interactive chasing and disemboweling. Thanks for writing.
Colleagues and their staffs are welcome to send me questions on particular cases or inquire about behaviors of interest.
All the best,
Jeff Nichol, DVM