By Dr. Becker
I discussed play and petting-related feline aggression in a recent article.
Today I'd like to talk a bit about a third variation in owner-directed aggression: the bossy cat.
In recent years, the theory of what motivates owner-directed aggression in dogs has moved away from the concept of dominance toward 'conflict aggression.'
This change in thinking has evolved because many dog behaviorists question whether pack mentality truly defines the relationship between dog and owner.
Since kitties have never organized into packs, the idea of dominance or status-related aggression seems even more far-fetched.
However, there are certainly cats who rule the roost in many households.
Some experts believe cats organize socially in a 'despotic hierarchy' where one cat calls the shots for the others, who assume roles as subordinates.
Another social structure adopted by housecats involves less rigidity and more sharing.
For example, if the highest level of the cat tree is favored by all the cats in the household, the bossier cat will get first dibs on it and then relinquish it later in the day to another cat.
Both these social arrangements seem to point to the existence of higher status cats in multi-cat environments.
If this is the case, it's conceivable the owner of a 'boss cat' could be – in the eyes of the cat – another employee in his organization.
Petting-induced aggression may be 'instrumental' in nature, meaning it is a means to an end. When a kitty gets aggressive while being petted, the usual response of the owner is to stop petting him or touching him, which is what the cat hoped would happen from his aggressive behavior. So he used aggression to get a desired result.
As it turns out, many cats who display petting-related aggression also get hostile around food, don't appreciate being disturbed while resting, will not tolerate being stared at, don't care to be picked up or held, and show aggression when reprimanded.
These bossy felines display controlling personalities. They bite their owners on a specific body part (the nose and toes are particular favorites) to get them moving in the morning or when their meal doesn't arrive fast enough or isn't to their liking.
They are also known to plop down right in the middle of newspapers being read, and use biting to get their owners to interact with them.
Experts who've observed this type of kitty behavior agree it isn't related to fear. In fact, these cats seem quite confident and bossy by nature. And 'conflict aggression' doesn't describe the behavior either. Most domineering cats belong to compliant, affectionate owners.
Some cats are pushy, but stop short of aggression. Bossy cats seem to stop at nothing to get what they want.
Restoring Harmony to Your Household
If you share your life with a kitty control freak, help is available.
Depending on the severity of the problem, you can try tackling it yourself, or you can consult a certified animal behavior specialist1 who has experience with feline aggression.
The first step is to learn to avoid incidents in which your cat may become aggressive with you.
It's also important to learn the signs of impending kitty aggression, including:
- Narrowed eyes
- Furtive glances at the obstacle or irritant (for example, your hand)
- Ears swiveled sideways and flattened against the head
- Twitching tail
If you happen to be holding your cat when any of these signs appear, stop what you're doing, stand up if you're seated, and let the cat drop gently to the ground. If you're standing, bend forward from the waist and release kitty either to the floor or onto a piece of furniture.
Increasing your grip on a cat about to show aggression – even when your only intent is to lower her from your lap or arms to the floor – can exacerbate the situation.
If your cat is aggressive at feeding time, you'll need to prepare her meals while she's out of the room. Place her food bowl in its usual spot and then let kitty into the area to eat.
If your cat bites you to wake you up in the morning, he'll need to be kept out of the bedroom at night.
Cats who aggressively respond when picked up should not be picked up, except when absolutely necessary.
Physical punishment is a bad choice with any cat, and with aggressive felines it serves only to increase aggression.
The next phase is to train your pet to obey commands to receive things she values, like food.
Believe it or not, with the proper incentive (food), cats can be clicker trained fairly easily to perform certain behaviors like Sit.
If You Need Additional Help
There are homeopathic and herbal remedies available that can help reduce inappropriate emotional responses in kitties. I recommend you consult with your holistic vet about supplements that might benefit your cat, including L-theanine, 5-HTP and passionflower.
There are also medications that act on serotonin levels, but as always, I only recommend drugs for worst case scenarios, when all other attempts to modify a pet's behavior have proved ineffective, or for very short periods in conjunction with behavior modification.
If your domestic housecat seems more like an African wild cat, don't despair. You just need a plan to deal with your bossy cat. And don't be reluctant to ask for help from your vet and/or a certified animal behavior specialist2.