Flipping the Feline Personality Switch
January 17, 2011 12:35 PM   Subscribe

Can someone explain some seemingly complex domestic feline behavior?

I work at an animal shelter and recently two cats came in together. They're two neutered, male, 3-year old domestic shorthairs, possibly brothers but I can't say for sure. They were abandoned by their owner and brought in by a neighbor or landlord. Justin was more outgoing while Daniel was withdrawn and unhappy.

After their medical exams, we placed them on the adoption floor and their personalities remained the same. A week later, however, Justin got a home and Daniel experienced a strong personality change. Gone was the withdrawn, silent cat. In its place was a cat standing tall and meowing for attention. My more experienced coworkers noted that this isn't that unusual when a dominant and a submissive male are separated. I took him in a room the next day for a half hour and he was the sweetest cat imaginable.

The unusual part came next. Two days later I was cleaning his room, congratulating him on coming out of his shell and becoming so friendly. Meowing happily, he rubbed against my legs and purred loudly. I fed him. Everything seemed great. However, when I went to leave the room, he suddenly -- I'm talking instantaneous here -- hissed and scratched my leg, drawing blood. Moments later he was back to his purring, friendly self. It seemed so unlike the happy-go-lucky cat of the previous two days that I was almost unable to process what had happened...almost, that is, until the next second when I tried to exit and he hissed yet again, this time reaching from the arm of a couch to scratch me on the chest and arm, drawing blood again. As I backed out of the room he was practically stalking me.

He turned sweet again a moment later but now he's been placed on scratch quarantine for ten days as a matter of shelter protocol. He remains talkative and purry, rubbing against the bars of his cage when I changed his litter and fed him today, but once again he hissed and drew blood on my leg.

What gives? I know about cat warning signs. I deal with aggressive cats and friendly cats all the time. I've seen other submissive males "come out of their shell" when their dominant companion leaves the shelter, but I'm not familiar with this juxtaposition of extremely affectionate / violent behavior in short bursts. It seems like he's angry that I'm removing my affection from him, but is it really that simple, or is there something else at work here? In 18 months of shelter work with some pretty unhappy cats, this is the first time I've had a cat display quite this level of on/off switching. I'm curious about what we're dealing with, and whether or not there's hope for placing this cat in a home or "barn cat" situation without placing the public at risk. He hasn't attacked anyone else at the shelter, only me, if that helps at all.
posted by ktoad to Pets & Animals (6 answers total)
I cat-sit a dominant/submissive pair of sisters for a year once. The submissive one used to scratch me for no reason- often it would happen that if I was sitting down, she'd sit near me and ignore me peacefully for a while, until I'd get up to leave, and bam, I'd get scratched. I chalked it up to redirected aggression stemming from her being anxious in general about the changes in her environment. My solution was to clip her nails good and short (swaddling her in a pillowcase first made this possible) and then just to ignore the behavior otherwise.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 12:47 PM on January 17, 2011

My rescued feral cat behaves similarly, although not quite to such an extreme extent. I adopted two feral kittens from the same rescue. I had to surrender the larger one due to extreme aggression issues towards all life forms who were not me; afterward, the smaller one came out of his shell and became a much friendlier, more loving, not-as-skittish cat. However, when I want to not be petting him anymore and he thinks it's still time for me to pet him, he will bite and scratch my leg. He's drawn blood a couple of times; I've gotten him to mostly stop doing it by giving him a quick flick to the ear (a spray gun would have much the same effect) and instantaneously removing myself from his vicinity every time he touches my leg with his claws out. Now he just taps me with his paw if he needs more attention. I definitely wouldn't reward his aggressive actions by continuing to stay in the room after he acts out like that, though.
posted by kataclysm at 12:57 PM on January 17, 2011

My mom recently adopted a stray cat that does this. He's super sweet, purring, lovey, and you turn around, and he attacks. She started wearing her snake boots around him because he would shred her calves semi-regularly. He calmed down over time and has now stopped doing that. (Snake boots are still worn, though.)

This cat also hurls himself at windows if my mom is standing behind the window. (I don't know if my mom just has spectacularly clean windows, or if this cat just has to get to her.) Our interpretation is just that he's needy and wanting affection, lots of affection.

kataclysm is right though, you can't reward that kind of thing.
posted by Kronur at 1:43 PM on January 17, 2011

Anecdotally--I catsat a kitty while his owners were out of town for a few days. The cat stayed at his own home and I would go over to feed him. When I tried to leave, he would grab my leg with his paws and then bite (yes, drawing blood). I attributed it to his being lonely, stressed about lack of attention, etc. He is normally a gentle cat, and I don't think he ever does this with his regular family. He would also rub up against me and purr when I scratched him, but he sure didn't want me to leave.

I'd suspect your guy is sad and stressed that Justin is gone.
posted by torticat at 1:50 PM on January 17, 2011

Maybe he would benefit from having another cat with him; he does sound lonely.
posted by amtho at 2:04 PM on January 17, 2011

It sounds like he came out of his shell, discovered how much he likes attention, and reacts inappropriately when it's withdrawn. Sounds like kataclysm has the solution.
posted by Mavri at 7:17 PM on January 17, 2011

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