Help me keep my cat.
May 8, 2012 6:22 AM   Subscribe

Cat Problems. We have a 7 year old cat who has always been mean to others, but loving and affectionate with us. Recently this has changed. What other options can I explore, as I don't want to give the little jerk up. Details (lots) Inside.

My cat has now viciously attacked my wife 3 times since the new year. Other than those incidents he has been his lovable, cuddly self, which makes this even harder.

The first incident occurred when I was cutting off a door knob with a sawzall (don't ask). This makes a lot of noise. My wife was in the room with him and moved a carpet he was sitting on without realizing he was there. He went crazy, leaping at her, making terrible sounds, and drawing blood. We are talking big scratches and bruises. I moved him into a back room and left him there for awhile.

We chalked it up to a really bizarre combination of circumstances, he returned to normal for the next several months.

Then he attacked her after a door blew shut to a room he was in (this has happened many times before), she opened it and he pounced. Similar attack and results.

We took him to the vet. All his physical signs (blood, virus stuff) were normal. We installed cat pheromone dispensers in the house at the vet's recommendation.

It happened again the other day. This time it was triggered by me running through the house. The bar for triggering him seems to be getting lower and lower. My wife is really broken up, not so much the physical hurt, but she feels betrayed, the little guy is family.

It isn't safe to have an animal in the house that periodically goes crazy. I know this rationally, but he is also 7, and the likelihood of finding a safe place for him is low.

I don't want him to go to another family (especially one with kids), as he might hurt them too, and I think he would be miserable in a shelter, as he really hates other people.

What can I do? Has anyone else experienced this problem before? Is the behavior solvable? We are willing to try any realistic option that will allows us to keep him, as long as he isn't a danger.

Most importantly, if we can't fix the behavior, what can I do to ensure he lives out his life in a safe and comfortable manner? Are there any options for problem cats?
posted by pickinganameismuchharderthanihadanticipated to Pets & Animals (21 answers total)
I'm not a cat person (though I do have an anxious dog), but given that these outbursts are triggered by stressful situations/fear, maybe anti-anxiety meds would help? Are you comfortable with that?
posted by supercres at 6:43 AM on May 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Is he an indoor cat? If so, has his front claws been removed? Has he been neutered? If no to either thing, either could help (to reduce the damage when he does flip out, and to reduce aggression).

Otherwise... it sucks. You can't really train a cat very well.
posted by imagineerit at 6:51 AM on May 8, 2012

We had a cat go nutzo like this, and he got put on some kind of hormones. This made him much more docile, but he'd still have "outbursts". Though I'm pretty sure it raised the threshold for them, so maybe it is something to try.
posted by gjc at 6:56 AM on May 8, 2012

What can I do? Has anyone else experienced this problem before? Is the behavior solvable? We are willing to try any realistic option that will allows us to keep him, as long as he isn't a danger.

You should certainly have a consultation with a board-certified veterinary behaviorist. This site offers a geographic listing, or you can ask your vet if there is a behaviorist they generally refer to. Training and medication can really help.
posted by Rock Steady at 6:58 AM on May 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

Have you considered pheromone collars? My vet says they are more effective than the dispensers, and we've had amazing success with them in our home.

Also, are your cat's violent incidents taking place all over the house, or are they restricted to a certain area? One of our cats has developed a habit of sitting on a small rug we keep near a big window. Over time, he has become territorial about the rug -- if a visitor steps on it or gets too close, he goes into attack mode and has drawn blood. We now shut him away when people are coming over. He's attacked Mr. Supafreak and I a few times over the rug, but we worked to overcome that by standing on the rug and forcing him to watch at a controlled distance, and also keeping a squirt gun nearby and soaking him immediately if he becomes aggressive toward us.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 7:00 AM on May 8, 2012

I have been trying to rehome 3 cats. Your options are limited. All the so called "no kill" shelters are full around me. Spring is kitten time. They also prefer younger cats because kittens are more likely to be adopted. A 7 year old cat who is prone to attacks will not be adopted easily. With limited space and the cost of long term care for an older cat, your best bet is making a donation in excess of $100 (in a quid pro quo) in order to get a shelter or organization to take the cat.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 7:27 AM on May 8, 2012

Is he an indoor cat? If so, has his front claws been removed? Has he been neutered? If no to either thing, either could help (to reduce the damage when he does flip out, and to reduce aggression).

Otherwise... it sucks. You can't really train a cat very well.

Please don't listen to this advice. Declawing is cruel and you can, at the very least, work with your cat to find a solution. However, if your cat isn't fixed he should be.

I just watched a bunch of the show "My Cat from Hell" recently on metafilter's advice. There was a similarly violent cat who was reacting to feeling trapped within the household. It was the season 2 episode "Terrorizing my Clients", which I would recommend you watch. It sounds like all of these have occurred when your cat is underfoot. My advice would be to get a bunch of tall cat condos and put them in easily accessible areas. Again, watch the episode and pay attention to how the behaviorist recommends placement of the cat shelves and trees so that the cat has a place to escape to whenever he is stressed.

And to be honest, none of these incidents sound "crazy." Do you know how terrifying something like sawing would be to a cat? (Next time, remove him from the room first). He's reacting to trauma, and has a brain the size of a walnut. It sounds to me like you're going to have to rebuild trust and make him feel safe in the house again.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:33 AM on May 8, 2012 [15 favorites]

Oh, he's just getting scared! Each incident you described was something that was frightening to him: you probably didn't realize it, but he was already likely tensed up and trying to figure out if he was truly being threatened when all of a sudden, the floor he's on moves, or the door that just freaked him out opens again and this sets off his fight or flight reaction (and he fights!) I would bet money there is some other new stressor in his environment that is just amping up his reactions. In other words, he's already slightly on edge from something so these incidents push him into an oh-my-god-I-better-attack-before-I'm-killed mode.

So... what is it? You've already determined he's not sick... New cat next door? New regular visitor to the home? New appliance that he's convinced is the devil? There must be something. So I'd recommend identifying the new stressor and eliminating it, if possible. If not possible, take extra pains to be very calm around him and watch his behavior. If you notice him acting tense and watchful, approach slowly and speak calmly. Try doing what you can to convince him his home is still safe because he's on high-alert thinking an attack is emminent.
posted by Eicats at 7:50 AM on May 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

after post: I definitely second PhoBwAnKenobi and reitterate that you fix this by rebuilding trust and showing your cat that he's safe at home
posted by Eicats at 7:51 AM on May 8, 2012

What else changed around the time of your first attack? Has your wife switched shampoo, perfume, deodorant or is it just that she was always the unlucky one? Did you get something new in the house then?

I also think that something else changed and that your cat is in general freaked out. You can put your cat on meds, too, which might help. PhoBWanKenobi and Eicats have good advice.
posted by jeather at 7:55 AM on May 8, 2012

Something else is scaring the cat and making it tense, all those incidences are fear responses no maliciously bad cat actions. It could be anything from fading eyesight/hearing to pain from arthritis or urine crystals or even a new cat or scary dog in the neighborhood to changes in circumstances at home.

We had a neighbors cat coming in our cat door and stealing our cats food, that drove our cat crazy for months and he was a freaked out spraying neurotic mess before we worked what was making him like that.

You can always try some anti anxiety meds on him, they might not be needed full time as unfortunately a lot of fear is self perpetuating, this is scaring me so I am scared, I am scared so this is scary kind of feedback loops. Once the cat feels that everything is OK and relaxes you might be able to wean it off the meds.

Also try more pheromone dispensers, one little one in one room won't make a difference. Put one near it's favorite sleeping spots so that it has a place that feels safe to it, that will help. Maybe put up some hideyholes around the house it can retreat too when it feels threatened.

You can get small silicone covers you can glue over your cats claws to stop them clawing furniture, these also help make cat scratches hurt a lot less, they are not expensive or hard to put on and might help limit any damage while you get him calmed down.
posted by wwax at 8:04 AM on May 8, 2012

If this worsens, are you willing to medicate your cat? There are drugs available that can calm your cat/lessen anxieties/etc.; my parents finally started one of their cats on a prescription when his growing aggressiveness toward the other cats (all of whom weigh at least seven or eight pounds less than he does) became a concern. This is a last resort solution, but certainly a better alternative, from what you're saying, to giving up the little guy.
posted by thomas j wise at 8:06 AM on May 8, 2012

Is anyone doing construction or landscaping, or a dog who barks all day outside, or neighborhood cats fighting -- stuff that might be causing all that tension? Crying babies?
posted by A Terrible Llama at 8:20 AM on May 8, 2012

We had this issue with my cat from the ages of 3-8, and sporadically after that until his death.

The best solution we came up with was 1) moving out of the narrow apartment that required us to constantly be stepping over him to get to another room, which triggered a bunch of attacks and 2) moving into a house with a secure backyard that he had supervised access to.

So, my experience suggests that it's territorial anxiety, and that the suggestions above to add more cat condos and other safe areas for your kitty in conjunction with more pheromone dispensers might do the trick. I totally feel for your wife, I was devastated when my buddy started attacking me, and the only thing that made it at all bearable was understanding how FRIGHTENED he was while he was attacking. :(
posted by annathea at 8:22 AM on May 8, 2012

Is he an indoor cat? If so, has his front claws been removed? Has he been neutered? If no to either thing, either could help (to reduce the damage when he does flip out, and to reduce aggression).

No. Declawing a cat will not solve the fear issues at the root of this cat's attacks nor will it prevent the cat from harming someone as the potential for serious infection is much greater from cat bites than cat scratches.

I periodically use a pheromone collar on my most aggressive cat as she's a cat bully when under stress. We call it the "Chill The Fuck Out" collar because the moment you put it on her, she visibly relaxes and turns into pudding for the 4 weeks that the collar works. She didn't react to Feliway dispensers, so I was both pleased and surprised by how effective the collar was.
posted by jamaro at 8:27 AM on May 8, 2012

After struggling with misplaced fear-aggression for several years off and on, including vet-guided attempts at behavior modification (at one point we were blowing whistles at her when she growled and trying to wrestle her into the closet for a timeout), we finally gave in and put our beloved, moody little thing on Prozac, which, I might add, is very inexpensive. She was probably 6-9 during the outbursts and is 12 now. We started her on a daily dose and have tapered down to maybe four days a week. I'd be willing to go even lower. The prozac comes in a capsule that we open and mix the powder with wet food, so we don't have to try to give an angry cat a pill on top of everything else. I resisted this step for a looong time, but it has worked pretty well. They also make a liquid/paste version that you can rub on the inside of the cat's ear and it absorbs, or such is my understanding.
posted by Occula at 9:22 AM on May 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

Pointycat had serious aggression problems when I adopted him. I was scared but I didn't want to send him back to the kill shelter. I worked with my vet (she is not a behaviorist but a very experienced cat vet) and she worked with me on bevaioral stuff and said if that didn't work, we would do kitty prozac.

The behavioral stuff worked a charm. It took some time but he's a totally different cat now. There were a lot fo things (she gave me some literature) but teh main ones were 1) watching for his triggers 2) Closing him out of the room I was in when necessary (time out) and 3) lesssons in using a spary bottle of water and/or a can of air.

So tl;dr anecdata: It is possible to fix. Sometimes behavioral works. Drugs are always a fall back. And for Pointycat, Feliway made zero difference for an unknown reason. Good luck!
posted by pointystick at 10:59 AM on May 8, 2012

Lots of good advice here!

Giving him more high/hidden places to retreat to quickly is a great start.

Removing him from rooms where alarming things may be happening should be the first step in any unpredictable-noise-generating project. If something unexpectedly loud has happened, your wife should not be the first person to encounter the cat.

Definitely analyse his surroundings for additional stressors - this can also be done by a behaviourist brought in to evaluate the situation, and that seems like a good idea, regardless.

Meds might not have to be permanent. He might just need to be given a new baseline free of anxiety for a while, then weaned down. I've seen that work for a couple of cats.

You don't need to declaw him to reduce the level of damage he can do during these panic responses. Soft Paws can help a lot.

He may seem to be targeting your wife out of cussedness, but it's likely a combination of happenstance (there she is! reachable!) and perceiving her to be more/less of an authority figure than you (complex - if more, she's not controlling the situation as he expects her to be able to do; if less, more appropriate to act out on).

If you must rehome, write up an honest ad that includes the fact that he has the flight response to panic and shouldn't be in a home with vulnerable people or critters. I've found happy homes for three fosters over a period of several years, all of whom had been intended as forever-pets but turned out to be only-cat types (and I wasn't going to rehome my original sweet boy, their punching bag) with this approach. It does take a while - the shortest rehoming period took about 3mos.

You could also do the quid pro quo donation to a rescue, if it gets to that point.
posted by batmonkey at 11:30 AM on May 8, 2012

fight, not flight. dangit.
posted by batmonkey at 11:35 AM on May 8, 2012

Hey thanks everyone. I posted this before work and haven't been able to check back. I will certainly look into the medication and cat condo suggestions.
posted by pickinganameismuchharderthanihadanticipated at 1:37 PM on May 8, 2012

hi OP, I scanned the thread and saw a few people make reference to pain from various illnesses and such, but I didn't see where/if you'd mentioned whether you'd taken the cat to a vet for a checkup recently. One thing that can really screw up a cat's attitude is dental problems, things like resorption and abscesses. These frequently go unnoticed for long periods of time because many cats rarely to never show pain.

We have a lovely, 2 year old Ragdoll who was a shy, reserved young cat and never as playful or active or engaged as you'd have thought a young, apparently healthy cat should be. He was diagnosed with congenital resorption problems last summer and ended up having 8 teeth (?!) removed. Once all that mess was fixed, he really blossomed and became a super affectionate ball of purrs and playfulness. His teeth are under watch and so far he's not had further problems (change of diet has helped).

Our cat vet, who is a wonder, tells me that this sort of thing is very common, and cats that develop aggressive tendencies or act out should be evaluated not only for environmental stressors and other health issues like urinary tract problems, but should also have their teeth carefully examined, as the pain from dental issues is Very Bad. If you've ever had a bad toothache, well you can just imagine what a grumpy hair trigger attitude that could manifest as. If your cat has bad breath, you should at least be suspicious of a problem.
posted by lonefrontranger at 4:41 PM on May 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

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