Psychoanalyze my cat
October 7, 2012 11:13 AM   Subscribe

Calling all amateur Jackson Galaxy-wannabes: why is my cat such a jerk toward guests, when he's a bundle of love the rest of the time?

I'm not sure what the problem is with my cat Barricade. He's the most affectionate cat (toward me & my husband) that I've ever met. But as soon as guests come over, he turns into a little demon: hissing, swatting, growling. He doesn't act scared--it feels more like territorial aggression, even when my guests ignore him. For example, one time a friend (small, female, quiet) was sleeping on our couch. Barricade tried to attack her while she was asleep, clearly presenting no threat to him. I am a huge fan of My Cat From Hell and have tried every hint from the show that I can think of, but nothing's working.

all the details:
Barricade & his sister Beatrix are our only pets. They are about 2 years old. We got them from a rescue organization. They get along great, cuddling & playing.
There are no medical issues that we're aware of. No litter box problems (at the moment--there were some "pooping outside the box" situations before we got the right food & litter combo, plus eradicated all the intestinal parasites the kittens came with).
We play with them all the time. They both love to chase the feathers-on-a-string.
They are both indoor cats.
He is neutered and his sister is spayed.
The house is pretty large--1500 square feet with a 2nd story. It's not like he doesn't have anywhere to go if he's annoyed.
We provided them with lots of "vertical space" (awesome cat tree by the window) though they don't use it that much (we think they are bush-dwellers). But they hang out on top of the couch or my desk to look out the window. They have toys galore and a few scratching posts.

My husband & I are both somewhat introverted & don't have guests that often--maybe once every 2 months. However...

...the problem started when my sister was staying with us for 7 months straight after she graduated from college & was looking for work. At first the cats were very affectionate with my sister, but after she had been living with us for 3 months Barricade started with the growling and hissing. My sister tried ignoring him, playing with him, being the one that fed him, being the one that gave him treats. But nothing helped. And yeah, I was kind of ready for her to go, so it's possible that Barricade was picking up on my own tension/stress. But still--sometimes in life you need to put up with guests that you'd prefer to leave. It's not ok that every time I have someone staying with me that I'm not 1000% delighted by at every single moment that the cat's going to attack, you know?

As soon as my sister left, he returned to normal. Until someone comes over.

He is okay with some people more than others.

He does seem to be more aggressive toward women.

My husband & I are talking about having kids in the next year or so. I'd hate to have to get rid of the cat if he can't be trusted around the theoretical baby.

Any ideas?
posted by apostrophe to Pets & Animals (3 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Does there seem to be a pattern of where the guests are when he reacts this way? You said he sits on the couch and that's where your sister was when he attacked her, so I'm wondering if that area is his territory and he's defending it (and it makes sense that guests would sit on the couch when they come over). If that's the case, I'd probably just find another place for guests to sit, considering you don't have that many.
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 12:53 PM on October 7, 2012

First of all, it's awesome that you're willing to try and get to the bottom of this! You're off to a great start so far in terms of already having provided vertical territory and interactive play and what-have-you. Here, in no particular order, are some further "troubleshooting" suggestions:

(1) You state that Barricade has "no known medical issues", but has he had a vet workup recently?

If not, you might want to have him checked out for anything that might be causing irritability (e.g., chronic pain due to some random thing like a bad tooth or ingrown toenail, or perhaps a mild seizure disorder, etc.). Cats are instinctually driven to hide discomfort and in the case of a chronic condition may seem "fine" most of the time but suddenly act out in the event of a stressful-for-him situation.

(2) Cats are intensely sensitive to smells, and since scent is a strong territorial signal for many kitties, it's worth evaluating whether the "attacks" could potentially be due to something in the olfactory realm.

I.e., does your sister (or any of the other humans Barricade has Had Issues(TM) with) work near or in direct contact with other cats, or dogs, or other animals?

Alternately, do any of the women Barricade has flipped out on wear a particular brand of perfume, or shampoo, or deodorant?

(3) Sometimes "random" aggression in cats is actually redirected aggression -- meaning that Barricade might be going after people not because of anything in particular about them, but because they're "just there" when he's peeved off about something else.

Very frequently this sort of aggression occurs when there's another cat (or other animal) outdoors near the house. Basically, some indoor kitties become very anxious when they can smell/hear/see "interlopers" outside and will "attack" other animals or humans indoors seemingly at random. E.g., one of my boy cats once went through a weird episode of beating up his sister (to a level clearly more "serious" than that of their normal play-wrestling). I was really confused about this initially...but then I opened the kitchen door, and noticed that a neighbor cat had dropped by and sprayed it! I doused the offending surface in enzyme cleaner, and the "attacks" stopped the very same day.

In other words, sometimes it's not personal, it's just an expression of frustration at not being able to drive off an intruder. And the fact that Barricade is going after guests makes this possibility very worth checking out, IMO, given that they'd be the "least familiar quantity" indoors, and thus potentially the most likely target for anxiety-based lashing-out.

I'd pay attention to what might be going on in your yard...look for paw prints, check and see if anything has been peeing/pooping near the house, etc. If you do find evidence-of-intrusion, in addition to cleaning up anything stinky, there are a variety of deterrents that can be used to keep strange animals from hanging out by the doors, etc.

(4) Try adding a second (or third, if you already have two) litterbox in the house. Seriously, this is one of those "cats are weird" things where it's possible to positively impact seemingly unrelated problems via the very simple act of sticking another poo-box somewhere.

Even if you're not having "out of the box" issues with either cat, and even though your question isn't about interCAT aggression...given that litterboxes are major territorial beacons for indoor cats, providing more of them can't hurt and can only help. Just make sure the boxes are in different rooms / parts of the house, in order to "distribute" the territorial-beacon effect. And of course make sure and scoop all boxes every day (this is both healthier/easier for you, and can have a major de-stressing effect on cats!).

...that's all I can think of for now, but in any event, best of luck!

(Full disclosure: I am not a vet or a certified-animal-anything. I do, however, live in a four-cat household, and participate in local feral cat-colony management projects, meaning I've seen and had to deal with a wide spectrum of Kitty Weirdness.)
posted by aecorwin at 11:27 AM on October 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

The above suggestions sound very sensible to me. One more to try after you've worked your way through those: invite a faux-guest to be the Ideal Cat Guest. (If you have any friends who are Cat Whisperers, rope them in.) If your sister exhausted Barricade's patience, maybe the Ideal Cat Guest can win it back? Dropping by very briefly ... providing treats ... using excellent cat manners ... convincing him that guests Can Be Fun.

If Ideal Cat Guest is a hit, you might audition the Ideal Cat Baby. (Played perhaps by a doll in a crib. A catnip-laced crib.)
posted by feral_goldfish at 8:37 PM on October 14, 2012

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