Catsitting for an aggressive cat
December 27, 2014 12:21 AM   Subscribe

I am cat sitting for 2 cats one of which is very aggressive. I have at least 2 more visits left and just want to get through it without injury to me or the cat.

I am generally good with cats and have my own pair. I am stopping in to feed a friend's cats in their own apt. We'll be revisiting whether or not I can continue to sit for them in the future but I need to feed them at least a couple of times before their owner returns.

Kitty was aggressive the last time I sat for him. That time visit 1 he was fine, visit 2 he growled when I pet him and by visit 3 he was unfriendly as soon as I got in. He attacked my ankle and I got a bad scratch trying to pull him off as his claws are not trimmed. I had to shoo him away with a broom. He is never this way towards me when his owner is home.

We seem to have started at a worse place this time. The cats were out of food when we first arrived so they have been out of food for a bit. This may have aggravated behavioral issues. The apt has a long hallway from the front door to the kitchen where his food is. The hallway is narrow enough that you can't get past him without getting into his space. He has been at the door both times when we entered and has done a combo of hissing and growling. He usually then runs down the hall. You kind of have to fill the food and water bowls up before he gets to them because he guards his food. and will hiss and swat if you get close. My partner comes with me so that one person can keep an eye on him and the other person takes care of the food and water and litter box. Today he approached us growling at the front door when we were leaving where on the previous visit he ignored us in favor of his food.

Because of his behavior I'm now trying to decide if we'd be better off doing one last visit and leaving out really big bowls of food and water to keep them going for the next 4-5 days.

Any suggestions for dealing with this kind of aggression? We'll be wearing heavy clothes for the next visit and trying to avoid interacting with him as much as possible.
posted by oneear to Pets & Animals (17 answers total)
Best answer: Bring a treat to give him as you enter which will keep him busy. And wear boots for ankle protection!
posted by artdrectr at 12:43 AM on December 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Bring a bowl and food with you, put down in hallway as soon as you come in to distract him/keep him busy. Five days is too long to leave them with big bowls of food. If they went without food for awhile, he may be freaked out that it'll happen again. If there aren't any food limitations for medical reasons, maybe get him a treat or some tuna or give them extra to try to assuage his anxiety.
posted by Mavri at 12:50 AM on December 27, 2014 [11 favorites]

Best answer: 4-5 days is a long time to go between check ins, if you go that route, at the very least contact the cats' owner to let him/her know that the situation has deteriorated to the extent that you cannot go over there any more so s/he has the opportunity to make alternative plans.

If you decide to continue to return, on your next visit move the bowls to just inside the front door. Take home enough servings of cat food to last the remainder of the time left (you can just store it in your car if you're driving over there) and bring water in bottles to be able to just service the bowls without entering the house more than the distance it would take to clear the doorway. If you're serving canned food, prep the serving onto paper plates before you enter the home, slide it in there, shut the door and let the owner deal with the plate buildup when they return. Arm your partner with a can of compressed air (keyboard cleaner) as most cats flee from the sound and a thick blanket to toss over the cat should he charge. Heavy clothing is an excellent idea. Also the person not handling the food should wear long heavy leather work gloves (like fireplace gloves) just in case they have to actively touch him for any reason.
posted by jamaro at 12:50 AM on December 27, 2014 [4 favorites]

poor thing is probably terribly lonely and frightened

nthing distract him with treats as soon as you open the door
posted by Jacqueline at 1:37 AM on December 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

He's being super territorial because he's scared as hell. NOT fun to deal with, but try to bear in mind that from his perspective he's been abandoned by his people and now scary monsters are trying to break into his home.

If he's not actively attacking you, go sit quietly on the floor, not looking at him, and put a treat on the ground a few feet from you. Sit there very still, with your eyes barely open, kind of looking at him now then from the very corner of your sleepy eyes. Every now and then, give him a big, emphatic blink of your eyes. (Blinks are a big deal to cats, a big signal of friendliness, and if you can get him to return a blink you'll know you're on the right track.) While you're doing that, try some very soft baby talk. From a cat's perspective, you're now playing by the rules and trying to be non-threatening and friendly.

You may also want to bring some string or a cat toy with a feather on the end. If you can get the cat playing, that will also help a lot.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 3:20 AM on December 27, 2014 [18 favorites]

In addition to the good advice above, you also smell weird and scary, and when you leave his home smells weird and scary too. Try wearing the same clothes every time, and spraying yourself liberally with Feliway. (Obviously these shouldn't be clothes you care about deeply.) Try to make sure you don't smell like your own cats as much as possible.

Please don't leave them alone for more than a day. I'd feed them directly by the front door out of disposable plates and bowls, having them prepped before you get the key out. If there aren't any dietary issues, I might try a super high value treat right on top, like a piece of microwaved fish or chicken, still warm, or even with a bit of butter. Not to make the cat love you but just to guarantee distraction while you clean the litter.

Think about your shoes and what they might smell of to a cat. If this includes other cats or other animals' scents, give them a good scrub at the very least.
posted by Mizu at 3:48 AM on December 27, 2014 [4 favorites]

N'thing the treat idea or a catnip toy to distract him as you enter. Also ask the owners to leave plug-in Feliway next time they ask you to feed their cats. It really does help to keep cats calm.
posted by essexjan at 4:42 AM on December 27, 2014

Feliway Spray might be helpful, but a diffuser would be better.
posted by hooray at 5:45 AM on December 27, 2014

Distract him with a feather on a stick. Get him playing so he can get out that energy. And please don't let it go 4-5 days between check-ins, that is too long.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 5:49 AM on December 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I had a 29 day situation sitting a surly 30 pounder who could hit the top of the fridge from the floor and hiss at me from an advantage in height in a tiny kitchen. Did not want to turn my back on that after the first time he jumped me. Took me a couple days of welding gloves and defensive tactics to figure things out. Canned fish, opened immediately upon entering the apartment was key to gaining his trust. And you have to go there everyday at about the same time with your offering.

A long hardwood hallway and a tennis ball were pretty cool too. I have never had a cat, so I don't know if all of them play hall soccer, but it was fun for me too. And 4-5 days? No. You have to spend at least an hour there every day.

Maybe roll the ball in as you open the door?
posted by Mr. Yuck at 6:02 AM on December 27, 2014 [6 favorites]

I would stop by more frequently and be very friendly and sweet. Give him noms as you're entering. Give attention to the nice kitty and bring some toys to play with them.

I think it's mean to leave companion animals alone for days at a time. Even if they have food and water, they're used to people hanging out with them.

When I cat sit, I actually come in, feed kitties, scoop litter, hang out, read a book on the sofa for awhile, offer pets and skritches as needed. I'm not their person, but I'm not rushing out either. My own cats, I actually get people to stay in my house. But I spoil them.

My friends had a kitty who hid under the bed and yowled at me. She wasn't mad at me, she was just mad about the situation. Even though she didn't interact with me, I still hung out for a couple of hours. When her people came home, she was as friendly to me as ever.

My recommendation is to give treats/food upon entering, hang out for a bit, and do some play, get a stick with a feather on it, break out the laser pointer. Make your visit the high point of the day.

You may not win the kitty over, but you may reach d├ętente.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:23 AM on December 27, 2014 [3 favorites]

I think maybe his behavior is partially about his being scared of not ever getting fed again. Maybe more frequent visits would be better than less frequent ones. Also, I'd be careful about putting the food dish right by the door. If it's empty and he's upset, he might dash out the door when you arrive and then you might have a lost kitty situation. Hanging out a bit and playing with him with toys he can chase or jump at would likely help.
posted by fuse theorem at 6:47 AM on December 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Definitely enter the house with treats and/or food in hand to immediately give to kitty. That will create a positive association with you guys and will calm kitty down. I also suggest hanging out a little until kitty stops eating and trying to engage in some play with a laser beam pen or Da Bird (in other words, something you can hold at a distance for safety). Then when you're done playing, give some more treats and say goodbye in a very soft friendly voice. Always give more treats after playtime!
posted by joan_holloway at 7:08 AM on December 27, 2014

nth-ing that 4-5 days is too long, and may account for the cat being off kilter. Visiting every second day is the minimum, daily being ideal. Let your friend pay next time for a sitter who will guarantee more frequent visits, if it's not practical for you.
posted by zadcat at 7:18 AM on December 27, 2014 [3 favorites]

I agree with not leaving the cats for 4-5 days. They will survive, but would you want to drink water that had been sitting out for 4 days?

He is scared, which is making him territorial. He feels the need to protect the space and sees you as an invader.

There are a lot of good suggestions above, including trying to play with him to work out his energy, and giving him a treat when you come in (and wearing boots). The slow blink may also help, although they usually have to be relaxed and comfortable to do this, and he may be too keyed up. Don't spray him, as this may work in the short term but will ultimately be counterproductive.

Something that I haven't seen recommended, but that should help: if you have a T-shirt that you've already worn (so that it has your scent on it), bring it over with you next time and leave it in the apartment somewhere. After a little while, the cat will start to think of your scent as a natural feature of the space. Because you won't be bringing a foreign scent into the apartment every time you come in, you won't seem like an invader. This has always worked for me.
posted by Leatherstocking at 8:53 AM on December 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm really sorry, but if your friend told you it's okay to visit every 4-5 days, they are wrong and aren't doing right by their cats. This is neglect. You should be stopping in daily to assess food/water levels and to clean the litter box. Then the cats feel taken care of and have the chance to acclimate to your smell. That's what's going wrong here -- the cats are all in distress and the one in the most distress is the one lashing out at you.
posted by Hermione Granger at 9:55 AM on December 27, 2014 [11 favorites]

Response by poster: So the treat distraction worked great. We dropped a pile of kitty treats near the door and were able get in and out with only one occurrence of hissing. He's still too volatile to interact with but we'll be able to keep him fed and watered until his human returns.
posted by oneear at 9:10 PM on December 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

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