By Dr. Sophia Yin, DVM, MS
We have a 2 year old female cat (Kachina) who is fully declawed and spayed. She will jump on the bed or sofa with my wife (Liz) and want to be scratched behind her ears/head. She purrs while this is happening then all of a sudden she will turn and bite Liz in the arm. This used to happen 1-2 times every month or so and now it is a few times a week. Kachina usually comes back to lay with Liz in about 30 minutes as if nothing happened and curl up with Liz. Liz was in bed last night and Kachina bit her arm and blood was flowing from the entry wound. I closed the door to our bedroom last night but we need to do something so Kachina stops biting Liz. Kachina does not do this to me.
Doug, as you already know, unlike dogs who generally read like an open book, cats are a little more subtle and come with interesting quirks. For instance a hungry dog will follow you around the house even barking and whining until you give in. Hungry cats sometimes meow from their comfortable place, until you deliver the food to them. One thing about cats is that they don’t necessarily like being petted endlessly the way many dogs do. This could be the root of Kachina’s issues with Liz. So even if the cats solicit the petting, they may get tired of it after several seconds or minutes.
It’s like they’re saying, “Pet me now.” And then after a set time point, “Ok, I’ve had enough,” or ,”But not that way.” The signs meaning stop may be subtle-a tail flick, ears bent to the sides. When, we humans are blind the cat has to give a bigger cue-namely a bite. In essence the bite says, “Hey! I told you to stop!” After this the cat may just figure out that the subtle signs don’t work. Better to go with the neon sign, a big chomp, first. Or it may be that the cat gets more irritated with each event. Like. “Geez, doesn’t she know I can’t stand being petted that long?”
In cases where the humans just can’t keep their hands of their cat or pet the cat in a way that their cat more aroused, cats have been known to proactively hiss or swat any time the human walks by. Or they bite and scratch seemingly randomly. To them it’s not randomly, they’re biting when they think the human may approach or try to pester them. Overall they become more irritable around people they deem bad petters.
So what if this is Kachina’s issue. What can you do? Safety first. Keep Kachina out of the bedroom at night. Next Liz should only pet Kachina for short bouts of petting, short enough so that Kachina will, for sure enjoy it. These short bouts should be paired with feeding so that Kachina comes to associate the petting with things he likes. For instance, Liz can either pet Kachina will simultaneously feeding cat treats or canned cat food for about 5-10 seconds and then stop both the feeding and the petting. Alternatively Liz could pet for 5-10 seconds and then follow immediately with a treat to reward Kachina for behaving well. I frequently start with method 1 and then move to method 2. In both cases, systematically increase the time that Liz is able to pet. The goal is that Kachina associates the petting with good thing (food /treats) and remains in a positive emotional state rather than becoming agitated.
If these techniques don’t clearly help, then it’s time to see a behaviorist. A list of veterinarians practicing behavior can be found at http://www.AVSAB.org