Popeye, Brutus and How to Create an Attack Cat

In their relationships with people, most cats take a “live and let live” approach. Cats usually do not show aggression toward people over food, toys or space the way dogs sometimes will. While some cats may hiss, growl, bite or scratch if we try to pet them or pick them up, they generally do not go out of their way to control our behavior. A  case of cat aggression we worked with definitely did not follow this pattern.

Fritz the Cat had, on several occasions, attacked her owner’s boyfriend, Carl, as he slept. This was not playful behavior, and Fritz was biting hard enough to send the man to the hospital. Fritz had also learned to control Carl’s movements. If he didn’t want Carl to go into a room, or get too close to his owner, Fritz would simply stand stiff and still in front of Carl, and block his way. Being a wise man, Carl knew better than to try to walk around or past Fritz, having had Fritz attack and bite him if he continued to move toward him.

Why would Fritz show this offensive behavior? Most aggression that cats direct toward people is defensively motivated. Offensive types of aggression include territorial, predatory and perhaps the poorly understood “don’t pet me anymore” syndrome; although this behavior could easily be defensively motivated instead.

Turns out that Fritz had previously nipped Carl when Carl was petting him (not the severe biting he was now doing), and Carl had responded by popping the cat on the nose with a couple of fingers. While some cats may be intimidated by this action, Fritz wasn’t one of them. This only caused Fritz to escalate his aggression, to the point that Carl learned to back off. For Fritz, aggression became the best strategy to get Carl to leave him alone. Because this strategy worked so well, by the time we saw Fritz, he was now using aggression proactively rather than reactively.

Using corporal punishment as Carl initially did, is a risky business, and not something we recommend, because it so often results in an escalation of aggression. Even remote punishment for Fritz’s behavior would be counter productive, because Fritz had already decided Carl was a bad guy and not to be trusted. Repairing the relationship between Fritz and Carl will require an attitude change from both.

Carl had already recognized that he needed to try to make friends with Fritz, so the trick would be convincing Fritz that Carl was really a good guy after all. Lucky for Carl, Fritz has a secret weakness. Fritz loves spinach. So Carl is becoming Fritz’s Popeye the Spinach Man and Fritz’s only source of this delectable treat. Of course we initiated other temporary management procedures as well, such as not allowing Fritz in the bedroom at night, to prevent further injury.

So far, Fritz and Carl are doing well. There have been no further biting incidents and Fritz is beginning to approach Carl again in a friendly demeanor. The moral of the story – Popeye always bested Brutus (for those of you too young to remember Popeye, ask your parents!).

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