Help! My Siamese Cat Bites Me!
Why some cats bite when petted, and how to discourage this behavior.
[From Tufts January 2012 Issue]
I have a 2-year-old, neutered male seal-point Siamese. Ever since we adopted him, he has been mean, often biting and scratching. In the past year, he has calmed down somewhat, but every now and then when he is sitting in my lap, he suddenly attacks and bites me really hard.
A couple of months ago, I had to make an appointment with my doctor because I developed cat scratch fever. Even with medication, my arm still bothers me. Why is my cat acting so weird and so aggressive? We got him when he was a kitten, and we are very kind to him. We made sure that no one engaged in any rough play with him, but he seems to have this “wild” nature. What can we do to calm him down and protect ourselves from injuries? - Nancy Tarnai
Dear Nancy: Sorry to hear about the problem you are having with your seal-point Siamese cat. It sounds to me that he has the personality of what I call an “alpha cat” — one who is in charge, bossy and will lash out when he’s not getting his own way. In veterinary textbooks, this is often referred to as “petting-induced aggression” because the cat takes up residence in the owner’s lap, seemingly enjoying the company and then perhaps after willingly accepting some petting, becomes aggravated, agitated, irritable and then bites or scratches.
Some behaviorists have recommended not petting cats with this problem, and not allowing any lap sitting at all, explaining that cats of this persuasion should be appreciated in different ways. I advise my clients somewhat differently, teaching them to read the warning signs, such as shifty sideways glances, ears rotating sideways and a twitching tip of the tail.
At this point, I recommend they stand up suddenly, allowing the cat to fall to the floor. In addition to this specific situational treatment, I teach them how to become more respected by their cats by first clicker-training the cat to obey a cue, such as “sit,” and then requiring the cat to earn all valued assets by obeying that command before the assets (say food and/or treats) are supplied.
I’m sorry to hear that your cat is a carrier of “cat scratch fever.” This medical condition is caused by the Bartonella bacteria and responds to a number of antibiotics, including azithromycin, ciprofloxacin and doxycycline. Though everyone talks about treating cat scratch fever in people using these antibiotics, I’ve heard very little mention of treating carrier cats with this antibiotic to inactivate the bacteria in their system. You might want to speak with your veterinarian about this possibility.
In the meantime, you should avoid all biting instances as far as possible in the manner I have described, and you may want to make sure that your cat’s claws are kept short or perhaps fitted with plastic nail caps. Please be safe.
Nicholas Dodman, BVMS
Animal Behavior Clinic Director
Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University