Guest post by Rita Atkins
On a cold November day in 2001, in a parking garage in Oklahoma City, my husband and I became the forever family of a pint-sized Maine Coon mix with a jumbo-sized anger management problem.
Wheeling my luggage through the parking garage after returning from a business trip, my husband and I came across a small, grimy kitty who had recently given birth, looking up at us as if to say, “Great, my ride is here!” After an unsuccessful search for her kittens, we scooped her up and loaded her into the car. We took her to a nearby vet right away for a good bath and medical treatment for infected mammary glands, which had to heal before she could be spayed. The vet told us she was six months to a year old and had probably last nursed about a week before we found her. She was also the hostess of a particularly hardy tape worm that would live with her for the next two and a half years before it simply died of old age.
We were not looking for a pet at the time. In fact, we thought at some point we wanted a dog. It wasn’t that we didn’t like cats, but neither of us were very experienced with them. We considered finding her a good home with some bona fide “cat people”, calling her Kitty Girl so as to not give her a real name and risk getting too attached.
Too late! Kitty Girl fell in love with my husband after the second day in our home. The name stuck, and so did she. To this day, over 15 years later, he is her one and only love.
Antisocial or aggressive?
Kitty Girl was, and still is, one of the prettiest cats we’ve ever seen. Her medium to long tabby with white coat, fluffy toe tufts and mane, and overall body shape (though petite) is classic Maine Coon, while her sweet round eyes and face suggest possible Siberian heritage. Regardless, she is a lovely little cat. As we soon discovered, though, her beautiful looks belied a spirit that was struggling. Not long after we declared her ours, she started displaying some aggressive tendencies, including hissing and swatting at inanimate objects that were new to her. While tolerant of people as long as they didn’t try to pet her, reaching toward her earned most a quick left hook. Not knowing any better, we attributed her antisocial behavior to simply being a cat. She definitely preferred men, making us think that maybe a woman had been unkind to her.
For the next five years or so, which included a move to Florida, then to Virginia, Kitty Girl maintained a steady pattern of being a daddy’s girl, tolerating me, and considering any other living thing something to be neutralized. People would tell us, “She’s so pretty. It’s too bad she’s so unfriendly.” We considered it just her way.
Then something happened (or maybe several somethings) that caused Kitty Girl to start becoming aggressive toward me when I did something she found out of the ordinary. Rattling dishes in the sink, tripping over something lying on the floor, or simply answering a knock at the door elicited hisses, grabbing with her claws out, and sometimes biting. She then started directing her hostility toward me if anything else upset her. My husband dropped a book, and she turned to me, hissing and swatting. Once she got over the initial hostility, she would remain upset with me for the next day or so. It was like walking on eggshells in our home, trying not to upset her. Between these events, she seemed a happy, playful cat.
When Kitty Girl was about 8 years old, we moved to New Mexico. She had taken all of our other moves in stride, and seemed to adjust well this time. Her angry spells continued, but I could recognize their onset and separate myself from her before they escalated. Then one night, I never saw it coming.
After 3 months in our new home, I walked by her, snoozing peacefully under the dining room table. Minutes later, as I brushed my teeth in the master bath, I felt something hit the back of my leg. Seemingly out of nowhere, Kitty Girl had clamped on tight with her jaws. Once I pushed her off, she repeated a pattern of attack and retreat for the next fifteen minutes or so, eyes dilated to complete blackness, ears back, and growling. Between assaults, I managed to stop the bleeding on the back of my leg (vein wounds bleed profusely), place all of her things in a spare bedroom, lure her in with some canned salmon, and close the door.
During the whole attack that night, Kitty Girl looked miserable. She was panting between growls, and her body posture was completely defensive, as if she was the one under attack. It was heart wrenching to see this beautiful cat so out of control. Kitty Girl clearly needed help, and so did we.
The next day, my husband phoned several vet offices, most of which were at a loss as to how they could help us since Kitty Girl wasn’t having a medical issue. We finally found one office that referred us to Dr. Jeff Nichol, DVM. Dr. Nichol is a member of the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, and specializes in behavioral medicine. After a two-hour consultation and a thorough medical exam, Dr. Nichol diagnosed Kitty Girl with fear aggression, with secondary redirected aggression toward me. He advised it would take some work, probably for the rest of her life, but there was hope that we could help her.
Dr. Nichol prescribed a combination of medication and behavioral therapy to help her be less fearful, calm herself more quickly when she gets upset, and learn that I wasn’t such a bad person to have around. Kitty Girl was started on anti-anxiety medication, which was adjusted after a few weeks to best manage her aggression while minimizing side-effects. We changed her environment to include the addition of Feliway Diffusers, an extra litter box, and devices around the yard to shoo away any interloping outdoor felines that may be upsetting her. For four weeks, I alone interacted with her. Kitty Girl and I had several play sessions each day with wand toys (Da Bird is still her favorite). I doled out treats when her behavior was calm, and ignored her if she started to get what I call “twitchy”. I also taught her “sit”, which she is still quite good at. If I notice her getting tense about something, I ask her to “sit” and give her a treat when she complies. There is a behavioral term for it, but basically it gives her something else to do so she will forget why she is mad. With applying medication and behavioral tools, things started to slowly turn around. We could tell Kitty Girl was feeling less fearful and more relaxed, and her aggression levels decreased in turn.
Based on our experience, we are tried and true believers in seeking professional intervention for behavioral problems in pets. We would have never been able to “self-diagnose” Kitty Girl’s fear aggression, or have had the knowledge and skills to work with her if we had not had her evaluated and treated by a behaviorist. Dr. Nichol became our partner in helping Kitty Girl, and though we have moved back to Virginia and she has a new veterinarian, we still keep in touch with him just to let him know how she is getting along.
Lessons learned from Kitty Girl
It has been over 7 years since she attacked me that evening, and her aggression is now mostly confined to using bad language and a swat or two. We weaned her off the medication two years ago and she is doing well, perhaps because she is much older now and has calmed with age, or perhaps she has developed better coping skills and we are more educated to help her. We still keep a bottle of her medication in the cupboard just in case she needs a little extra help, but so far, so good.
Many people over the years have told me they would have “put that cat down”. While the option was discussed with Dr. Nichol, we dismissed it as quickly as it came up. Kitty Girl is family, for better or worse. Over time, I began to think about the saying, “We get the pets we need, not necessarily the pets we want”. I mused over why I might “need” a fear aggressive ball of claws and fangs in my life, and what Kitty Girl has taught me. Maybe it’s that fear is at the root of anger issues for humans as well, including people in my own life whom I have had difficulty understanding and loving. If I work so hard to find the good in a not-always-lovable little cat, shouldn’t I be working just as hard to find the good in people, too?
Kitty Girl also has led me to volunteer work in cat rescue. Because of her, I have a soft spot for Maine Coons and for special needs cats. Kitty Girl may not be physically disabled, but her emotional fragility makes her every bit as much a special need pet.
Our Kitty Girl will always have a sassier-than-most personality, but we hope that our efforts have made her life more happy and secure than it may otherwise have been. As we often say, “She’s not a nice kitty, but she’s our kitty and we love her.”
Rita Atkins volunteers with Only Maine Coon Rescue. The group specializes in the Maine Coon Cat breed and rescues Maine Coon Cat / Kitten mixes from shelters and unwanted situations. All of their cats are lovingly cared for in foster homes until they are adopted.