Ask the Cat Behaviorist with Dr. Marci Koski: Cat Acts Like a Guard Dog, Cat Bites When Overstimulated, and More

Ask-the-Cat-Behaviorist-Marci-Koski

This post contains affiliate links*

Dr. Marci Koski is a certified Feline Behavior and Training Professional who received specialized and advanced certificates in Feline Training and Behavior from the Animal Behavior Institute. While Marci has been passionate about all animals and their welfare, cats have always had a special place in her heart. In fact, Marci can’t remember a time when she’s been without at least one cat in her life. She currently relies on her five-member support staff  to maintain the feline duties of her household.

Marci’s own company, Feline Behavior Solutions, focuses on keeping cats in homes, and from being abandoned to streets or shelters as the result of treatable behavior issues. Marci believes that the number of cats who are abandoned and/or euthanized in shelters can be greatly reduced if guardians better understand what drives their cats to certain behaviors, and learn how to work with their cats to encourage appropriate behaviors instead of unwanted ones.

Do you have a question for Marci?
Leave it in a comment, and she’ll answer it next month!

Cat acts like guard dog

My oldest tomcat will turn 12 years soon. At about 1 year of life he suffered a psychological trauma (because of jealousy someone wanted to kill him). Since then he acts like a guard pit bull: as soon as anyone (woman or man) enters my apartment, he attacks – he growls, hisses a bit, then attacks. If the new person is willing and strong-willed enough and makes 4-5-6 visits, he accepts the person and does not attack that much. But if the person stays overnight (as a friend did) he will step over the person then lick their face and that’s it, no more attacking. He is a doll with other cats. He is the alpha male so he will slap a new cat then lick the newcomer and that’s it… He might hiss, but I think this is normal. Would there be any solution to improve this behavior, also keeping in mind that he is not young anymore? – – Valeria

Hi Valeria – thanks for writing about your kitty. Human-directed aggression can be a complex issue, but based on your description, it sounds as if your cat may be attacking strangers who come to your home out of fear. After all, this new person has come into his territory, bringing in unfamiliar scents and sounds…if your cat is scared of people because of his past trauma, that could really invoke panic and cause your cat to lash out in a sort of “defensive aggressive” manner. Think “fight or flight”; most cats choose flight, but if your cat feels like there’s nowhere to go (even though there may physically be places to hide or which to flee), fight might be his only perceived option.

There are two things to consider. First, you want to keep your visitors safe from attacks; second, you want to help your cat be more comfortable when unfamiliar people arrive. Regarding the first issue – the safety of your guests – would it be possible to put your kitty in a bedroom (which would have food, water, litterbox, scratching post, bedding, and a favorite toy or two in it so that he actually enjoys being there) before your guests arrive? This is not a long-term solution, but I’ll get to that in a moment. It may help to bring out a favorite toy (or food puzzle with a delicious favorite treat) and put it in his room when visitors arrive (or before); in fact, these favorite items ONLY come out when visitors arrive. The best way to avoid confrontation is to take away the opportunity for it to happen, at least at first. I would also have some sort of barrier near the door (like a flattened cardboard box or the top of a plastic storage box) so that if someone comes over unexpectedly, it can be used as a stationary block to prevent an attack simply by placing it in front of your visitor.

The next thing to consider is reshaping his association with visitors so that they aren’t associated with fear, but good things instead. You’re already starting to do this when you put him in his room and give him a favorite toy or treat to enjoy only when guests arrive (or shortly before). It will take time to reshape his association because he’s spent 12 years living with fear of strangers, so change will not happen overnight! But what you will do is use counter-conditioning (pairing something good with something that he considers bad, or fear-invoking) and desensitization (gradually increasing his exposure to a trigger) to increase his tolerance to visitors and even enjoy their presence.

We start to do this by defining an exposure gradient. At first, your kitty may be confined to the bedroom with a favorite toy/treat. The next step might be to put a gate on the bedroom door so that he can hear (and potentially see) the visitor but still be inside his bedroom with good things. The next step might be to let him out of the bedroom but only out into the hallway where he can completely view the visitor through a barrier (while the guest ignores him by not looking directly at him and talking with you, and at the same time casually tossing him a favorite treat from a distance). The next step might be to have the visitor come closer to the barrier while tossing the treats, then interact with him through the barrier (treats), then remove the barrier, treat treat treat, etc. See where this is going? You may also need to desensitize him to the sounds of knocking on the door or the doorbell ringing using treats, petting, praise, or anything else your kitty enjoys.

This process will take time – perhaps weeks or even months. If you have a couple of friends who are willing to come over periodically and work with you so that visits happen more frequently, that would be beneficial! Good luck; I hope this helps.

Cat bites when overstimulated

My new kitty is a nipper. Sometimes they are over-stimulation bites, but usually not. And when they are, she does not give the common “tail-swish” cue. She just stops purring and suddenly nips. More commonly, she “attacks” to get my attention. She will walk up, eyeball my leg for a few seconds, then pounce, then jump back. Repeat ’til I get up to see what she wants. But sometimes instead of pouncing, she’ll just face-rub my leg. Sometimes she’ll get into bed with me, but instead of cuddling or settling in, she’ll stare at my hands and arms for a few seconds, then pounce, then jump back. In that mode, she gets progressively more forceful until I shove her away firmly. She sits a few feet away for several minutes, then returns with a better attitude. She has never come close to breaking the skin, but she will grab, hold, and tug. That smarts. I have never encouraged her to view my hands or arms as toys. I’ve had other cats that I *did* raise that way, and none became bitey. – – Norrin Radd

Hi Norrin – how old is your new kitty? It sounds like she wants to plaaaaaayyyy! She’s trying to get your attention in ways that will get you to engage with her; pouncing at a leg or arm then jumping back is kind of like “tag – you’re it!”. This is generally not an attack from anger – you’d see her body language change (ears back, tail swishing, etc.) and hear her hissing and growling before these attacks. If she’s doing this silently and bouncing back waiting for you to reciprocate, it’s mostly likely what we call play aggression.

Are you playing with her during the day? I highly recommend getting her on a play and feeding schedule where you are engaging her in a “hunting” play session with suitable prey (a wand toy with various prey-like lures on it) before her meals so that she gets into that natural “hunt-eat-groom-sleep” cycle. Use a long wand toy (like Da Bird, or the fishing rod wand from Dezi and Roo) to give her a prey item – anything that resembles a bird, rodent, bug, or reptile (including snakes!) will work great. Take her through the prey sequence – staring, stalking and chasing, pouncing and grabbing, and performing a kill bite – and after a 15-minute play session, give her a meal or a snack (to get the hunt-eat-groom-sleep cycle going). For younger kitties, I recommend at least 2-3 play sessions per day, at least 15 minutes each. Cats can become bored, so switching lures can help! And don’t forget – they will go back and forth in the prey sequence, including going back to staring. So if you think your cat is done after just a couple of minutes, think again! Give her a 30-second break, or change the lure, or spray it with catnip spray, etc.

The important thing is to have fun with your new kitty, and make sure she gets the opportunity to be the purrocious predator she naturally is. The more you are able to give her appropriate prey items to hunt, the less she will try to engage you as a potential prey item!

Helping an overweight cat keep her hindquarters clean

I have a cat who will be 8 yrs old she a little girl spayed but she put on some weight so when she uses the bathroom she doesn’t clean herself that good so she wipes herself on towels that I leave on the bed for her. Once a day or so I wash her behind and use some powder stuff that the vet gave me. My question do you know if they make powder so i can put on her behind after I wash her butt? – – Darlene

Hi Darlene – First of all, stick to the powder product that your vet gave you; many products made for humans are not appropriate for animals (and can potentially be toxic). Also, please talk with your veterinarian about how to help your kitty girl lose weight. Cats who are too overweight to groom themselves properly are often uncomfortable, or there could be some other medical reason she is not grooming herself. Your vet may talk with you about a diet, but play is also important. Please see my response to Norrin above about play – you may try having only a short play session with your girl once per day to start (depending on her initial activity level), then increase the play time as she becomes more accustomed to them. Finally, if your kitty has long fur, you may wish to periodically have a groomer give her a sanitary trim so that the fur on her hindquarters stays cleaner after she poops. I wish you and your kitty all the best!

Cat pees next to the litterbox

My cat is 7 years old and often pees on the floor next to the box, even when the box is first cleaned. How do I stop it? – – Dora Reed

Hi Dora – there are many reasons why your kitty may be urinating next to her litterbox, and cleanliness is only one aspect. But do continue cleaning her box out 1-2 times per day; that will help.

First, please do have your cat examined by a veterinarian to rule out any medical reasons why your cat may be avoiding the litterbox. If she has a bladder infection, crystals in her urine, or other urinary issue, she may be starting to associate urinating in the litterbox with pain (hence urinating outside of the box). While you’re waiting for the veterinarian to give you the all-clear (fingers crossed that your kitty is completely healthy), the next thing you’ll want to do is take a good look at your litterbox setup. Here are some common things I recommend for kitties to change their litterboxes from “cat-box porta-potty of gloom” to “can’t pass up using this wonderful bathroom”:

• Do you have enough litterboxes in the home? Even if you only have one cat, you should have at least 2 boxes; some kitties don’t like to pee and poop in the same box. The number of boxes you have should be the number of cats you have plus one.
• Remove hoods from litterboxes – they trap unpleasant scents and block your cat’s ability to see her surroundings, which may make her feel unsafe (see last point below).
• Use unscented clumping litter – cats have an incredible sense of smell, and those scented litters can make them feel like they are trapped in an elevator with someone who is wearing way too much cologne.
• Is your litterbox big enough? Most commercial litterboxes are too small. The box should be at least 1.5 times the length of your cat’s body. Use shallow storage containers (works for most cats) or a large high-sided utility tub with a U-shaped door cut out of the side if you have a “high-peeing” cat or one who scatters litter all over the place.
• Location, location, location! Put your cat’s box somewhere in his socially-significant area – NOT in a distant closet or bathroom or basement (some place your cat wouldn’t otherwise go). Yes, this means that you might have a litterbox in your living room. Try to avoid putting the box where there are potential ambush points (your cat is a predator, but also prey – they need to feel safe when in the box) and give your cat a view of her surroundings (avoid placing the box near blind corners they can’t see around, under shelves, etc.). Also, place boxes in different rooms – two boxes right next to each other is perceived as one box.

This should get you started – if you continue to have problems, you may need to work with a professional cat behavior consultant to help identify and mitigate stressors in the home or other reasons why your kitty is avoiding the litterbox. Good luck!

Cat is obsessed with wand toy string

My 8 year old male kitty is obsessed with any wand toy, but it’s not the toy itself that he wants, it is the string or wire that it is attached to that he wants. He grabs it in his mouth and chews. He won’t let go until he breaks it (takes maybe 60 seconds to chew through a braided cord). I have to physically remove the cord/wire from his mouth because he won’t let go of it. I’m concerned that he will damage his mouth with the wires, especially if he were to break one. I never leave the toys around; they are kept in a closet on a high shelf. He repeatedly goes to closet door and cries until I take out wand toy and play with him. He’s so fast that it’s a challenge not to let him “catch” it and then start chewing on the string/wire. He’s not very interested in any other type of toys. Any suggestions? – – JoAnne

Hi JoAnne – that is puzzling! We definitely want to make sure that he is safe, and that he doesn’t get injured by chewing on wire or swallowing cords, so it’s good that you keep them out of his reach when they are not in use. And, we still want him to have fun playing! You said that he’s not very interested in any other type of toy – if there is another type of toy that he enjoys, could you make it more attractive by spraying it with catnip spray or honeysuckle spray? Alternatively, can you make the “lure” part of the wand toy be more the focus of the toy by doing the same thing – marinating the lure in catnip or spritzing it with catnip/honeysuckle?

Also, what type of wand toys are you using? If they are the kind with a fleece or highly visible cord, maybe try something else. Thinner strings (such as the one on Da Bird) or even invisible line (like Dezi and Roo’s wand) may take the emphasis from the cord and refocus his attention on the lure. Further, the longer the wand and string, the faster it will move (it has a wider range of motion, too), and the harder it will be to actually catch the string part. I love wand toys because they are the only type of toy that can fulfill each step in the prey sequence (see my response to Norrin, above), so I don’t want to discourage their use. Try using lures that have string-like qualities so that he focuses on the lure instead of the wand’s string. There are “wiggly worm” lures that look like fuzzy snakes that you can clip on to a standard wand toy (again, such as Da Bird), and Dezi and Roo make a few lures that have stringy tendrils on them that are made with heavy paper or fibers. Check those out and see if your cat would like any of those.

And, if he REALLY loves string toys, there’s no harm in letting him play with them as long as you are supervising! The Cat Charmer (which is a long strip of rainbow fleece that comes off of a shorter plastic wand) could be really fun for him, even if he does chew it. As long as he’s not ingesting the fleece and enjoying himself, it’s ok to indulge him.

Readers, do you have additional ideas JoAnne might try? This sounds like a time for creative solutions! 😊

*The Conscious Cat is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites. This means that if you decide to purchase through any of our links, we get a small commission. The Conscious Cat is a member of Etsy’s affiliate program. We only spread the word about products and services we’ve either used or would use ourselves.

8 Comments on Ask the Cat Behaviorist with Dr. Marci Koski: Cat Acts Like a Guard Dog, Cat Bites When Overstimulated, and More

  1. Ingrid
    April 22, 2019 at 7:19 am (2 days ago)

    Question from Lilo Huhle-Poelz, originally posted on April 3 as a question for Dr. Lynn Bahr in our Ask-the Cat-Doc segment. Dr. Bahr requested that this question be posted to Dr. Marci.

    I have had cats all my life, and for the past 22 years my husband and I have had up to 35 indoor/outdoor rescue cats (all fixed). So I am rather experienced with cats. Yet now, I am at the end of my wits. Three of our 4 existing tomcats don’t get along with 2 tomcats we adopted last November and will fight until blood is flowing, whenever they have a chance. (We have to rotate the 2 groups of tomcats between our house, the guest room, the garage, the sun room, and the outdoors, several times a day. That’s quite a task!) I wrote you a letter asking for help, a few weeks ago, but this letter never showed on this website. It must have landed in the abysses of cyber space.
    Yet now, we have an even worse problem: One of our tenants found her cat, Gates, missing last December. She was overjoyed to find a picture of him on Facebook, posted by a local Cat Rescue Organization. She picked him up, and everything was fine and dandy, except that Gates, who had always been friendly to the very lively huge puppy, now suddenly was “mean” to him. And then, 2 days ago, the real Gates came back (after having been missing since early December, when our tenant first moved into our property). The cat she had picked up at the Cat Rescue had been a look-alike of her cat.
    Even though, the two Gates (after first hissing) seemed to get along with each other, our tenant cannot keep both cats for a number of reasons. So she asked us to adopt Gates II.
    We had met Gates II before and had found him an exceptionally friendly and affectionate cat, and I had spent quite some time petting him while my husband had been busy repairing the furnace of the duplex-apartment.
    My husband and I are in our late 70s. We were now down to 16 cats. And we no longer adopt more cats (except when one walks in or gets dropped off). But with this cat we made an exception because we had found him such an adorable cat (and also because we wanted to be helpful to our tenant). So I picked up Gates II, last night.
    And now there is disaster!!!
    As we had done before, when we adopted a new cat, we put the opened pet carrier with Gates II into a huge dog cage in our living room, so that he could see our other cats, while being in a safe place. Some cats came over to greet the newcomer, but Gates II remained in the pet carrier, within the dog cage.
    Some time before we went to bed, we moved the pet carrier with Gates II to our guest room (which, since last November, had been the main refuge for the, then, newly adopted 2 tomcats, Ginger, and Link). Since Ginger is a very mellow cat, we left him in the guest room (on a tower of boxes), while my husband and I sat down on the futon trying to coax Gate II out of the pet carrier with a selection of cat food. Gates II finally emerged, ate some of the food, but the exchanged glances between Gates II and Ginger were anything but friendly. So we removed Ginger from the room.
    This morning (while I was still asleep), my husband entered the guest room, and Link (the other cat who had considered the guest room his main refuge since last November) dashed in right behind my husband. Before my husband could make any move, Gates II attacked Link fiercely, and after my husband had managed to get Link out of the room, Gates II attacked my husband’s legs and left injuries, even though my husband was wearing jeans and long johns underneath.
    When I got up, several hours later, my husband and I entered the room again (without any other cat around), and we talked to Gates II and petted him. He seemed to wish to “apologize” to my husband for the attack he had landed on him several hours earlier,. He liked being petted, and he brushed against both of us.
    I eventually picked up Gates II and put him over my shoulder (careful not to get him close to my face). He seemed relaxed. Then I walked 2 steps with him and put him down softly on the little desk by the window. (This window is on the 2nd floor, and there is nothing to see from it but vehicles–no cats in sight.) The moment I had put him down, he turned around and put his long claws into my left hand, deeper than I had ever been clawed by any cat. (I, right after, applied antibiotic ointment, but where one of his claws hit a vein, my hand is swollen now and might have infection.)
    I could somewhat understand that seeing Link (a huge cat) come into the room, this morning, Gates II was so upset that he attacked my husband’s legs, but shouldn’t he have simmered down after several hours being in the nice, bright room by himself, with no other cat in sight?
    Is there any chance that he’ll adjust and get along with the other cats of Happy Cats Ranch? (And remember, we already have trouble between 2 groups of tomcats.) We live 10 miles from town. And our cherished vet, who lives 20 miles from us, has retired 15 months ago, and is now only rarely available. The remaining 2 vet offices in town are difficult to get appointments with. Thus, if a cat gets injured, we do have quite a problem.
    Can Gates II even be adopted out by the local shelter or the local Cat Rescue Organization? Even if there were no other animals around, I would not trust him with children. (Most people in our area have children and/or grandchildren. We don’t.)
    I am afraid that if we return Gates II to our tenant (who will have to return him to the local Cat Rescue Organization or to the local shelter), he will end up euthanized (or he will get adopted out and hurt somebody).
    Is there any chance to get this cat re-socialized and save his life?
    And do you have any suggestions how we can stop the outright war between our other 2 tomcat groups? (Add to this a newly dropped of tom, who is also at war with our existing “gang of three”.)
    As I said, we have had up to 35 cats ever since 1987 (when we got settled at our 18-acre country property, bordering federal lands), and we have never ever had such problems with cat wars (and even less with cats attacking us).
    HELP!!!

    Reply
  2. Cheri Collins
    March 27, 2019 at 8:16 pm (4 weeks ago)

    JoAnne,
    Does your cat have “cat grass” to chew on? It’s somewhat string-like, but OK to chew and swallow. One of my cats loves it. You can buy it or grow it yourself.
    I also have a cat who likes to play with a string, any string. I got a “fishing pole” toy with just a long length of a thin strip of fabric. Looks and feels like polartec fleece, may be leftovers from making clothing. My cat likes this “string” even tho it’s different, but doesn’t like to chew on it so much — it’s fuzzy.

    Reply
  3. Mollie Hunt
    March 27, 2019 at 3:46 pm (4 weeks ago)

    If Darlene’s kitty is “wiping” her butt on things, has she been checked for parasites or an infection?

    Reply
  4. Rolfe Smith
    March 27, 2019 at 10:57 am (4 weeks ago)

    I have four cats and the youngest is a two year old spayed female. The problem is that she is constantly marking various places around the house. How can I correct this behavior. I’m tired of cleaning. She is by far the most active of the four cats, constantly exploring and running around. Even with all that energy, she does not like playing with feather teasers and toys, so wearing her out is impossible.

    Reply
  5. Janine
    March 27, 2019 at 7:51 am (4 weeks ago)

    Speaking of cats obsessed with the string on the wand toys, this sounds like how my Nani used to be. She was obsessed with any kind of string. She would chew the ends of blankets and rugs. She would chew fringes on sweaters and chew off buttons and beads. I had to always keep a close watch on her.

    Reply
    • Marge
      March 27, 2019 at 1:44 pm (4 weeks ago)

      Oh I can relate to this! The male we lost last April would chew on so many things, in particular plastic (hard or soft!) He trained me to NEVER leave any kind of plastic around – bags, wrappers, tags on cords, hard plastic shells some items come in, etc. But he would also chew on any kind of string-like thing – the ends of blankets, rugs, even string pulled up on a comforter or blankets by others kneading them! I used to say they have bomb, drug and cadaver sniffing dogs, I had a plastic sniffing cat!!! Another was/is fascinated by Q-tips AND any shiny metal objects – so I had to ensure nothing like that was around for her!!!

      Chewing through the “cords” holding hanging toys was the bailiwick of several cats who have lived with me! Can’t play with the toy, just chew the cord and free the toy! I would tie then back together so the others could play with the toys, but eventually it was chewed through too many times (they never tried to eat it though!)

      Reply
  6. rozanne malaise
    March 27, 2019 at 4:50 am (4 weeks ago)

    I have a female cat that is very mellow and friendly towards people as well as other cats. The problem is that the other two cats either ignore her (male) or the senior female will swat and/or hiss at her . It appears the senior female is jealous because when she comes to bed with me, she will then start swatting or hissing if the other female is on the bed. She will also have this behavior if the younger female is by me at other times. This behavior disturbs me and I cannot figure out why the younger cat is treated in this manner.

    Reply
    • Marge
      March 27, 2019 at 1:37 pm (4 weeks ago)

      rozanne – in some respects, cat are like people too. Some people do not get along and some cats just don’t get along. My oldest has only ever accepted ONE cat, and she came before her. The rest, nope. She is not really aggressive, but clearly had issues – she would NOT sleep in my bed for about 6 months after two kittens came in when she was a year old (bonded too well to me, so ALL cats are scum in her eyes!) So long as the others leave her alone and stay out of her “space”, she doesn’t attack, but will defend herself.

      I also had to separate a brother and sister from all the others or deal with major fights and sometimes pee/poo on the floor following these nasty interactions! One of those two girls (the real problem ones were both female, they were the real fighters, and I do mean fight, not spats!) hassles the sweetest male cat (he will NOT stand up to her although he is bigger), so they must be separated as well. Funny thing is the female’s sister and the male’s sister also do not get along (not as bad, but I keep them all separated to avoid any nasty interactions! Separation here involves using wooden screen doors installed in the hallway entrances.)

      That said, we lost the brother of the two isolated kitties, which left the sister alone in her area. I tried bringing in 2 kittens to keep her company, figuring she could be queen bee – alas, it was not to be as one of the kittens was female and apparently she does NOT like females! She would try to schmooze up to my oldest male when he was still among us, so it wasn’t ALL cats, just female. Since then I have replaced the kittens (moved them to another area – 3 zones now!) with an older male from the local shelter. They get along just fine and I find them sleeping together, with no fighting!

      There may be ways to “desensitize” per some of the suggestions made in the posts by Dr. Koski, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. The male ignoring her isn’t causing a problem other than it would be nice if they could get along and spend time together. My sweetie male really is pretty much a “loner”, while the other one that we lost last April would allow the “girls” to nap with him. They all do have their own purrsonalities!

      Hopefully you can find the magic solution to the girl spats.

      Reply

Leave a comment

First time visitors: please read our Comment Guidelines.