How to help tame a new, angry kitty

Working in a vet office, I’ve of course often come into contact with angry cats.  I’ve also had not so nice kitties in my household – my grandmas cat, Tiger, would attack you if you even looked at him.  However, bringing home Nacho led to the first time I’ve ever personally owned an angry cat.  

Initially, I would joke about how bipolar Nacho was.  He’d be on my lap purring away one second, & the next he’d be biting me…HARD.  After the first few times of being bit, it wasn’t so cute anymore.  That coupled with the fact that I was having a hard time introducing him to the other cats – he especially hated Artie, made it really difficult for me to want to keep him

So many toes!

I’m a sucker for the needy, anyone who knows me can tell you.  While I thought about getting rid of Nacho, my heart wouldn’t let me.  I knew that I had to work with him and help him become a normal cat, who could love and accept love.  

A lot of times, anger in cats comes from fear, and aggressive behavior comes from a cat’s perception that it needs to protect itself. Letting your cat be in any situation where fearful emotions could happen will often result in angry and aggressive kitties. Knowing how to minimize and remove such situations is the best way to keeping your cat calm.

Knowing this, my first step was to ask one of my vets to prescribe kitty Prozac.  I started him on the medication while keeping him completely secluded from everyone but me.  I have a small bathroom I was able to keep him in, with food, water, a litterbox (Cat Attract cat litter was an absolute godsend – when I first brought Nacho home he didn’t seem to understand what a litterbox was for, and would pee and poop anywhere and everywhere).  It has a small window so he could see outside and smell the fresh air, and I tried to spend at least an hour or two with him every day.  I would break that time up in increments – when he would get randomly angry, I would simply leave the room.  

As his body got used to his happy meds, the time that I got to spent petting him and snuggling with him increased in time.  It went from as little as 3-4 minutes, to we’re at the point now where I can leave him outside of the bathroom most of the time.  He still doesn’t get along with Artie – whenever they fight, I make sure that he knows that she has lived here longer, this is HER space…even if she’s the one who instigated the fight, if he participated in it, he gets put back into the bathroom.  

 Recognizing behaviors associated with fear or anger in Nacho was extremely important.  Most of the times, cats will have hairs that stand up, will flatten his ears against their head, or will hiss prior to attacking.  They give you every chance to stop whatever behavior they feel is threatening before they attack.  Nacho was a lot harder to read.  He wouldn’t show any of the warnings above.  It took time, but I eventually realized that his only “tell” was that his pupils would dilate ever so slightly when he was getting angry. That was pretty hard to work with at first – most of the time when he would attack, he would be sitting on my lap, facing away from me.  I adapted by only petting him when he was facing me, so I could see his eyes.  If he turned around, I would still allow him to sit on my lap, but I would not pet him.  It’s been about a couple of months now, and Nacho has finally started hissing and swatting – without claws out – when something is bothering him.  I’ve also realized that most of the time when he does this, he doesn’t WANT to attack me… as soon as I give him space, he runs away – the hissing and swatting is his way of telling me that he needs space and wants to run away.  I still haven’t figured out everything that scares him or makes him angry, but realizing that he’s afraid and not trying to be mean has been a huge help.  I still think that a lot of times when he is calm and in my lap being pet, the reason he would latch out and bite was out of fear – he’d dose off and when he woke up wouldn’t immediately recognize where he was and what was happening… the biting was his form of self-defense.  

With a lot of cats, having a squirt gun handy is a great way to break up cat fights and correct bad behavior.  That didn’t work with Nacho.  I don’t know for sure, but I believe that he spent a lot of his time outside.  He will sit under the sink when the faucet is on full blast, will walk right into the shower when I’m in it, and couldn’t care less when being hit by a water gun.  With Nacho, I found that he responded EXTREMELY well to Feliway sprays (https://amzn.to/2XsomVG).  Feliway is a pheromone spray that mimics the naturally released “happy” messages that mother cats release into the air when their kittens are around.  When Nacho hisses, or would start to pick a fight with Artie, I would spray the Feliway spray in their direction and Nacho would quickly calm down.  

As I mentioned earlier, another step that would work for Nacho would be to just simply walk away.  When Nacho would get angry, stepping away from him in a way that reduces the fearful response would always help – especially just leaving the room that he was in.  Leaving him alone for 15 or 20 minutes would almost always be enough time for him to relax.  

When I came back in the room, I would try to make him feel more confident by making myself appear as small as possible – instead of walking in the room and hovering over him while petting him, I would sit down in a corner, hunching over and avoiding eye contact.  By doing that, I didn’t feel like a threat to Nacho, and he would always respond positively.  Still, before paying attention to him, I would ignore him while he was checking me out, then start quietly singing or talking to myself.  After I could hear Nacho purring or physically feel him relaxing, I would allow for him to get back on my lap and be pet again.  

Providing a safe place for Nacho was ultimately the best thing that I think I did to help him.  When angry or stressed, the first thing Nacho wants to do (after letting out a hiss) is to run and hide to his “safe spot” in the bathroom.  He typically hides in the tiny space between the toilet and the wall, but sometimes he’ll also prefer to hide up high, so I leave the window open enough where he can jump up onto the window sill to get away from Artie when she is antagonizing him.  

What I’m currently working on with Nacho is desensitizing him from any environmental stressors that have been freaking him out.  He was initially terrified of my dad, so i started out by letting Nacho hide in his spot in the bathroom while my dad and I had normal conversation right outside the bathroom.  After several weeks of doing this, Nacho eventually got brave enough to peek his head out of the bathroom to see who was out there.  At that point, I had my dad toss treats at him.  Nacho is now at the point where he will come right up to my dad when he was over.  

To try to help Nacho and Artie get along, I’ve been making it a point to feed them together – separate enough where they’re not directly on top of each other, but close enough where they can see and smell each other while they’re eating.  When I see them in the same room as each other and they’re getting along, i toss treats at them, and try to make sure that any space they’re usually in has plenty of catnip in it.   My hope is to not only desensitize them to each other, but to also help them associate the other one with yummy food and positive feelings.  

Ultimately, having patience with your kitty is the most effective strategy you can have.  Depending on the level of socialization your kitty has had with people and animals, the amount of time to develop trust and confidence can range from as short as a few days, to as long as a matter of years.  Many cats who strike unexpectedly were poorly socialized as kittens and didn’t learn to give warnings or how to trust.  It takes time to develop those skills – and that time is often something that new pet parents are unwilling to give.  Give them time.  It will be worth it, I promise.