Why does my cat bite me out of nowhere?

Updated: Jul 19, 2020, 07:51 IST | Gitanjali Chandrasekharan | Mumbai

Mumbai's cat parents are turning to online courses and academic books to decode their mysterious feline companions

Fashion designer Payal Khandwala’s pup Niko and cat Muji. What do you think Muji is doing? Trying to play with Niko or readying to attack him?
Fashion designer Payal Khandwala’s pup Niko and cat Muji. What do you think Muji is doing? Trying to play with Niko or readying to attack him?

Payal Khandwala adopted Muji, a brown tabby, some time in 2017. The sole furry resident of her Colaba home, life with Muji was fine until early this year when the Khandwala home decided to adopt Niko, a dog. "I had done some research online and took care to introduce them to each other's smells and do it slowly and not just go, 'hey, here's a friend, have fun'." For the first few days, the humans in the house didn't let the pawed creatures meet. It was just about smells and seeing the other from afar. "But then one day, my cat came and swatted at the dog," says Khandwala.

Nervous about not wanting the two to form a bad association, Khandwala reached out to animal behaviourist Amanda Tong. Now, the compromise at home involves cordoning off the two animals to different parts of the house. "My pup is afraid of the cat and while they may co-habit eventually, we know now to never let the two animals hang out unsupervised. One could be mauled one day—either the dog can kill the cat or the cat can gouge out his eyes and blind him. We had not considered this before we rescued the fellow."

Payal Khandwala
Payal Khandwala

The last few months have been educative for Khandwala. While on the one hand, she's been getting more information from Tong, who works with The Animal Behaviour Academy, Mumbai, which has partnered with the NGO Animal Adoption & Care, she has also been trudging the Internet for as much behavioural information about her feline pet as she can manage. An ardent follower of Jackson Galaxy (Instagram, @thecatdaddy), the 54-year-old author of Cat Daddy: What The World's Most Incorrigible Cat Taught Me About Life, Love and Coming Clean, Khandwala says she often pores through his many videos to understand Muji better and also improve his interactions with Niko.

This summer, she sat through a four-week course from CourseEra titled The Truth About Cats and Dogs, conducted by the University of Edinburgh. The course, which has four instructors, is introduced as: "What is your cat revealing to you when she purrs? What is your dog expressing when he yawns or wags his tail? Understanding your cat and dog's behaviour and the way they communicate with you, will enable you to better understand their needs and strengthen your relationship with them… from our beloved pets to street dogs, shelter dogs/cats and welfare challenges, we explore the world from their perspective and examine how their genetic make-up may influence their behavioural responses and choices. We dispel common behavioural myths by looking through a scientific lens, asking questions about the function and development of their behaviour... We explore how their senses help them to interact with their world and how they communicate with each other and us!"

Khandwala isn't the only one trying to decide the behaviour of her feline companion using expert help and research.

Dr Heather Jacob
Dr Heather Bacon

Dr Heather Bacon, the Veterinary Welfare Education and Outreach manager at the University of Edinburgh's Jeanne Marchig International Centre for Animal Welfare Education (JMICAWE), and one of the instructors for the course, says, "Cats are quite independent, unlike dogs, and their behaviour is difficult to interpret. So, there has been an increasing desire among cat owners to understand them." She says that she sees pet parents sign up for classes at the courses she conducts—the Masters programme and the MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses).

Among the top problems that pet parents want to understand, says Bacon, is toilet behaviour. "Cats are funny creatures. When they get stressed, they internalise the stress and that can cause an inflammation of the bladder. And so, there's a desire to urinate frequently and when this happens outside the litter box, it is a big problem for the owners. What they need to understand is that the cat is not trying to be naughty or difficult, but is doing this because it is stressed. If you address the cause of stress, you'll reduce the inflammation," she says, adding that cats could also feel stressed if you have introduced another cat at home, one that it has not been raised with. "In such scenarios there will be conflict. The cats will try and avoid each other or guard their resources, compete for food, the resting spot or even an owner's affection. One might be super affectionate, while the other goes into hiding under the bed or avoids interaction, because it doesn't want to cause trouble."

Some problems can be resolved at an earlier stage. For instance, scratching of furniture. This and other challenges are going to be addressed at a two-week online course conducted by The Animal Behaviour Academy, for owners of cats under 13 weeks.

Animal behaviourist Amanda Tong, who is parent to Oscar and Joey, studied feline behaviour at UK’s University of Lincoln. When she gets queries from clients at The Animal Behaviour Academy, she hands them literature and academic papers, so that they understand cat behaviour better
Animal behaviourist Amanda Tong, who is parent to Oscar and Joey, studied feline behaviour at UK's University of Lincoln. When she gets queries from clients at The Animal Behaviour Academy, she hands them literature and academic papers, so that they understand cat behaviour better

Tong, who completed her MSc in Clinical Animal Behaviour from the University of Lincoln in England this January says it's a myth that cats can't be trained. "They can fetch, or be asked to give their paws to cut their nails, or go to bed, just as what you would do with dogs," says Tong, who has a cat she calls Oscar.

The key to resolving any conflict with your cat, she says, is to understand patterns and triggers. For instance, when a client asks her why their cat suddenly bites while they gently stroke them, she says there's a chance it's a behaviour that has been associated with playing. "We play with kittens sometimes, by moving our fingers and then when the kitten reaches out for the fingers or attacks it, we say, 'Aww, so cute'. But, when as an adult, it shows the same behaviour, it hurts more because the teeth are sharper and we wonder why the cat is doing it. It is only acting as it did when it was a kitten," Tong explains.

It also pays to understand the signs of communication. Cats are vocal only when communicating with humans. For all other animals, their body language says it all.
Khandwala refers to a photo she has of Niko and Muji where they are playing with each other. "I shared it with Amanda thinking Muji was cute and trying to play with Niko, but she pointed out to the hair, which was standing, and the dilated pupils. She said, 'He's not playing. He's preparing to attack Niko'."

Courses

The Truth About Cats and Dogs

Course Era
FREE

Feline Behaviour and Psychology Diploma
Centre for Excellence, UK
Rs 12,000

Everything you need to know about Kitty Kindergarten
The Animal Behaviour Academy, Mumbai
Rs 1,600

Cat Behavior Rectification & Cat Health Care:
2 courses in 1

Udemy
Rs 3,200 (at original price)

How I take my cat for a walk

Divya Atri
Divya Atri

Andheri-based sports nutritionist Divya Atri has two kittens at home. Nero, 11 months, and Rinpoche, 3 months old. For both rescues, she has done it all, gone through Internet videos, consulted a feline behaviourist (Tong) and also picked up a book from Versova's Cat Café to take care of her kittens better. She understands their responses come from their survival instinct, they are after all, fragile creatures. "They are also sceptical by nature and so, don't trust you easily. I keep reading up because I want to give them the good life. That's also why I got Rino home—to give Nero company." But, it took a month to get them introduced to each other in person.

Another aspect of giving Nero more experiences is to take him out for a walk, which she does on a leash. "But walks with cats are different. The cat is not going to follow you. This is not to dominate you. They are curious by nature and so, will sniff around. They will be slow and take their own time to get to know their surroundings. They will try to mark territories."

Books

Cat book

Cat Daddy: What the World's Most Incorrigible Cat Taught Me About Life, Love, and Coming Clean
By Jackson Galaxy

Decoding Your Cat: The Ultimate Experts Explain Common Cat Behaviors and Reveal How to Prevent or Change Unwanted Ones By American College of Veterinary Behaviorists

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