We hear a lot about bullies at school and work, but do you have a four-legged furry friend who is a bully? If you’re tiptoeing so that you don’t wake the cat, if your dog is positively terrified of your feline, if you or members of your family sport nasty scratches and bites from what should be friendly interaction with your cat, maybe you have a bully cat.
Who’s in Charge Here?
We’ve all seen or heard about the people who have spoiled pets, but in the case of a bully cat, there’s nothing humorous about it. In many cases where cats become bullies, it’s because people allow their cats to become dominant. Unfortunately, these cats become so nasty that eventually everyone is afraid of disturbing this cat and any attempts to correct the behavior through force often results in even worse behavior.
How Did it Get Like This?
Cats are naturally territorial, but through domestication, they’ve learned to live with each other. In fact, there are feral cat colonies where cats live together by choice. No cat is born a bully cat, although some cats are naturally more dominant than others. Bully cats are made when everyone gives into him. It may start simple, such as a growl or a swipe with claws, and he gets his way. If you have multiple pets, he guards the cat food jealously, and he keeps the dog away from his food. He ambushes you, other pets, or others with teeth and claws bared. Eventually, he gets to be so difficult, you may be considering the unthinkable: sending him to a shelter.
It doesn’t have to be like this. In fact, there are ways to knock the bully down a step or two and train him to be the sweet cat you know he can be.
First Stop: Veterinarian
Before you start treating any behavior problem, your first step is to have a veterinarian examine your cat to be sure that something else isn’t causing his behavior. Pain can put a cat out of sorts, and if your cat has been declawed, he may be aggressive because of residual pain due to losing the first digit of each of his toes. Other health problems can cause pain, too, including: kidney problems, urinary tract infections, megacolon, arthritis, and other conditions. Only when your veterinarian is sure your cat doesn’t have an underlying problem should you attempt to retrain your cat.
Give Everyone a Break
Once your veterinarian has given a clean bill of health for your cat, it’s time to end the reign of the bully cat. Your first job on your cat’s road to recovery is separating him from everyone else. That means he needs to have his own territory knocked back to where he doesn’t rule the roost anymore. Give him a separate room – even a bathroom, if you don’t have a spare room – and equip it with his litter box, scratching post, and food and water dishes. Do not leave food out for him all day long, and only give him one toy to play with. It may seem harsh at first, but all the animals and people in your house need a break from his tyrannical reign – and he needs to be given some boundaries in no uncertain terms.
Next Step: Engage!
The problem with bully cats is that, quite often, they’re clever. Otherwise, why would they have everyone wrapped around their paw? This is an attention seeking mechanism due to boredom. So, give him something to do. That requires some interaction on your part, as well as some planning. Your job is to give your bully cat positive options that will substitute for bad behavior. That means engaging him in a positive way and having him work out his aggressive energy in an acceptable way.
Food Balls Aren’t Just for Fido
Institute a “nothing in life is free” policy. That means food goes in a small puzzle ball that your cat has to work at to get food out of. Cats can and do learn food balls well – better than some dogs. My own cat, Freyja, doesn’t have a food dish. Instead, she has a food ball that she bats around to get her meal throughout the day.
Since you don’t want to starve your bully cat, open the food ball slots so that the maximum amount of food can come out when rolled. You may even have to roll it a few times to show your cat how to get at the food. Once he understands that he must “work” for his food, he’ll bat that food ball around to get the goodies. When he get proficient with the food ball, you can reduce the “payout” so that he has to work a bit harder to get the food.
Your next step is to playtrain your bully. That means fun for both of you! If you don’t have fishing toys for cats or teaser toys on sticks, get some and start working the energy out of your cat. Do not use toys that do not keep your hands safely away from your cat, as it will simply encourage him to attack your hands. Instead, play with your cat with the fishing or teasing toys, encouraging him to chase and play with the toy. When he “catches” it, let him carry it off for a bit so he can feel like he won. Then, grab the handle again and start the play again.
In this way, you have your cat focus on the right behavior while interacting with him and reducing his anxiety and aggression by focusing it on something else besides you and other household members.
Clicker Training, Anyone?
While you’re at it, you can teach your cat clicker training. He’s clever enough to figure it out, so you might as well put his furry brain to good use and have him learn good manners. You can teach him to go to his special spot or bed, bring you toys, or even learn something like cat agility.
Once you have some peace and quiet in your household, the next step is making sure everyone has enough resources and enough safe places. That means having litter boxes for each cat plus one, food bowls for each cat plus one, water bowls for each cat plus one, beds for each plus one, etc. You add an extra resource item to prevent someone from hogging a needed resource.
If the bully cat is a troublemaker with one or more cat, playtraining both the bully and the cat who is being picked on at the same time will help immensely. It allows them to focus on something else while still being in the same vicinity.
Whenever you see your bully misbehaving, you can use a quick squirt of water on his rear end from a water squirter to let him know the behavior isn’t appropriate. It’ll startle him out of whatever he was doing, and then you can follow it up with a quick playtraining session or a clicker command so that he’ll soon get a reward.
View more articles written by Maggie Bonham.