When my son cruised through his second year of life without going through the infamous "terrible twos," my husband and I (new parents) thought we were sooooo lucky.
Until our precious baby turned 3. It was then that we paid for such smooth sailing, learning crisis-control techniques that should qualify us for a second career as FBI hostage negotiators.
And how does one handle a person having a temper tantrum?
In my experience, it seems best in most instances to back off, give them some "alone time," and allow a cool-down period before trying to do anything to settle them down. A tantrum is akin to a frenzy, and the person experiencing it is not capable of listening to reason until they are able to become calmer and more rational.
I see a parallel between temper tantrums of people and the seemingly irrational behavior cats exhibit when they are demonstrating some forms of aggression. And the best policy for handling cats during aggressive episodes is the same: hands off, give them space.
You might say aggression is aggression, period. But veterinary behaviorists see things differently. And this is fortunate, as many of the different types of aggression we see in cats can be addressed with behavior modification - training (of both owners and cats) without the need to take more desperate measures.
The first step, of course, is diagnosing which type (or types) of aggression is being displayed by the cat. Currently, there are 10 recognized aggression types in cats.
Putting any cat in a situation that makes it feel threatened and need to back away and cower may lead to fear aggression. When flight is not possible, fight is the only other option.
Allowing the cat to calm down, not touching it, and keeping one's distance is usually the way to get them through it.
Play aggression is most often seen in young kittens, and it can be recognized by, well, a kitten that plays too aggressively.
The eyes are dilated, ears forward, tail lashing, there's usually lots of bouncing and stalking and surprise attacks.
While most kittens play like this, kittens that have play aggression take the "normal" up several notches, biting and scratching hard enough to draw blood from their targets, stalking and pouncing when the "playmate" is unwilling to engage, and refusing to disengage when it is clear that the game is over.
Kittens raised without being around other cats often have some degree of play aggression that can last through adulthood.
If you find yourself saying, "Dude, that was NOT cool!" to your kitten after a few play sessions as you wipe Neosporin on your new wounds, it is likely you've got a kitten with play aggression.
Some helpful hints: teach the kitten to fetch. Seriously - they can and will if you find the right toy. Play with a kid's fishing pole with a cat toy at the other end (obviously only allowing access to this when you are around). Get the kitten a nice, BIG stuffed toy and redirect the biting and scratching to IT and not YOU.
While it is normal for cats to hunt, kill and eat small prey, predatory aggression can be a dangerous problem for owners with infants and toddlers, as cats that exhibit this behavior become indiscriminate about stalking and ambushing behaviors.
It is important to note that this type of aggression (toward people) is abnormal, pathologic behavior, and is not something a normal cat would do.
In my line of work, it is common to see cats with abscesses and other nasty, infected wounds caused by other cats. While most fighting between cats is over space (indoor cats may fight over a favorite chair or table, also known as territorial aggression) some fights between cats (usually between tomcats) may be hormonally induced (inter-cat aggression).
While neutering and spaying cats and keeping them indoors can help alleviate the latter, territorial aggression sometimes needs more work, particularly for the indoor cats.
Often, the best way to begin treating cats with territorial aggression is to separate them and attempt to re-introduce them in small, non-eventful doses.
Another treatment is to give the cats more space, which, aside from moving or finding another (preferably cat-less) home for one of the fighters, is sometimes accomplished by providing more vertical space.
Because cats enjoy climbing and perching, strategic placement of furniture can sometimes alleviate tensions between cats by providing more perching and sleeping spots for all.
Prime spots are near heat, near windows and usually are up high.
If your cat won't let you into your own bed without becoming violent, or refuses to vacate your chair when you'd like to sit in it, you probably have a cat that has status-induced aggression.
While it may make an owner want to punch said cat in the face, this is a big no-no with aggressive cats. Hitting, swatting or even yelling at an aggressive cat can escalate the aggression and cause the cat to become even more dangerous and uncontrollable.
Teaching the cat to sit or sleep elsewhere takes patience, tact and excellent tactical skills. But, with proper training, it can be done safely.
Redirected aggression is a particularly fun pastime of some cats that involves beating the tar out of whomever happens to be near him when he's really ticked off about something else.
"What the heck was THAT all about?!" you hear the second cat yelling to the first.
OK, only in your head, but still - it's not very nice. Unfortunately, the only solution usually involves attempting to eliminate the source of the attacker's angst.
This type of aggression often is triggered in indoor cats by seeing another cat lurking outside through a door or window. Frustration at not being able to chase the intruder away builds, and manifests in an attack on an innocent bystander.
Using motion-activated sprinklers to discourage stray cats from hanging around in the yard and placing curtains or blinds in windows that look onto areas that trigger the cat's aggression can help to avoid this one.
If you try taking an infant kitten away from its mother and she hauls off and attacks you, she has taught you a valuable lesson on maternal aggression you will not soon forget. For the most part, this is completely normal and adaptive, and usually abates by the time the babies are self-sufficient.
When normally well-adjusted older cats begin to get grumpy, particularly when petted or brushed or handled, there is a good reason to consider a veterinary visit ASAP.
Many older patients have arthritis or other medical problems that can cause discomfort. Cats in pain can exhibit pain-induced aggression - basically saying don't touch me there, it HURTS!
However, when your perfectly normal, healthy cat solicits you for attention, practically throwing himself at you, only to bite your hand as you pet him, that's not only insulting, it's called petting-induced aggression. Probably the most irritating aggression of all, because the cat is giving you the old "bait and switch."
This type of aggression usually is treated by minimizing the touching of the cat. All petting is discontinued before the cat acts as if to bite, and food rewards can be given with each encounter that is uneventful. Gradually increasing the touching time as the cat does not react, followed by a treat, can eventually help curb this obnoxious behavior.
While my son still has an occasional temper tantrum, he has learned some much more effective techniques for channeling his energy and getting what he wants.
Ignoring tantrums, not rising to his challenges, and taking a "when you're done, we'll talk," approach has done wonders to send our message over the last 11 years: We do not deal with terrorists.
Now, when it comes to the cats, we negotiate.
Daverio is a veterinarian at Williamsport West Veterinary Hospital.