My Cat Hisses & Growls at Me

Cats are creatures with rich emotional lives.  If we're going to learn how to live with them, we have to respect their emotional needs and be prepared to open our minds and think like a cat.  Cynthia S. has a cat friend named Polly, and Polly has been standoffish lately.  Cynthia writes:

We moved to a new house in December and Polly was adjusting beautifully. She wants to be outside much of the day/night, which isn’t a problem. After a couple of months in the new house, Polly got locked out of the house for about 8 hours because she refused to come in before we left for the day. I left food and water out for her and went on my way. When we arrived back home she was waiting for us and was very agitated. She went from being a loving kitty to being a she-demon, she started hissing and growling at my brother and I every time we went near her. Shortly after that, we lost her “brother” Dolce (a pug) to old age. Now she barely tolerates being petted/cuddled, hisses and growls at both of us and his dog Bella (Chihuahua/terrier mix). I’ve tried giving her space and talking to her but she just seems to be getting worse, this has been going on for 4 months and I’m at my wit’s end as to what to do about it. She now hangs out with the feral cats in our neighborhood and seems to be getting to where she doesn’t even want human contact any more. Please help!

Cynthia, your first order of business is to bring Polly to the vet to see if she's in some sort of pain.  Are her nails trimmed properly?  If not, they can overgrow and cause tremendous pain.  She could have encountered all sorts of problems outdoors, so pain is the first culprit to eliminate.  If Polly gets a clean bill of health from her veterinarian, then you can address your behavior.

That's right.  Your behavior dictates to a great degree what Polly's reactions to you will be.  If you chase after her, insisting that she be petted or snugged, it's unlikely she will ever allow it.  You have to begin your interactions with her from a point of respect.  You didn't mention how old she is.  If she's just reaching adulthood or entering old age, she'll certainly be less tolerant than she used to be.

We know how frustrated you must feel, Cynthia.  It's important that you set that frustration aside when dealing with Polly.  Cats are emotional sponges, so the more frustrated and worked up you become over this issue, the more agitated Polly will be.  When you try to force interactions on a cat, even things you might think of as positive, the cat will usually respond by running the other way.  Polly needs to know that you respect her boundaries before you'll be able to mend any fences.  We recently answered a similar question for Janet, so you're not alone.  You may want to take a look at the advice we gave her before proceeding here.

First, you need to take a moment to try and read the signals that Polly is sending you.  If a cat reaches the hissing and growling stage, she's probably been sending you more subtle cues long before that.  Polly's unhappy and the only way you'll ever learn why is by leaving her alone and studying her behavior.  Her tail and ears alone speak volumes.  If she slinks past you with her ears and tail down, she doesn't want interaction from you.  You have to learn to see these signs and respect Polly's wishes.  

If you want her to come to you for interaction, you need to give her positive reinforcement when she's near you.  That means not picking her up and not forcing the interaction.  Instead, try teaching her a new word for a new kind of treat.  Say the word and offer the treat in your outstretched hand.  Then say the word again and praise Polly, but don't pet her or pick her up.  End the session on a positive note and do it again later.  Cats learn best in very short sessions, so it's best to leave her wanting more.  Over time, you'll find that Polly will react to the new treat word even if she's in another room when you say it.  She'll also begin to associate you with her treats and that's a very good thing.

When petting Polly, it will help if you only touch her head and neck area.  Many cats become agitated when they're touched repeatedly in areas or ways they dislike.  Keep an eye on her tail.  If she's flicking it about, even just the tip, stop petting her.  If she ripples the skin on her back, stop petting her.  If she walks away, don't follow her.  All of these things are her way of telling you that she'd prefer to end the interaction.  If you ignore these signs and continue to pet her, she may react aggressively.  Imagine that your brother is doing something that bothers you.  You turn away and don't engage in conversation with him, giving him the cold shoulder, but he doesn't pick up on your cues.  If he keeps at it, what's going to happen?  That's exactly what Polly feels as well.  She thinks she's explaining it to you very clearly, but that explanation is no good if you don't pick up her signals.

This is a complex issue and one that won't be solved easily.  You need to treat her not as the cat you remember but as the cat she is now, and that means approaching her as if she were feral.  We have a good post about taming feral cats and the suggestions there would be a good place to start.

Cynthia, we encourage you to make Polly an indoor-only cat.  While there's nothing wrong with feral cat colonies, and we encourage those kind people who feed and care for ferals, sometimes feral cats carry diseases that are contagious to other cats.  They also have a social hierarchy that may be causing conflicts for Polly.  If other cats are spraying in Polly's territory that alone could be very upsetting for her. You may want to take a look at our previous post on the subject. 

We believe that with a little luck and a lot of patience, you and Polly will become fast friends again.  Just remember that every friendship is based on mutual trust and respect, and that is where you have to begin.