Ask a Vet: Why is My Cat Aggressive to Only One Person?


Welcome to our weekly 'Ask a Vet from the SF SPCA' feature on Dr. Jeannine Berger, DVM, DACVB is a board certified veterinary behaviorist who counsels guardians whose pets’ issues are beyond the scope of training. Think of her as a pet shrink…at your service. Ask your own questions in the comments!

Q: We adopted Flynn, now 2, as a tiny kitten. We were already living with my elderly mother, so he has always known her. She loved him as a kitten and used to play with him rather roughly. Flynn's favorite place to sit is the kitchen table. My husband and I can "intrude" on his territory rather freely, and he never hurts us. He has a cat tree we bought to try to get him off the table, but he doesn't like it.

The problem is, whenever my mother walks past the table, Flynn, without warning, will leap out and bite her or scratch her, not making a sound, and drawing blood--biting her very hard, sometimes more than once (we keep a good supply of antibiotics on hand, to say the least). She always cries out when this happens, but the cat stands his ground, twitching his tail, his ears flat. Why does he attack only my elderly mother? We can walk past and pet him on the table and he is affectionate with us--but not mom. We are very concerned and need to deal with this but don't know how.  

A: The situation you are describing is very concerning due to the severity of the aggression towards your elderly mother. Cat bites and scratches that seem to be harmless for younger people can lead to severe infections in children, elderly or immune - compromised people and for that reason human directed aggression in cats should never be taken lightly.

Based on the history you provide I would recommend you consider to re-home Flynn, especially because he is so young and not showing any aggression towards other people like yourself or your husband. He could be reacting out of fear towards your mother or he could be territorial, but the fact is your mother is getting injured. You have done a good job offering him another spot to hang out such as the cat tree. It is certainly very  important to keep Flynn off the kitchen table or better yet out of the kitchen. If the aggression only occurs in the kitchen, but he is friendly in any other room of the house, then you might have confirmed a form of territorial aggression and denying access to that spot might alleviate the problem behavior. You could use a remote tool such as the ScatMat to keep him off the table and  then it will important to help your mom teach Flynn some other type of behaviors. There are many ways you could increase his mental and physical stimulation by using interactive toys, teaching tricks, feeding him from feed dispensing toys or offering him controlled access to the outdoors. I wish you and your family all the best of luck. 

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