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Predicting the Unpredictable: Impulse Control Aggression in Cats

Learn the ins and outs of impulse control aggression in cats.

Put on Your Scuba Gear

I’m going to warn you, we’re diving into some deep stuff here. Impulse control aggression is a very serious condition where the brain develops differently, often times from neglect and abuse. This causes aggression, seemingly without warning … or so I initially thought …

Tuxedo cat in red collar
Miss Lucy is a gorgeous kitty with the silkiest fur.

This post is complicated, but it’s the best way to do justice for cats with impulse control aggression, like Miss Lucy. Their brains interpret stimuli very differently than the average cat brain, and constantly causes them to question every sound and move you make. Lucy has a pretty severe case of impulse control aggression, but over the few years, I’ve worked with her and she’s made progress. Likely, she’ll never be cuddly – these cats rarely are – but I believe it’s our job, to help these animals live lives that are full of love. Just because they don’t want constant snuggling and touching, doesn’t mean they don’t have the right to feel safe. I hope you find this informative.

Something Is Off with This Cat

From the day I piked up Miss Lucy, I knew something was off. I could barely touch her, and it wasn’t because she was feral: She was fearful. I figured as she got to know me, it would improve, and it did, but each step forward was increasingly discouraging, because those steps were so small. And then, some days, she’d take 10 steps back.

I knew her history included neglect and possibly abuse. She was surrendered to the shelter with one of the worst cases of FAD the shelter had seen in recent years; she had raw skin and open sores all over her body). And it’s true that cats with severe skin conditions are never quite the same. They often have hot, tender spots on their body. When touched, it triggers the cat to react.

There was thick scabbing above Lucy’s eyes from severe flea allergy dermatitis (FAD).

That was part of it, but that wasn’t all that was wrong.

Even when she happy, she would quickly turn. It’s like something in her brain says, “Wait a minute! Don’t trust this!” and there would be a hiss, bite, swat or growl.

A behaviorist diagnosed Lucy with impulse control aggression. But what is it and what did it mean for her future? I’m going to break down what I’ve learned from researching (although there isn’t a lot written on the topic), as well as lessons Lucy has taught me. She has been the #1 teacher, and I know I have a better understanding and can better help other cats with this frustrating but tolerable mental condition.

Impulse Control Aggression

Another name for impulse control aggression is status-induced aggression. It’s basically an animal’s need to control people and other animals so it feels safe.

CONTROL = PREDICTABILITY = SAFETY

Animals (and people) that are victims of neglect and abuse must make very quick decisions to keep themselves safe. The hypothalamus is used so frequently, it gets overdeveloped, and these cats feel overstimulated VERY easily (even by small things). In a way, the hypothalamus works too well. Fight and flight responses are extremely frequent.

Tuxedo cat at acupuncture
You can’t see it but Lucy’s head and back are covered in needles. She loves acupuncture.

REMINDER: Do not touch a cat in fight or flight. The risk of injury is high and they don’t recognitze you. Walk away and let the cat cool down for a period of time.

Mixed Messages

Every time Lucy is touched, hears a noise, smells something, feels something – the hypothalamus is stimulated. It also causes her to question EVERYTHING out of her control. She appears happy, then it’s like a switch flips (because in her brain, it does). Lucy may rub against you and hiss at the air. It doesn’t mean she doesn’t want to rub against you, she does. But her brain signals her to react to maintain control.

I know if I’m interacting with her and change anything, she will react. I can have her on my lap and pet her head. If I breath too deeply … move my hand a slightly different way … use a different finger … she will react. Sometimes, she’s completely relaxed and calm, as I pet her nose with one finger. Her eyes close, she’s quiet, then there’s a slight twitch in her body, and I know her brain just turned on to say, “Wait! Protect yourself.” And a growl, hiss, swat, or warning bite is about to follow. You can see why this is frustrating for me and her.

The brain is so different, it even interprets stimulation differently than a cat with a “normal” brain. One night, I was petting Lucy while she slept. When I reached the center vertebrae, her hips and base of her tail twitched. She was sleeping, so this wasn’t a conscious response. Immediately, I filmed it and sent it to her behaviorist. It’s very subtle in this video – watch for movements in her back half.

Turns out, that vertebrae creates a response in most cats, but it’s a different response, with different physical display. Usually, a cat’s back will have a sort of wave go through its spine, and it will push up into your hand for a good pet. But in cats with impulse control aggression, the brain interprets the stimulation differently, and causes the back half to twitch.

Lucy & Her Gab

Lucy’s won’t change. Maturity occurs around 2-3 years, so the brain is what it is. I do still work with her, using positive reinforcement to help combat her nearly constant anxiety, and Lucy needs medicine to help with her anxiety and pain. Her progress has been possible because of medication, specifically Gabapentin for pain and anxiety.

Medication is not the entire answer, but, it helps Lucy go from a 9 to 6, and sometimes even a 4. That is how bad some of these animals feel. Their brains constantly race and they’re pulled in every direction. They feel all physical contact more intensely than an “average” animal. The same with pain. Remember, Lucy had FAD, a serious skin condition, which left her with sensitive spots and nerve damage. The Gabapentin is a MUST to keep any pain and discomfort at bay, as well as relax her.

Drugs classified as SSRIs (often prescribed to help anxiety and depression in people), are an option for animals with impulse control aggression. Unfortunately, they don’t work for Lucy. Both Prozac and Paxil gave her serotonin syndrome (racing heart, dilated eyes). The good news: She told me she didn’t like SSRIs. She attacked the pill shooter if the SSRI pill was in it, but not with a Gabapentin capsule. She never fights the shooter when it’s holding Gabapentin and always swallows it without a fight, so I feel 100% okay with giving it to her.

Acupuncture

I also do more holistic options which help in tandem with Lucy’s meds. A combo of treatments is crucial because keeping anxiety low helps Lucy feel more comfortable. It also helps keep people around her, and me, safe. One 30-minute acupuncture session every 5-6 weeks helps with anxiety, stress, pain, and digestive issues.

Learning Doesn’t Stop, for Either of Us

She still learn things, which is fabulous, including walking/running on the cat wheel and doing simple tricks for treats. Since she plays and kneads, I know she learned how to play as a kitten (which is good). The kneading is a sign of nursing, so she had a mom who loved and cared for her. These two facts help SIGNIFICANTLY.

When I started down this road with Lucy, I had no idea this condition existed. I thought these types of situations were strictly behavioral. I didn’t know their brains literally develop differently. I’ve learned so much, and I hope I someday meet another cat with this condition, because I feel more equip to help them.

They are projects – there’s no question. But they deserve love and understanding. And even with her predictable unpredictability, Lucy wins over ever person she meets. You can tell she isn’t a mean cat, just a slightly confused one.

Tuxedo cat on cat wheel
Lucy loves to run on her wheel.

By LizsKittyBootCamp

I foster cats and kittens, specializing in behavioral cases.

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