Aysa - Looking beyond Aggression
In psychology the term unmet needs refers to the needs that a person didn't manage to satisfy yet.
Just like there are physical needs such as the need to eat or the need to sleep there are psychological needs that people must satisfy in order to feel good.
When people fail to satisfy their important unmet needs they become depressed and when people manage to fulfill their unmet needs they experience true happiness1.
In my experience, we can correlate the above principles to cats.
Let’s consider Aysa: a young female shorthair tortoiseshell cat found on the streets in my town. As with all stray cats, she was taken to the rehousing center, and put on observation. It gives the cats a bit of rest to recover before they may be housed with the other cats for adoption. For Aysa this proved especially important: she was found to be pregnant.
Coincidentally, Aysa very quickly developed unwanted behavior. In a matter of days, she changed from a relaxed cat into what some described as ‘a monster’. She bit anybody who got near her. Hard. She attacked the legs of her caretakers. She let her nails be felt at any opportunity. Not a single person that came near was safe.
Thus, she was put in limited housing (a cage), but her bad behavior increased and staff had increasing concerns on how to handle her. When Aysa’s cage could not be cleaned safely anymore, I was called in to treat her.
When kittens grow up, they must be handled by humans as part of their so-called socialization. This teaches them playfully how to live with humans.
If Aysa remains unapproachable, then her kittens cannot be socialized well. Treatment in har case was urgent: 1. The carers must be able to provide her daily care and 2. It must be possible to take her kittens out of the nest to provide care to them and socialize them. Moreover, low stress therapy is a must to avoid any negative effects on the pregnancy.
When I met Aysa the first time, her immediately interaction was loud meowing. A loud, intense, drawn out vocal welcome. I was warned this would be followed by the aforementioned biting and scratching upon opening her cage.
I have seen many cats ready to unleash terror. Usually I can tell. But this was different. I didn’t see a cat intend to fight. I didn’t see a cat blinded by rage or fear. I saw a cat that wanted to tell me something. Aysa had an intention to obtain something. She had a strong unmet need.
So I set out to allow Aysa time to get to be comfortable with my presence, applying the ‘cat I love you’ steps championed by Jackson Galaxy. After a while she responded: she gave me the ‘go-ahead-wink’ with her eyes, I finally opened her cage slowly. Inch-by-inch. Instead of attacking relentlessly like she had done each time before, she waited patiently. Then I pet her very, very gently on her forehead.
No biting. No scratching. No more meowing. Only instant relaxation. A weak purr even. Eyes closed after a while. This cat, so pumped up full of aggression and stress had now turned into a soft heap of light relaxation.
What she needed was patience, understanding and love. A lot patience, understanding and love. Sometimes it’s so hard to see past the aggression for something so basic and pure. A big lesson.
Sometimes it’s important to look beyond the aggression with some patience, understanding and love to find the unmet need. Isn’t this often the same for our own species? It’s striking to realize how emotionally similar cats are to humans.
I feel proud, humble and grateful I was able to work with Aysa, and that she opened up to me so much. She let me identify and solve her unmet need. Rapidly she’s become the rehousing center staff’s favorite cat. We are sure she will pose no objections to our handling her kittens. What’s left now for us it so wait impatiently what beautiful kittens she will give birth to.
1: From https://www.2knowmyself.com/Unmet_needs_psychology