Why is Your Cat Aggressive?

As predators, cats are born fully armed with piercing teeth and four sets of razor-sharp claws. Packing all those weapons, it’s no surprise that some cats resort to using them against their caretakers. Cat aggression is the second most common feline misbehavior seen by behavior consultants, right behind house-soiling cases. This article will explore types of cat-to-human aggression and offer paths to resolution.


Playful Kitten Aggression

Does your feline youngster crouch under the hall table ready to attack the first ankle that passes? Does she pounce on your toes while you’re trying to sleep? Play aggression is common in kittens and adolescents and occasionally carries over into young adulthood. This type of aggression is most often seen in single-cat households where the cat is on her own eight- to ten-hours a day. While most cats inhibit their biting and scratching during play aggression, some do not.

You can safeguard your toes and ankles by increasing the daily amount of interactive play with the cat. Imitation bugs on wires, kitty fishing poles, feather wands and catnip mice on a string that can be made to bounce erratically work best. (For safety’s sake, keep these toys out of reach when the cat is not supervised.) If you can predict when the attacks are likely to happen, toss a toy ahead of you to attract the cat’s attention away from your feet. Avoid rough play with the cat, and make sure all family members comply. You may also want to consider adopting a young feline companion for your foot-snagging home-alone cat, so she will have an outlet for her youthful energies.


Fear and Defensive Feline Aggression

Two of the most dangerous types of feline aggression are fear/defensive aggression and redirected aggression. Due to the fear and high-arousal components of these types of aggression, deep multiple bites can occur.

While all cats are afraid of something, some cats have a lower threshold to stressors than others do and are more prone to aggressive reactions. For example, a well-socialized kitten who came from a healthy mother is generally more stable than one kept isolated from other people and animals. You can help your cat and avoid a replay of defensive aggression by first ascertaining what stresses him to a degree at which he feels he must protect himself. Is it new people, loud noises or a change in the environment? If so, try setting him up in a quiet part of the home when things get hectic and then make plans to begin a desensitization program as soon as things settle down.

First, determine how close or how loud the fearful stimulus has to be to the cat to cause him concern. Your starting point should be just inside his comfort zone. If your cat is fearful of strangers who walk into the kitchen, have them begin by just poking their heads in the doorway or even standing a few feet outside. Ask them to avoid looking at the cat. If the cat does not appear stressed, reward him with a tasty morsel. Repeat the process a few times. When your cat acts comfortable in their presence, have them approach a step closer, utter a word or two or make an arm movement — something small. With repetition, the cat should connect the rewards to the appearance of the formerly scary people and actually acclimate to, if not outright welcome, them. In severe cases, you may need to obtain an anti-anxiety product from your veterinarian or consult with an applied animal behaviorist before you begin.


Learned Cat Aggression: Rewarding Bad Behavior

The first time Sheila’s cat, Childe Harold, attacked her toes while she slept, it was simply a case of nocturnal play aggression. But instead of ignoring Harold’s behavior, Sheila made a fatal error — she bought off his attentions by slipping him a predawn breakfast. Albeit unwittingly, Sheila became a victim of learned aggression. Harold learned that if he attacked the caretaker, he reaped a reward. Whether the reward is food, play or the cessation of an undesirable activity, such as grooming or nail trimming, cats quickly learn that it pays to be aggressive.

Withdrawing the reward may eventually put an end to the aggression, but the attacks may get worse before they stop. If your cat stops getting results from his inhibited attacks, he may put more effort into trying to achieve the desired reward. This is called an extinction burst. Ignore the behavior without giving in, and it will eventually stop. However, if your cat’s attacks are particularly vicious, it may be wiser to avoid them entirely or arm yourself with a squirt gun or can of compressed air to deter the cat before the biting intensifies.


Overpetting Cat Aggression

You’ve settled onto the sofa and are stroking the cat in your lap while engrossed in your favorite TV drama.

All of a sudden, you feel the sting of teeth in your hand. In a flash, kitty has leaped off your lap and is grooming himself across the room. What just happened, you ask. Without realizing it, you exceeded your cat’s tolerance level for petting. Before striking out, he most likely gave you subtle warning signs that went unnoticed — most cats stiffen a bit, twitch their tails or even turn their heads quickly as the hand reaches a forbidden spot, and often their pupils are dilated.

While unneutered males are the most common aggressors, females and neutered males can also go on the offensive from overpetting. Behaviorists are not exactly sure what provokes the response. Is it tactile arousal, startling after being lulled into a light sleep or just the cat’s way of putting a stop to something he feels has gone on too long? What matters most is that you learn to read your cat’s subtle signals and stop petting before you reach his touch threshold.

If your cat has a low threshold for petting, it may be slowly improved by pairing mealtime or a treat with stroking. If he can handle five or ten strokes without acting out, complete the strokes, offer a treat and stroke once or twice more before ending the session, slowly increasing the number of after-treat strokes over time. For the extreme cat who can handle little in the way of touching, stroke once or twice after you put the food bowl down and the cat has come to dine. Take your cue from what cats do to each other. Social grooming between cats is usually of short duration. The desire for extensive social grooming sessions is a human foible.


Pain-Induced Cat Aggression

When a cat is in pain, she often strikes out at what she perceives as the cause. Physical punishment and rough handling can often provoke retribution – and they’re also not beneficial for your cat. However, some pain in life cannot be avoided. Veterinarians often find themselves the targets of feline wrath when giving vaccinations or examining body parts in order to make diagnoses. Pain coupled with the stress of being brought into a strange environment lowers the cat’s tolerance to handling. This is why many veterinarians will use muzzles that shield a cat’s eyes or towel restraints when handling the cat since they cannot avoid causing some discomfort. If you need to medicate an infected ear or change a bandage, you may need to use similar tools. This is one time that causing a little pain is for the greater good of the cat.


Redirected Cat Aggression

Redirected aggression may be the most dangerous type of aggression. This can occur when the cat becomes intensely aroused by a loud, startling noise; the sight, smell or sounds of another animal; or unfamiliar people or places. With adrenaline pumping, he yowls, growls, stares, stalks and attacks whoever happens to walk by. Caretakers who have experienced this fury firsthand often remark that they had to “peel the cat off.” Overexcited, the cat can remain aroused and threatening for up to six hours. After one of these incidents, it is best to sequester the cat in a dark, quiet room or, if handling the cat is impossible, for the family to leave the home for several hours. The cat needs time to calm down and return to normal, or minor stimulation will reactivate the cat’s aggression.

Redirected aggression attacks, dangerous as they are, are usually one-time events. Some sensitive cats, however, continue to overreact if the stimulus that sets them off is not removed. This stimulus varies in each situation. It could be a new cat who has moved into the backyard, or a son home from college who insists on playing basketball in the house. Removing the stray cat or confiscating the basketball would be the logical first step. In cases where the source of agitation cannot be removed, an attempt at desensitizing the cat to the stressor might be made. Due to the inherent danger in redirected aggression, this program is best carried out under the supervision of a behaviorist. Family members should be taught to avoid the cat if arousal signals are evident; but if the case is severe and the stressor cannot be removed, re-homing the cat into a less stressful environment may be necessary.

Fear and stress can push your placid cat over the edge and result in wounds to both your flesh and your relationship. By providing an escape route for your fearful feline, steering clear of your kitty-on-a-warpath, or, if necessary, implementing a desensitization program, your home will once again be a safe haven for all.


Maternal Cat Aggression

Maternal aggression occurs when a new mom becomes overly protective of her litter. In doing so, she will run any interlopers out of the nursery. This hormonally influenced behavior is most commonly and justifiably focused on other cats — intact males, in particular, have been known to cannibalize newborn kittens — but it may also be directed toward humans.

Maternal aggression is most problematic during the first three to four weeks after birth, when the kittens are the most vulnerable. If the mother cat is charging at you, manage her aggression by leaving her and her kittens alone for the first few weeks if all are healthy. As the kittens mature, lure mom out of the nursery for food or play time while another family member socializes the kittens. After the kittens are weaned, spay mom to prevent this ordeal from ever happening again.


Territorial Cat Aggression

Cats are territorial creatures. Males and, to a lesser degree, females stake their claims by spraying urine, scratching or rubbing oil from scent glands on trees, doorways and other surfaces. Claim jumpers are either chased off or fought.

Most cases of territorial aggression are between cats. However, there are cases where the resident feline will try to run unfamiliar humans off his perceived turf. Most likely, he is responding to the odor of other animals on his victim. Ask your guests to wash up and change into freshly laundered clothes before visiting. Unfortunately, this type of aggression, though rare, is particularly hard to resolve, and if Felix still acts as though all visitors are usurpers, the best way to manage the situation is to confine him before company arrives.


Pathophysiological Cat Aggression

Upon waking one morning, you discover that your normally placid cat has triggered the tiger within — acting out in an aggressive manner. But his aggression doesn’t seem to fit into any of the categories previously discussed in this series. What’s a beleaguered caretaker to do? Head straight for the veterinarian’s office!

Pathophysiological aggression may be the result of a painful reaction to impacted anal sacs, lower urinary tract disease, arthritic changes, oral lesions, or an infection. Or it may be a response to a medical condition such as hypothyroidism, hyperthyroidism, epilepsy or a brain tumor, or a neurological disorder related to trauma, poisoning, feline ischemic encephalopathy (a degenerative brain disease) or the “furious” stage of rabies. Careful observation — and veterinary assistance if necessary — will reveal the reason for your crabby tabby’s uncharacteristic crankiness.


Hunting Cat Aggression

When left to fend for themselves, feral cats, barn cats and outdoor cats hunt birds, insects and small mammals to survive. According to the July 1995 issue of Catnip, a publication of Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine, “The cat has evolved into a superb spotter, tracker and pouncer. Cats have highly developed acuity of vision for movement.” These skills of stalking, lying in wait, pouncing and, especially, killing are taught to them by their mothers. The feline who merely “plays” with prey probably didn’t get lessons from Mom.

Kittens with hunting mothers may show preliminary skills in the art of the kill at just four weeks. It is understandable, then, that the average, pampered young household tabby redirects these energies to his unsuspecting human caretaker’s body parts. The most intense and frequent of these misdirected attacks occur during late kittenhood and adolescence (a stage of peak feline fitness and energy), leveling off or ending by adulthood at 1-1/2 to 2 years of age.

Take heart — we rarely hear complaints on the ASPCA Behavior Helpline about bedtime “twitching toe attacks” beyond Simba’s second summer. But there’s no need to just grin and bear it until the cat matures. The answer lies in redirecting the predatory-play behavior. In other words, divert the cat’s interest to something that appears to be alive (to the cat, anyway) but won’t be hurt by that fast flurry of teeth and nails.

No matter the type of aggression, if your cat is exhibiting any of these signs, it’s time to take action. If you feel uncertain about what course to try, consult your veterinarian or local shelter for referral to a feline behaviorist. While not all aggression problems can be resolved, you won’t know how successful you can be until you take the first step.