Photo by kjarrett1 (Flickr)
Most aggressive cat behavior can be readily explained. The information here is carefully researched and backed up, where appropriate, by personal experience. I endeavor to cover all the relevant topics:
- Aggression towards other cats in home
- Cat aggression redirected to people
- Picking up a cat
- Cat in pain
- Cat Punishment Intact cats
- Petting aggression
- Environmental stress
- Thyroid, hunger and physical stress
- Cat cannot hunt
- Drug treatment
Aggressive cat behavior could be categorised into two groups. Aggression directed towards us and when it is directed towards other cats and animals. They overlap but a lot of aggression directed at us is often down to our behavior and so is directly controllable. Also cat aggression is sometimes considered as a ‘behavioral problem’. What we mean is that it is a problem for us despite being instinctive and natural behavior (under the circumstances) for the cat. Strictly speaking, therefore, it is not problem behavior. The video above is very well made. It is not meant to be about cat aggression. It does though on a more serious note show how a lack of cat management can result in cat aggression.
A lot of the time it is down to us to show awareness, understanding, good expectation management and avoidance. We need to let our cats be cats and not try and make them do what we want. That never works. We need to refer to the wildcats to understand that territorial issues can cause natural aggression in a cat. We need to accept this and work around it or avoid it. I am sure that a quite a lot of so called cat aggression is not that but simply overexcited play or play that is considered alright by the cat but not acceptable to us.
Or it might be play that leads to aggression – petting aggression. The two forms of behavior can look similar sometimes. It is important to distinguish tough play from cat aggression. This is not to say that there are no cases of genuine idiopathic aggressive cat behavior – it obviously happens. This means spontaneous and unexplained aggression. Aggressive cat behavior directed towards us can also be due to poor socialisation of the cat when a kitten. There are various forms of aggressive cat behavior other than as listed here:
- mother’s aggression (maternal aggression)
- dominant aggression
This can be called, ‘intercat aggression’7. Causes include:
- territorial aggression
- fear-induced aggression
- play behavior gone wrong
- redirected aggression
Of these 1 and 5 are the most common causes7. 1. Cats have home ranges. Domestic cats adapt to very small ranges. Despite that territorial fights might flair up. Defence of territory is natural as it feeds the cat’s desire to ‘maintain social distances’7.
The introduction of a new cat is the most likely scenario for intercat aggression in the home. The resident cat may threaten in the form of ‘threat postures’ or attack7. The solution is a careful introduction of the new cat. Sometimes there will be no problems if the resident cat is of a laid back or retiring disposition. My lady cat was upset at the introduction of Charlie but there were no fights. Charlie warmed to her immediately but she rebuffed him.
The new cat should be confined and its territory expanded slowly which automatically reduces the incumbent cat’s territory accordingly. This is a form of desensitization.
We should be vigilant and take care to manage the situation with sensitivity. Patience is also required as it may take several months or more. One trick is to pet them when they are together and feed them together but out of different bowls with an acceptable amount of space in between for the cats. Providing separate litter box areas and sleeping areas helps. At all times we should respect the individual cat’s preferences. Some cats will fully accept a new cat but simply not wish to be particularly friendly. That is obviously acceptable to us. A last resort is drug treatment of re-homing of one of the cats. Associated page: Introducing a new cat
I have experienced this myself. But I have recognised it and made adjustments. As cat caretakers we should, ideally, be able to predict to a certain extent what our cat’s reaction will be to what we are doing or what we about to do. Here is a possible example: I am a caretaker to two cats. I also feed a stray cat, who I call Timmy. Timmy is upset by the recent addition of Charlie my mother’s three legged cat. Timmy still comes but he might hiss. I can pick him up etc. but I don’t pick him up immediately after he has been in defensive mode as he might be too wound up. He might just lash out at me as a carry over from his instinctive defensive rage behavior. I make sure he is calm before I pet him and cuddle him. Redirected aggressive cat behavior could be defined as a cat that is aggressively stimulated but is unable to direct the aggression at the cause of it7. In a study2of 27 cases of aggressive cat behavior against people, 14 were assessed as examples of redirected aggression or probable redirected aggression. The cats were ‘highly aroused by other stimuli before attacking a person’. All the cats in the survey had no medical problems. The types of arousal cited in the survey were:
- the presence of another cat – the most common.
- high pitched noises
- visitors in the house
- a dog
- unusual smells
- being outdoors unexpectedly (this would cause a possible defensive behavior to click in)
The researchers use the word, ‘management’ to avoid redirected aggression. This is a very appropriate word, I feel. It is really about what we do to manage the situation. We must expect cats to be aggressive sometimes just as we must accept other people becoming aggressive sometimes. It is a part of us. The key is to try and make sure that your cat is not subject to the arousing stimuli. If that is unavoidable then the answer is for us to steer clear until our cat has calmed down naturally. When the above ‘cat management’ was carried out in the survey, 4 cats showed no recurrence of redirected attacks, 5 cats showed improvements and there was no change in one cat. Three cats were euthanised despite, in one case, improvements being shown. This last statistic is enlightening as it shows a lack of proper expectation management.
We need to have a correct level of expectation about our cats behavior as it will make us more tolerant and accepting of it. We also need to have a more humane approach to dealing with cats sometimes. There was a lack of information regarding the last 2 cats in the survey. Redirected aggression is probably misunderstood in many homes and it may look like a behavior abnormality or simply spontaneous, unexplained cat aggression. If a veterinarian is consulted about cat aggression he or she should discuss the environment in which the ‘aggressive’ cat finds itself and the degree of ‘cat management’ that is applied. Answers may flow from that investigation. Note: redirected aggression can happen between cats too.
Picking up a cat can cause aggressive cat behavior. Some cats simply don’t like it. We should never force cats to do things that they find unacceptable unless we really have to for the cat’s welfare. Forcing a cat results in us losing out! We should respect the cat’s preferences no matter how he or she acquired them. Cats should be picked up with care and with proper support under the cat. Generally it is advisable to pick up a cat from above. ‘Face to face confrontation’ might result in aggressive cat behavior or at least an uncooperative cat3. Drs Carlson and Giffin say that a cat should be picked up as follows: Cooperative cat Place one hand around the abdomen and under the chest. Hold the front legs so that they cross over. Keep the index finger between the legs for a secure grip. Pick up your cat and place him or her close to you. Cradle the chin with your other hand. Apprehensive cat The doctors advise picking up the cat by the scruff of the neck. I think that this part needs to be qualified with ‘take care’. If the cat is big and heavy think about it and provide immediate support below. However, most cats go limp per the kitten response when the mother is moving her offspring. The back feet should be supported by the other hand. Frightened cat The advice is to cover the cat with a towel. The cat should become calmer. Slide the towel underneath the cat and lift the cat and towel as a bundle. Aggressive cat This is a last resort process. This requires a leash or a loop of rope, which is slipped over the cat’s head and one front leg. The cat is lifted by the leash and put on a table or into a cat carrier3.
Even if our cat is docile, if we handle him or her when in pain she may scratch and bite. We may not know that our cat is in pain. We might therefore think that the aggression is unjustified and unexplained. Proper handling under these circumstances will prevent injuries3. Drs Carslon and Giffin3 explain that the technique to pick up the cat should be as described above – but this is only if the cat can be handled. To carry the cat it should be settled over the person’s hip with the rear claws sticking out behind you where they are less likely to cause harm. The cat should be held firmly (but not too forcefully) against the body by pressing the inside of our elbow and forearm against the cat’s side. The cat’s eyes and ears should be covered with our free hand3. Otherwise the pick up techniques described above can be employed and the cat placed in a carrier to go to a veterinarian.
Cats that miss the essential period of socialisation during the first 2 – 7 weeks of age6 (3 – 9 weeks3) may demonstrate defensive aggressive cat behavior. Socialisation (that good breeders focus on) enables the kitten to learn to trust people. This trust overcomes the natural avoidance behavior of wild cats. If a cat is poorly socialised, sometimes it may not be possible to iron out this anxiety and resulting susceptibility to aggressive cat behavior when in the presence of people. Poorly socialised cats can make loyal partners to one human companion. The cat’s behavior should be respected and encounters with other people including children in particular should be monitored and/or avoided3. See taming feral cats (new window) and socialisation of domestic cats.
Domestic cats should be neutered. Intact cats are more likely to be more territorial and fight. They are also more likely to demonstrate sexually motivated aggression towards other males7 over females. This form of aggressive cat behavior very apparent in the wild cats and part of the inherent cat character. Testosterone is the main hormonal reason why male intact cats demonstrate more aggression. Not being able to procreate causes sexual frustration and then aggression, it is said8.
You must have experienced this form of aggressive cat behavior. I have. You stroke and pet your cat. It gets out of hand as your cat starts to play but goes too far, grabs your hand and starts biting it. It is like forceful play but it hurts us. It may be forceful play as cats have thicker skin than us and fur to protect them. What is good hearty play for a cat looks like skin breaking aggression to us. Solution: avoid it and predict when it might happen. Cats that fall into petting aggression may be an example of conflict in the cat’s thoughts. Cats quite often have conflicting thoughts as do we. When you see a cat licking its nose for no apparent reason or wagging its tail when hunting it is an expression of thought conflict4. It is called ‘displacement activity’ [link]. In the case of petting aggression the conflict may be between:
- the pleasure, reminiscent of mother’s licking when a kitten of stroking
- the natural state of mind of a cat that says that there should be no contact with adult cats until mating (mating has a degree of conflict too)5
Solution: stroke and pet for short times. Respect the cat. Another example of petting aggression comes from a cat that simply does not want to be petted. It may apply to a certain area of the body. My lady cat dislikes being touched on her rump (flanks of her bottom). She will bite if I comb there. Solution: avoid these areas and/or find out what kind of petting your cat likes. If grooming is necessary in a sensitive area, take precautions (gentle but firm restraint). Respect the cat’s wishes. An alteration in the cat’s preferences might be achieved if the cat equates you with the provision of food, an essential for survival – positive reinforcement training [link]. Speaking calmly while providing food for your cat might help3.
In an environment that engenders the continuing trust since socialisation from our cat, aggressive cat behavior shouldn’t be present. If the environment is unsuitable the cat’s defensive instincts take over. This is due to an underlying anxiety and fear. When cornered a frightened cat will be demonstrate aggressive cat behavior.
Cats with a thyroid problem often show aggressive cat behavior [link]. A hungry cat or a cat under physical discomfort and stress will be irritable and therefore more likely to be aggressive. Solution: Veterinary check. Improve conditions and feed well.
A classic sign of cat that cannot hunt prey but sees prey is the teeth chatter. They are practicing the killing bite but never doing it for real. A cat frustrated because it cannot hunt might chase a substitute such as our ankles or a dog’s tail5. This may be perceived as aggressive cat behavior. The cure for this kind of irritation behavior is to give our cats a thoroughly satisfying outlet for its innate hunting desires. This puts a bit more responsibility on us if our cat is a full-time indoor cat. Cats are flesh-eating predators. Hence nearly all cat games are predatory games9. Cat games may also help a kitten acquire hunting skills. Although kittens learn a lot by watching parents and close relatives hunt. Associated pages: Homemade cat toys Remote control cat toy (new window) Cat chew toy Cat games to play Twist-ties (new window) Cat biting tail Cat separation anxiety
Some people advocate punishing a cat for “bad behavior” or “unacceptable behavior”. A cat’s behavior is natural under the circumstances it finds itself and is therefore not bad or unacceptable to the cat. Punishment is accordingly innapropriate and does not work. It may stop the particular behavior in question but it is likely to create other behavioral problems including aggressive cat behavior. Associated pages: Please help my cat is aggressive, is it too late? Don’t punish your cat
This must surely be a last resort and an unlikely requirement when dealing with aggressive cat behavior. Some sensible analysis of the reasons behind the aggressive cat behavior will usual result in a solution that avoids drugs. All drugs should be treated as poisons because of the side effects. Drugs should only be prescribed by a veterinarian. There are two recommended types3– this section is from information first published in 1995 – drugs change.
- Tranquillisers – Acepromazine. This has a ‘depressive effect’. It relieves anxiety. Valium (diazepam) has a similar but less depressive effect. Valium is the preferred drug apparently (at 1995). It is used by people as well to treat many disorders. Side effects: the cat might stop using the litter and/or bite and scratch as little provocation.
- Progesterones – Provera and megace – these have a calming effect. They depress the pain center. Have an effect like castration. These drugs are used to treat destructive sractching, spraying, complulsive grooming and similar conditions. Side effects: potential for diabetes, excessive urinating and drinking, weight gain, adrenal gland disease to name some.
Earlier page on aggressive cat behavior: Cat aggression
Aggressive cat behavior – Notes:
1. Header photo: Original photo on Flickr