Cat aggression towards humans can be categorized into three types: play aggression, irritable aggression and referred aggression.
I’m sure that nearly all cat owners understand the meaning of play aggression as it is very common especially among kittens. It usually involves the kitten pouncing on their owner’s feet and the behavior can extend into adulthood. The kitten crouches and springs at the owner’s feet sometimes biting. My cat is four years of age and he still does it occasionally although I am wearing thick slippers at the time. Owners can redirect this aggression to toys within a particular area of the home which may be the same area where the cat likes to pounce at feet. It might be a toy on a string or some other toy designed to be bitten.
I found that I could stop my cat biting my hand in play through training. I discussed this in a previous post. I fed my cat his favorite treat while dangling my hand in front of him – the kind of situation that would entice him normally to bite it. When he rubbed his head against my hand in scent exchange behavior rather than biting it I rewarded him with a food treat and used a clicker at the same time (to help in relating the reward with the desired behavior). He learned to equate my hand with a treat and not as a play object which stopped him biting it.
Cats should be rewarded for playing with toys rather than hands. In order to discourage a cat from regarding hands and feet as things to bite family members should be instructed not to play roughly with the family cat or kitten.
Irritable aggression is also something that a lot of cat owners know about. It occurs when you are stroking your cat too much or too vigorously and she bites your hand. Male cats are particularly predisposed to this behaviour. Often the cat bites the person’s hand as if he was engaging in a nape-bite of a female during copulation. You must have seen this: when the male mounts the female he bites the back of her neck to keep her in position and to stop her from slapping him.
Some people recommend that the cat should be verbally reprimanded under these circumstances. Another author recommends that the cat’s nose should be flicked with the thumb and forefinger. I disagree with both these suggestions as they are both punishments. The solution is to stroke your cat in a way which pleases him or her and not to the point where he becomes irritated by it. I have written articles about stroking cats which tells us that cats don’t automatically like to be stroked. We often stroke our cats for our own benefit because we like it. We must make sure that our cat likes it as well which in general terms means it should be done gently and for a shorter time than we want to do it for. You can normally tell when a cat is becoming irritated by your handling. You get a feel for your cat’s demeanor and even his/her facial expression. His tail tip might swish, for example.
Referred aggression is a bit more subtle and occurs when a cat is upset or frightened by another cat or a circumstance which has not been recognized by the owner. If the cat is then handled by the owner immediately afterwards before she has settled down she might turn on the owner instead of the cat that she has just seen.
Typically this problem occurs when your cat has had a visual encounter with another cat through the window. Perhaps the intruder cat has sprayed urine in the garden. The full-time indoor resident cat sees this through the window and wants to take aggressive action against it. She might express the aggression against a person inside the home. On other occasions the resident cat might have heard a noise that she thought was a cat or she picked up the scent of another cat. This might wind her up and if the owner handles his cat a little too firmly at that point in time his cat may turn on him.
Signs that a cat is about to engage in referred aggression might include his ears flattening, pupils dilating, hair standing on end and a puffed up tail. The owner should allow his cat space and time to settle down and not try and comfort him through handling. If the cat wants to hide somewhere he should be allowed to do it. The best thing that the owner can do at this time is to leave his cat alone and speak softly and calmly towards him while keeping a safe distance. Sometimes referred aggression can give the impression that a house cat has attacked in a totally unprovoked way which may disturb the owner. He should reassess the situation and consider referred aggression as a reason.