The title sounds too negative. It almost sounds as if it was written by a cat hater. But no, the words come from the world’s most prolific and best-known veterinarian/author in one of the best books on the domestic cat: Complete Cat Care. He is Dr Bruce Fogle DVM, and he likes cats. And he is correct. What he is essentially saying is that the raison d’être of cats (the reason for living) is to hunt, to be the top predator that they are. Perhaps we forget sometimes that humans live with a top and highly tuned predator. This predator in our home is normally fully socialised but the wild cat ancestor living in North Africa is just below the surface. The domestic cat is barely domesticated compared to the dog.
The predatory nature of the domestic cat comes out in various ways other than simply preying on animals or animal substitutes: toys. But when playing with their human caregiver it can develop into a hunting exercise for the cat. After all, cat play is exclusively based on hunting. If the owner does it wrong, they can get hurt. For instance, they use a cat tease, but it is too short, or they allow their hands to get too near their cat when playing. Their arm or hand is attacked as a prey animal.
The less experienced owner might believe that their cat is unmanageably aggressive and must be given up to a shelter. ‘Aggression’ in cats (towards humans and other animals) is ranked in the top third of the many reasons why people give their pets to shelters. These ‘relinquishments’ must invariably be due to human error in one form or another including a failure to properly socialise a cat, which is the basic starting point. Without that start in life the cat is in essence a wild cat. There is no veneer of domestication.
I have touched on predatory aggression. Another is territorial aggression. This is defending their territory which is often referred to as their ‘home range’ – the piece of land that they consider belongs to them and which varies in size but naturally might cover around 5-10 acres and much more if feral in Australia. If the natural size of a domestic cat’s home range is around 10 acres living full-time inside their owner’s home with other cats reduces the available space that they can call theirs to a tiny fraction of that. They adapt but there may be agnostic behaviour between cats for territorial reasons.
Sometimes a dominant cat rules the roost under these circumstances. This is a form of dominant, assertive aggression. Normally the dominant cat will get their way through body language. But if the cat is also short tempered, they may resort to occasional violence against other animals and even their owner.
Dr Fogle provides a nice example concerning his sister. Her cat used to “smack her face when she was asleep and her ankles when she was awake if he wanted food. Some cats go much farther, for example attacking the new boyfriend who has moved in”. I am not sure that attacking a boyfriend in necessarily because of dominance aggression. It might be due to jealousy and not aggression at all. But cat emotions are another topic.
Domestic cats as we know are beautifully armed with nature’s weapons: sharp canine teeth and sharper claws which are kept in tip top condition by sloughing off the outer shell. These weapons are called in use when a cat is fearful and defensive as a last resort following body language and sounds such as growling, spitting and hissing.
For the domestic cat defensive aggression normally occurs against strangers but I guess it can occur against their owner if the owner is misbehaving and being a poor cat caregiver. I can remember a woman going outside in snowy conditions to shoo away a cat outside. She chucked snow at the cat. The cat jumped straight up to her face and boxed her into submission within a few seconds. She ran inside very distraught. The power of the frightened and defensive cat. She should have ignored him. That was her fault but sometimes cats attack their owners through no fault but because of redirected aggression.
This has happened to me, and I received a deep bite to my lower right leg when I was upstairs. My cat had seen a fox outside. He was young and excitable at the time. His behaviour was also coloured by the fact that he is a domesticated feral cat. He wanted to attack the fox but couldn’t. He redirected his aggression at my leg. It took months to heal and a course of antibiotics. A reminder that sometimes cat bites can be serious and need to be managed promptly. Watch the wound and wait but watch intently.
Outlet for energy and desires
The dissipation of feline energy can be a good thing. There are many more full-time indoor cats nowadays than 30 years ago. They don’t have much of an outlet to express their innate predatory desires. As I said it is their raison d’être. This is one of the big flaws from my perspective of keeping cats indoors. It is good in many ways but almost always owners don’t find ways to substitute their cats desire to hunt.
And this brings to mind the need for owners, to at all times use their skills and knowledge to create an environment where their cat won’t want to attack their owner or other cats and dogs. For example, when petting a cat their owner needs to be aware of what their cat likes and not what they tolerate and to recognise the limits of petting from the cat’s standpoint. People pet their cats mainly because it is pleasurable. Is it pleasurable for their cat? Petting can stimulate play and play for a cat is play-hunting. The human hand is hunted and ‘killed’. I am back to the behaviour of a predator again. It permeates all that domestic cats do.
Timid cats might become fearful and defensively aggressive. Their confidence needs to be built up with play and positive interactions so their learn that their environment is safe. Less fear, less defensive aggression. But it should be done with patience and no forced interactions against the cat’s wishes.
So, to return to the title to this article: Cats are naturally aggressive. They have to be aggressive to be a top predator surviving alone in an arid and sometimes hostile natural environment. I am referring to the domestic cat’s wildcat ancestor, the North African wildcat. The behaviour of this wild cat is just below the surface of the domestic cat. It is what you see when a cat becomes aggressive for whatever reason.