Difference between false cat aggression and real aggression

There is a difference between cats playing with people and grabbing their finger with their claws or biting their hand or whatever and genuine aggression towards a person. In play, there can be apparent aggression towards a person, usually the cat’s owner. By contrast, there are occasions when a cat will genuinely be aggressive towards a person and bite or scratch. What is the difference? People should be aware of the difference because it affects the person’s perception of the cat and it affects the relationship (negatively if the person is misreading the situation).

There is a third situation during cat play, which inevitably includes using claws and teeth, when it suddenly changes to cat hunting for real. Cat play is play-hunting but it is not far from the real thing particularly for a cat that has nothing real to hunt (i.e. indoor cats).

Another occasion when your friendly cat may bite you is when you inadvertently cause him pain because he ill and is sore. You pick him up and it hurts badly.  If he bites this would be a version of defensive aggression.


Articles on cat aggression on PoC (opens new window).


Cat owners need to be sensitive to the differences. A cat that genuinely wants to scratch or bite his caretaker is a sign that the relationship is poor. It means the cat is defensive, perhaps anxious and scared. There can only be on reason why a domestic cat is scared in a home shared by him and his owner: the owner is doing something wrong. The owner is creating the wrong feline environment and/or relating to her cat in a manner that makes her cat nervous. Or it may be because strange cats are coming in to the home and the owner’s cat’s aggression towards the strange cats is transferred to the person. A cat owner should be aware when their cat is wound up and ready to attack and stay clear.

Cat aggression in cat play should be fairly obvious. Play is normally instigated by the cat’s owner. If the owner goes too far and plays rough-house with their cat and the cat forgets that it is play and bites the owner fairly hard that should be obvious and chalked up as “play”. The cat should be forgiven and there should no punishment.

The reason why I mentioned this is because in one online newspaper that reported on the video of the cat that “attacks” the mailman, the author states that the cat is aggressive and angry. I disagree strongly. I believe this cat is bored. Perhaps, he is at home alone. When the mailman comes and pokes mail through a hole in the door (the letter box) this is a game which instigates play hunting. The cat is grabbing the mail and the mailman’s glove as if grabbing prey that has taken up a defensive position in a hole. This is not an aggressive cat. It is a cat that wants to play and for a cat “play” is always pretend hunting.

So, the difference between play aggression and real aggression is this:

Play aggression occurs when playing with a cat. The cat gets a little too excited and plays too hard with the person. Some individual cats probably haven’t learned the limits of play aggression and go to far. Some people probably haven’t learned the boundaries when playing with their cat. Play is great for cat and person but there must be limits because cats are damn good predators and excellent killers!

Real aggression towards a person, for a domestic cat, usually occurs when the cat is defensive. There is no play. Something has occurred either suddenly, on a one-off basis, or gradually that unsettles the cat and as a consequence he becomes anxious and is on edge ready to defend through attack. The cat’s owner should be able to read the signs and work on making the environment more feline friendly.

An experienced cat caretaker will rarely if ever get scratched or bitten. It is about reading the situation and the cat and knowing boundaries and signs.

Photo: by Pat Pilon & adjusted by Michael

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Michael Broad

Hi, I'm a 71-year-old retired solicitor (attorney in the US). Before qualifying I worked in a many jobs including professional photography. I have a girlfriend, Michelle. I love nature, cats and all animals. I am concerned about their welfare.

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