Why Has My Cat Turned Aggressive Towards Me?

Barney a cat who was aggressive

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When a cat is aggressive towards her owner/caretaker it will almost certainly not be what I would call true aggression towards the person. The cat is not being deliberately aggressive towards her owner in the same way a wild cat would be aggressive towards its prey. When we think of cat aggression we can tend to think of the classic example of cat aggression which is expressed by a wild cat attacking an animal in order to kill it and eat it. This form of aggression never happens in the relationship between cat and person, quite obviously.

People often refer to aggression towards people as “a type of problem behavior or bad cat behavior”. I believe that those are misleading descriptions. Pure aggression – aggression without any of the factors listed below coming into play –  from cat to cat owner is nearly always due to provocation by the owner.

Aggression towards people can be classified under 5 headings, usually. Can you add more?

Rough Play

What happens is that the cat ambushes her caretaker or plays too roughly by biting and scratching her caretaker. This may be caused by a lack of proper socialisation. Socialisation teaches a cat to inhibit the bite and to retract her claws during play. Accordingly, the problem behind this form of cat aggression goes back to the early years when the kitten was socialised. When kittens play with each other and they play fight with each other they learn how far they can go when biting and scratching. This is part of the socialisation process.

The treatment program for rough play that results in biting and scratching is to redirect the cat’s play towards a toy and away from the caretaker’s hands. The caretaker can provide novel types of toys and there should be consistent play periods. There should never be negative punishment. Positive reinforcement may help which means providing rewards for doing things that the person approves of but this form of training, in my opinion, is rarely required.

Petting Induced

While being petted the cat turns to claw and bite the person. This may be due to a limited tolerance to being petted or an overstimulation through being petted.

The solution to this form of cat aggression is for the cat’s caretaker who is doing the petting to be observant and to recognise her cat’s pre-aggression signals. The person should look for signs of their cat becoming overstimulated and stop petting their cat. Also the caretaker should be aware of the individual cat’s characteristics and pet their cat in a way that their cat find acceptable and enjoyable. It is possible that a person can gradually desensitise their cat to petting by gradually increasing it over a period of time.

Defensive Aggression

A fearful cat becomes aggressive. This is instinctive. It may happen during handling, restraint (for medical reasons in a clinic) or grooming or under a wide range of other circumstances. If it happens at home, my opinion is that the cat’s caretaker should assess the environment in which her cat lives and the circumstances under which her cat lives to see whether there is something that could make her cat fearful and anxious. It could be any number of things. The objective is to remove aspects of her cat’s environment which makes her fearful. It may be another cat coming in to the house, or maybe a stranger in the house or indeed it may be another person living in the house.

Some cats are less confident than others and may therefore become more anxious more quickly than others. It is probably possible to desensitise a nervous cat through a systematic desensitisation and counter conditioning program but frankly these programs are probably beyond most people’s skills. The key is to create a calm environment in which the cat feels relaxed.

Redirected Aggression

A person interferes with a cat or is near a cat who at that moment is directing aggression toward another cat or some other stimulus (which has caused the cat to become aggressive).

The solution here, really, is relatively simple. The person should just leave her cat alone until she has calmed down. In addition the cause of the aggression should be removed with care, quite obviously. If possible, the better solution is to wait until the cat has calmed down. Once again, it is a question of the cat’s caretaker being observant and noting the emotional state of her cat and the reason why that emotional state exists.

For me, redirected aggression has only occurred when a stray cat has entered my home which has caused my cat to become aggressive towards the incoming stranger. The solution is simple, which is to, with gentleness but firmness, remove the stray cat. This in itself carries some risk of being scratched. What I have done in the past is to use a large cushion and while holding it placed it in front of the stray cat and then gradually manoeuvred the cat towards the exit. There are many other methods but care should be exercised. Once the stray cat has been removed a period of time should be allowed for the resident cat to calm down.

Cat in Pain

If a person picks up a cat that is in pain the cat may strike out. This is probably because the cat thinks that the person has caused the pain. Handling a cat who is in pain or in discomfort should be done with great care and it is up to the person to be aware that their cat is in pain or might be in pain. If in doubt it should be presumed that the cat is in pain and a very cautious approach adopted.

6 thoughts on “Why Has My Cat Turned Aggressive Towards Me?”

  1. Every cat has a different personality the same as people. Some people aren’t very nice a bit grouchy no one made them that way its just the way they are. I haven’t met many cats that are like that but could be that its that simple like some people they are just grumpy.

    My mom had a cat that would just leap out of the bushes and attack our legs and ankles for the sheer hell of it all very unprovoked. The same cat would prey on a neighbours dog from up the road. He would wait behind the wall and leap out and land on the dogs back, things got so bad the neighbour complained and from then on when she came near my moms house she wouldn’t come into contact with Sebby.
    He was a hell raiser but for no good reason that I’m aware of I think that was just him, his puursonality.

  2. i often think its cause some change has happened. Like when i got jasmin ozzie hated me was growling i couldnt pet him, but over time i become abit more accepted. Some cats also just need time. Esp if they have been picked up too much or cuddled i know sometimes esp in the colder and weter weather they dont feel like being picked up as much and get very angry and growly. I guess the key is to watch body language of the cat i.e the tail and try not to annoy them too much.

  3. A brilliant article Michael, another one to share.
    Maybe we do repeat ourselves but I think we can’t educate too much in different ways about cats because there is so much ignorance about them.
    Until people stop calling cats ‘bad cats’ for behaving naturally as cats do, we have to keep on.
    It’s the same with declawing, pointing out the same things in different ways is all we can do.
    Hopefully they also educate new readers who haven’t seen any of our previous articles about cats.

    • I am pleased that you found the article good. I agree that we cannot do too much to straighten out people’s perceptions and misconceptions about cat behaviour. As for declawing, some people need a brain transplant.

  4. Hi Michael,

    I wish there was a “love” button, instead of just a “like” . Your article is truly outstanding and explains the reasons for “aggressive” behavior incredibly well!

    I love what Jackson Galaxy says about “bad cats”. There is no such thing as a bad cat- what we have is a kitty that is misunderstood.

    I can’t begin to count the number of folks who think their cats are mean and actually become frightened of them. Cats can easily pick up our emotions, and if we are frightened, they will think there is something scary to watch out for, since if we are scared something is alarming. Cats often strike out when they are afraid.

    I am so glad you wrote this article. It’s bound to help many folks to learn more about feline aggression, what to look out for to avoid being “attacked” and how to handle these situations more appropriately.

    I was very upset the other day when I was reading questions about feline behavior. Someone asked why their cat was nipping them early in the morning to wake them up to be fed.

    One person suggested holding the cat’s paws and pressing on them to “teach” the cat not to bite–adding that a spray bottle would help as well. Punishing cats never works, and to become “aggressive” in response to this kind of behavior is so confusing to a cat, and will only erode the cat’s trust of their human.

    Again, thanks for this highly informative article!

    • Jo, you are very nice to me. Thank you. In some ways, I am repeating myself but presenting the information in a different way. I do think it needs to be said more than once, perhaps several times from different perspectives, because there are still many people who have misconceptions about cat behaviour and what aggressive cat behaviour really is.

      Like you, I hate to see people getting the wrong end of the stick on what is referred to as “bad cat behaviour” and “aggressive cat behaviour”.


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