Aggression can be scary – not only for the victim but also for the one displaying the behavior. Since cats prefer to avoid confrontation, engaging in an aggressive encounter usually means they feel backed into a corner.
In order to avoid actual physical encounters, cats do lots of posturing and use their bodies to communicate that they’re either big, bad cats who shouldn’t be messed with or else they’re trying to say that they’re not a threat. When the body language and other communication signals fail to stop perceived threats, that’s when cats may resort to aggressive behavior.
Cats aren’t aggressive just for the sake of being aggressive. There are different causes behind aggressive behaviors. You have to identify the underlying cause of the behavior in order to work toward correcting the problem.
One very important step in dealing with aggression, or any change in your cat’s behavior is to have her examined by the veterinarian in order to rule out any underlying medical cause. This is a crucial step that mustn’t be skipped.
Aggression is serious and people or cats can quickly become seriously injured. Before dealing with a cat who is acting aggressively, seek the advice of your veterinarian. You may then be referred to a qualified, certified behavior professional. In general though, the best way to deal with an aggressive cat is to not deal with her at all – just leave her alone.
Below are some common causes of aggression:
This happens when two or more cats have a hostile relationship with each other. This may be the result of two cats who have just come upon each other in an outdoor environment, cats who are challenging each other for status or territory, or as a result of a human bringing a new cat into an existing cat’s environment.
Intercat aggression can occur between unfamiliar cats or ones who have previously had a good relationship. In the case of an ongoing relationship, something can trigger the aggression. Intercat aggression can also be the result of redirected aggression.
The method of dealing with this type of aggression will depend on the underlying cause.
This occurs when a cat becomes aroused and reactive as a result of seeing or hearing something that she can’t access. A common example is when an indoor cat sees an unfamiliar cat in the yard. She can’t get to the cat so she lashes out at a companion pet or nearby human.
Redirected aggression is easily misdiagnosed because you may never see the actual source of the cat’s agitation. The cat can stay reactive for quite a while. Additionally, depending on how severe the aggressive encounter was, the companion cats may stay hostile toward each other long after the initial episode.
Safely separating the cats temporarily is typically the best way to avoid the situation getting any worse.
This is one that cat parents often think comes out of the blue, but in reality, the cat usually gives plenty of warning signs. The problem is, humans don’t always pay attention to the signals until it’s too late.
This type of aggression occurs when you’re petting your cat and she suddenly lashes out and either bites or scratches you. It can occur when you pet beyond the cat’s tolerance or when petting causes over-stimulation. It can also happen when you start stroking areas of the cat’s body that aren’t comfortable.
Cats usually give signs such as tail lashing, tail thumping, cessation of purring, skin twitching, body position shifting, meowing or ear twitching.
To avoid petting-induced aggression, pay attention to your cat’s body language signals and learn her tolerance level so you can stay well below that.
Basically, all types of aggression are rooted in fear. This is a cat who feels backed in a corner and has no other option but to lash out.
Veterinarians are the ones who often see cats displaying fear aggression. The cat is on the exam table and all crouched down with tail tightly tucked around her body. She’s terrified and trying to appear as small as possible. She’s saying “leave me alone” but of course, she can’t be left alone during a veterinary exam. As a result, she may feel she has to choice but to strike.
If the fear is severe enough, the cat may also urinate, defecate or express her anal glands.
If your cat is displaying fear aggression and you don’t need to interact with her, the best thing to do is leave her alone and provide her with a place of refuge and security until she calms down. You must also figure out what is triggering the fear.
It’s not uncommon for your unsuspecting ankles to become the victims of a cat’s play aggression. An orphaned cat or one taken away from her littermates too early may display this type of aggression because she was denied the social play that occurs during crucial time with siblings.
This type of aggression is usually easily corrected by using interactive toys for play sessions, never using your hands as toys and teaching your cat that biting skin will result in a sudden end to the game.
This is one of the causes of intercat aggression. In the outdoor world, territorial aggression is actually very common. It can range from hissing and posturing to all-out bloody war.
Territorial aggression can be displayed toward anyone – human, feline or canine – although it’s most typically displayed toward other cats.
Territorial aggression can also occur between companion cats when one returns from the veterinarian and is covered in that unfamiliar scent. Cats use scent for recognition and when a cat returns and doesn’t smell like herself, she can become the victim of territorial aggression.
Dealing with this type of aggression will depend on the underlying cause of the turf war.
This can happen if you pet or touch your cat in a spot where she is hurting or injured or if you inflict pain on your cat. This is just one of the many reasons why physical punishment isn’t an effective training method.
This type of aggression may also occur if a child pulls a cat’s tail, or if kitty is handled too roughly.
You may also see this type of aggression show up in older cats who develop arthritis and it becomes very painful when not handled gently enough.
This refers to aggression that is displayed for no reason at all that you and the veterinarian can determine. There may be an underlying medical reason for the behavior that has gone undiagnosed. Often, redirected aggression is misdiagnosed as unprovoked aggression. Before diagnosing unprovoked aggression, it’s crucial to rule out medical causes and all other potential causes of aggression. Unprovoked aggression is rare.
A queen may display aggression if she feels her kittens are in danger. She may show aggression toward humans or other animals in the environment. It’s best to not stress the mother cat out. Make sure she has a safe and secure place so she doesn’t feel that her family is in danger. During the first two weeks of the kittens’ lives, limit your interaction so the mother can tend to her new babies.
Need More Information?
The above article is not intended as a medical diagnosis. If you’re concerned about your cat’s behavior, consult with your veterinarian. You may then be referred to a certified behavior expert. If you’d like to read more about behavior modification techniques used to deal with aggression problems in adult cats, refer to the book Starting from Scratch. If you are dealing with a multicat issue, refer to the book Cat vs. Cat. If you’d like a consultation with cat behaviorist Pam Johnson-Bennett, CCBC, contact our office for more information.
Pam Johnson-Bennett is the star of Psycho Kitty airing on Discovery UK. She is author of seven best-selling books on cat behavior including Think Like a Cat: how to raise a well-adjusted cat – not a sour puss. Think Like a Cat has become known as the cat bible. Pam is considered a pioneer in the field of cat behavior consulting. In addition to her television series and public speaking engagements, Pam owns Cat Behavior Associates, a private veterinarian-referred behavior company in Nashville, TN. Cat Behavior Associates offers private cat behavior appointments on a limited basis. Pam Johnson-Bennett is a Certified Cat Behavior Consultant.