Aggression in cats
Aggression in cats is a negative word: It is loaded with value judgment. When the word aggressive is used to describe something or someone, it predisposes the listener to dislike and distrust that thing or person. For animals, however, aggression is a natural, normal, healthy, appropriate behavior or reaction.
In cats, aggressiveness can be about self-protection or defense, or it can be offensive—often for the very same reasons. It can also be about play or sex.
Cats are small and vulnerable creatures, and if they did not have aggression as part of their arsenal, it is doubtful whether they would have survived for so many millennia.
This article that follow describe the kinds of aggression in cats you can expect to see in your cat and help you see what is normal and what may fall outside those boundaries.
TYPES OF AGGRESSION IN CATS
- Fear aggression: a cat attacks when frightened
- Food aggression: a cat attacks to protect her own food or take another’s food
- Inbred aggression: the result of poor breeding by people without the knowledge to make good choices in breeding pairs
- Maternal aggression: a mama cat defends her young
- Paternal aggression: an unneutered cat (a tom) kills kittens sired by another male
- Play aggression: mostly exhibited by kittens and adolescents while playing
- Prey aggression: a cat stalks or kills another creature
- Redirected aggression: a cat cannot get at the object of her fury, so she lashes out at a “bystander”
- Sexual aggression: between a male and female in heat
- Territorial/status aggression: a cat uses force and/or intimidation to control others and get what she wants
(A) FOOD AGGRESSION IN CATS
Cats have been known to attack to protect their food resources, or in order to steal food from another cat. Food guarding and aggression are generally an issue only in multi-cat homes.
If your cat was a stray, she may have had to fight for meals or go hungry much of the time, and if she spent time at a shelter, she may have encountered a similar competition for food.
Living in close quarters with another cat in your home may trigger that response in cats with those backgrounds.
FOOD AGGRESSION IN CATS CAN BE AN EXPRESSION OF DOMINANCE BETWEEN CATS
If one cat is clearly dominant, there will be no problem—the subordinate cat accepts his place, the dominant one makes clear her supremacy and the dominant one always eats first.
It is only when two cats who are about equal in the pecking order have not determined who is on a higher rung that aggression erupts over food, resulting in nasty fights. Feeding time becomes a contest to see who can top whom, rather than a pleasurable experience.
1. Things You Can Do to Avoid Food Aggression
The easiest fix for this problem is to give the cats separate feeding areas at different locations in the kitchen. Have two food dishes and two water dishes—the safety net of the distance between them may be all it takes for the aggressive cat to show no signs of her problem.
2. If the Problem Is Between a Cat and Dog
Since dogs love the extreme smelliness of cat food, both canned and dry, your dog will probably make every possible attempt to help himself to the cat’s yummy food. This can irritate your cat no end. But the solution is easy as pie: Elevate the cat’s food dish, placing it up on a counter, and the mutt will have to make do with his own food.
3. For Severe Food Aggression
If your cat really wigs out when another cat comes near her food bowl, rather than putting the nonaggressive cat in such an uncomfortable position, the easiest thing to do is to feed the cats in different rooms.
The aggressive cat will eat more comfortably if she doesn’t have to fret that someone else is going to get her food, and the cat who is the victim of the aggression is going to be eternally grateful to you.
(B) INBRED AGGRESSION IN CATS
A cat who is unpredictably aggressive may just be “wired” wrong. This type of aggressive behavior can only be blamed on or explained by the cat’s own biological makeup.
The cat may lash out at the slightest provocation—for example, when she is startled, when someone comes too close or when a person reaches out to pat her.
Aggression can be passed on in the genes, and since aggression is obviously not a desirable attribute in a cat (despite the “Beware the Attack Cat” signs you may have seen for sale), clearly no breeder would knowingly want to perpetuate this tendency passed on by the parent(s).
A consultation with your vet should help you determine if this is truly inbred aggression or if it is caused by something else, such as a medical condition.
If your cat is a purebred and you got her from a breeder, then you have a legitimate claim with the breeder, depending on what age the cat was when you become aware of the aggression.
There is no hard and fast rule on what that age might be, but using common sense you wouldn’t expect a breeder to honor your claim in a cat who has reached adulthood or her first birthday.
Depending on how serious the problem is, a good breeder should offer to exchange your kitten or cat. At the very least he should remove her parents from his breeding program until he can discover which of them is responsible for this unfortunate trait.
(C) REDIRECTED AGGRESSION IN CATS
This usually happens with indoor cats, generally because they have access to a window and see an unfamiliar cat outside whom they cannot get to. The adrenaline that flows when your cat sees an intruder and the frustration she feels at not being able to go deal with it can cause an outburst of aggression directed at the next creature who comes along.
This poor victim generally has no idea what triggered the attack and may retaliate or not, depending on her personality and also the underlying hierarchy with the attacking cat. (There may be times when you need to rebuild the self-confidence and self-worth of the cat who has been attacked, which you can do at least in part by spending extra time playing with her.)
Watch your cat. Start paying attention to whether your cat is behaving oddly when she looks out any window, and then see what she is reacting to. If there is a stray or a neighbor’s outdoor cat out there, you want to block your cat’s visual access to her. You don’t want your cat’s redirected attacks to become a habit, so you have to be on alert as to what is triggering the attacks. Such aggression can also be redirected at people or at a family dog.
Potentially, an ongoing problem may result from these moments of frustrated rage, setting up a negative dynamic between two cats where the victim becomes terrified of the aggressor, who may have developed a habit of “beating up” on the victim cat. You may have to separate the cats into different areas of your house until the two are settled down again. At that point, allow the cats back together in the area where the attack happened so it can become a neutral zone.
(D) AGGRESSION TOWARD PEOPLE
It is not considered normal for cats to be aggressive toward people—especially if they aren’t provoked. However, that doesn’t take into consideration the fact that for many cats, too much affection can be a provocation—to which they respond by aggressively lashing out.
This negative behavior from a cat is something that almost everyone has experienced at some time, when a cat they are touching turns on them unexpectedly. Since this is a common occurrence, you need to be prepared for it, understand why it happens and plan ways to avoid provoking it in your cat.
Keep in mind that cats are independent animals who, if they were living on their own without people, would rarely have physical contact with other cats or other animals (including the human animal). Cats are natural loners, and other than to mate or fight, they do not normally have physical contact—which means they will be in a heightened state when touched.
1. Biting Aggression During Petting
Biting is the most common form of aggression in cats toward people, and it is a kind of communication: Your cat is telling you to back off. However, it is pretty unpleasant to be petting your cat and suddenly receive a hard bite when you thought she was friendly and enjoying herself.
Being bitten in this situation can be especially disturbing because it seems to come out of the blue: Your cat is next to you, purring as you pet her, when without warning she reaches back and bites you hard. Did you do something wrong? Is your cat suddenly “possessed”?
Cats bite because of a basic incompatibility between human and cat: We like to pet a whole lot longer than they like to be petted. There is a too-much-of-a-good-thing aspect of giving affection to any cat—the animal reaches a saturation point when she just can’t take any more.
The bite is meant to let you know when that moment has arrived. Cats are not naturally sociable animals—they are intended to live a solitary life, and we interfere with that by making them part of our “family.” Although many cats adore physical affection, they aren’t naturally programmed for it, so when we pour on the affection it seems to cause, in essence, a short circuit in their brains.
2. Petting Aggression in cats
Petting generally creates similar problems to the biting behavior discussed above, but there are some other twists and turns worth noting here.
Physical affection toward a cat that elicits an aggressive reaction from her is sometimes called the “petting and biting syndrome.” It varies from cat to cat, but basically the cat attacks (with teeth and/or claws) the person who is caressing her.
This can happen when a person has been stroking her only briefly, or in other cases after prolonged stroking, but the reaction is sudden and severe, with teeth, claws, and sometimes a powerful backward kick.
Following such an attack, a cat will usually put some distance between herself and you, and then will settle in to groom herself as a way to calm herself down.
The “scratch and bite” response is something you may be creating in your cat if you stimulate her physically more than she can handle. If you pet a cat too intensely or for too long, she may have an eventual meltdown and turn on you because you have stimulated her past the point where she can process it or control herself.
This can be true of a cat you have adopted who came from a situation where she was neglected and craving affection—but then when you give it to her she is overwhelmed. It’s too much of a good thing, too “rich” for her system, and she lashes out without understanding why.
What Causes Petting Aggression in cats?
One theory is that the cat is in a kitten-like frame of mind when accepting your physical attentions and so she allows herself to be coddled. But then all of a sudden her brain switches gears to the adult, independent side of her personality, which rebels against being held or confined in any way, even against being stroked on your lap. And so she lashes out to assert her independence.
Another theory is that a cat’s personality type has a lot to do with it. Whether or not a cat becomes hyperaroused from affectionate contact may be a reflection of her underlying nature. Think of cats as being generally divided into two personality types, warm and cool.
There is rarely, if ever, an aggression problem with warm cats, who demonstrate a need to spend time with people and to experience physical affection from them. It is logical that when a warm cat’s desire for contact is the greatest, she is highly unlikely to respond negatively to human affection.
Conversely, cool cats may be all right with contact that they initiate and can terminate at will, but they may reject advances from a person who tries to pat or play with them.
You May Need a Check-up at the Vet.
If you think your cat may be hurting somewhere—inside or out—you should let the vet have a look at her. If you realize that your cat bites you every time you touch a certain area, this could be a pain response and you need to get it checked out.
Bite Warning Signs
- A direct stare
- Eyes squinting, narrowed
- Ears point flat back against her head
- Tail swishing, especially the tip
- Tense body position, rigid
- Leans away from you
- Mouthing your hand or arm
Ways to Avoid Triggering Biting
- Neuter your cat before she reaches maturity.
- Handle and groom your cat frequently and from a young age if possible.
- Groom with the same guidelines as for petting: Keep it short and sweet.
- Give your cat her own space—don’t be constantly physical with her.
- Let your cat come to you for affection, not the other way around.
- Keep petting sessions really short—no more than 1 minute.
- Try to stop petting while the cat is still eager for more.
- Try giving a good treat (such as chicken) after a petting session.
- Try desensitization: no petting at all for a few days, then make it very brief when the cat initiates contact, and gradually increase the length of petting sessions.
Ways to Deal With a Cat’s Aggression In Cats Toward People
- Learn when your cat tends to react aggressively so you can avoid those circumstances.
- Limit the amount of time you spend caressing or playing with your cat, and the number of times you engage her. If she does attack you, try to figure out how long you were caressing her before she lost it, and next time stop short of that amount of time.
- Leave your cat wanting more.
- Don’t touch the sensitive spots on your cat—her belly and hind legs. A cat’s back and head are the least sensitive areas, generally speaking.
- Be prepared with a squirt bottle or water pistol when you see your cat stalking you!
- Clap your hands and say “No!” sharply to interrupt what she was going to do to you.
(E) TERRITORIAL AGGRESSION IN CATS
A dominant cat in a multi-cat home may show you some of the same aggressive behavior she displays to the other cats to maintain her position in the hierarchy.
This behavior can include blocking your path by lying across doorways, staring directly at you, mouthing (where she puts her teeth on you without applying pressure) or actually biting you when you try to lift her.
General Tips for Dealing with Aggression In Cats
- See the vet to rule out possible underlying medical/physical causes.
- Learn your cat’s individual body language and be alert for warning signs.
- Avoid situations that triggered the aggression previously.
- Spend time sitting in the room where the cat tree is or where it’s most likely that fights might take place so you can be there to intervene.
- If you are there when aggression begins, turn it into a play session instead.
- Interrupt aggression with an unemotional reaction: Clap your hands or throw a shake can, but don’t make it about your disapproval.
- Use the least amount of aversion technique (spray bottle, splashing a glass of water) needed to get the desired results.
- Create distinct “safety zones” where each cat has food, water and a litter box and can avoid the other cat(s).
- Consider reducing the number of cats you have in the household.
- Discuss drug therapy with your vet and, if appropriate, use the smallest possible dose for the shortest possible time, combined with behavior modification.
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