Cat Aggression: Forewarned is Forearmed


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by Nomi Berger


A frightened feline may lash out at a person for a variety of reasons. The following are the most common:

Fear Induced Aggression

is easy for us to identify if we can recognize the cause of the fear. Sometimes, the cause is not obvious. Timid cats may be afraid of all sorts of imagined threats, even sudden sounds or movements. Your cat may also have experienced something traumatic in the past that makes it afraid of something particular that you are not aware of.

Fear-induced aggression is also a cat’s natural reaction to punishment, especially physical punishment. Cats do not learn from any of the kinds of punishment or rebuke that one might use with dogs or children – instead of changing the misbehavior, the cat is more likely to become afraid of you and react violently.

Redirected Aggression

Whatever the original trigger may have been, cats that are not able to retaliate against a source of aggravation may redirect their response to the nearest person, cat, or other animal (the family dog, for instance).

Your cat may sit by the window and suddenly notice a dog, a raccoon, or another cat. The cat becomes agitated, but, being confined indoors, cannot do much to deter the perceived danger. That very minute, when the cat is focused on the threat outside, you casually walk by and pet its head. No wonder the cat suddenly hisses and lashes out at you. All that pent-up aggression is suddenly released in what may seem to you like an unprovoked attack.

Pain Induced Aggression

For us humans, this is perhaps the easiest type of aggression to understand. Poor Kitty is in pain, so it seems natural that she will be confused and try to attack anyone who is around her. We usually sympathize with our cat when she lashes out at the vet for a painful procedure. After all, she doesn’t understand that this is for her own good and naturally defends herself from pain.

Sometimes, it is more difficult to ascertain that pain is the cause of aggression. You may accidentally hurt a cat while picking him up or during a grooming session. Cats have very sensitive skin and may react to pain that we don’t even realize we have caused.

Petting Induced Aggression

This is an event some cat owners are well familiar with. You cat is lying contentedly by your side asking for some petting and you begin to gently stroke the cat. At first the cat is purring away, but within a few minutes the purring slowly stops, the tail begins twitch and then suddenly the cat grabs your hand with its teeth and claws.

This is a well-known behavior pattern, but it’s hard to tell why some cats are more sensitive to petting than others. It may have to do with early socialization with people, or with genetic disposition. Either way, it looks like some cats become over-stimulated and feel threatened when petted too long. Exactly how long is too long differs from cat to cat. If you live with such a sensitive feline, you will usually learn pretty quickly what it considers to be too long.

Illness Induced Aggression

Cats may become aggressive because of a medical problem. According to The Cornell Book of Cats, “Meningiomas (tumors of the membrane covering the brain), feline ischemic syndrome (constricted or obstructed blood vessels in the brain), rabies, and toxoplasmosis have all been associated with the development of aggressive behavior.”

Therefore, with any gradual or sudden onset of unprovoked violence, you should first consult your vet and check for medical reasons. You know your cat best and you should note any changes in behavior as part of a regular health assessment.

Of these diseases, rabies is the most dangerous, since it can be passed to humans and is always fatal. If you suspect a cat’s violence (whether the cat is yours or not) may be related to rabies, you must contact your vet and/or doctor immediately.


What to do

If your cat has attacked you and is holding you with his claws and teeth, resist the urge to struggle free, which will only ensure scratches and bites. Instead, keep very calm and do not move or try to pry the cat’s mouth open or hit or yell at the cat. No loud noises! With your free hand, gently sooth the cat by softly stroking the tops of his paws and then his toe pads until he releases his grip, all the while speaking gently and calmly to it.

Do not quickly pull away both hands and get up and away from the cat, but do stop petting or stroking it entirely, keeping your hands away from its teeth and claws. Let the cat sit where it is and only when it is calm, try to carefully ease it away from you. It is best to then leave the cat alone for a cooling-off time.

Have your cat neutered – If the aggressive cat is a whole male (tom cat), you should get him fixed as soon as possible. Although unaltered males usually display territorial aggression toward other cats, this aggression can become redirected against people. Neutering will also help to prevent roaming and injuries from catfights, as well as control the serious problem of cat overpopulation.

Reduce stress – Stress may be the underlying cause to many behavioral problems, including aggression toward people. Almost any kind of aggression is likely to get worse when the cat is stressed. Stress is caused by changes in the cat’s environment, and the cat’s tendency to become stressed over these changes differs from one cat to another.

Never punish the cat for aggressive behavior! Punishing the cat is likely to add to the stress and make the cat even more aggressive.

Consult an expert – Cat aggression can be a serious problem. If you feel that things are getting out of control, consult your veterinarian and ask her to refer you to a local cat behavior expert.

Medication – Your vet or an animal behaviorist may recommend drug therapy as a means of dealing with an aggressive cat, even when the problem is not caused by illness. This will usually complement a behavioral treatment program set up by an expert.


Warning Signs

Sometimes, it may seem that an attack came out of the blue, but more often there are plenty of warning signs. Knowing these signs and learning to recognize them can prevent some painful bites and scratches. Some of the physical signals that an aggressive (or potentially aggressive) cat may present are:

  • Wide open eyes.
  • Dilated pupils (in case of a perceived threat), or very constricted pupils (as the cat tries to threaten back).
  • Flattened ears.
  • Tail lashing or straight tail with bristled fur.
  • Agitated meows that turn into growling and snarling.
  • Hissing voices and sometimes even spitting.




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