Calling a cat ‘aggressive’ can seem a little harsh, as very few cats are naturally aggressive or bad tempered. If your cat is displaying aggressive behaviour, it’s important to understand what’s motivating this behaviour, so that you can figure out how best to deal with it. Below are some of the most common causes of aggression in cats.
Pain-induced aggression is the first thing that you should rule out, especially if your usually placid cat has suddenly turned aggressive. If you accidentally step on your cat’s tail (whilst he’s under your feet in the kitchen) he may hiss, spit or take a swipe at you straight away, and this is an obvious pain-induced aggression. It may also be the case that your cat has suffered an injury or illness that isn’t immediately obvious and where there are no other physical signs or symptoms. If your cat is usually relaxed and easy-going, and has suddenly turned aggressive, a vet check is essential to rule out any underlying, invisible health issues.
Cats who’ve been encouraged to ‘play rough’ with their owners as tiny kittens will often continue to exhibit play aggression when they grow into adult cats, and a grown cat’s teeth and claws can easily tear sensitive human skin! If your cat loves to terrorise your feet and hands as part of play, you need to teach him that playing with toys is more fun. Use interactive toys that he can play with independently or introduce fishing rod style toys, which will enable you to keep your hands and feet a safe distance away.
Territorial aggression can be directed towards a human or another cat, and is the most common cause of problems in multi-cat households. If you have two cats that just don’t get along, no matter what you try, then you may have to consider re-homing one of them or separating them if you have a large enough home to allow them to create their own territorial space. In many instances, territorial aggression only occurs occasionally, e.g. when a new cat comes into the household, or an existing member of your feline family has been to the vets and smells different when they return back home.
Redirected aggression occurs when your cat is stirred up by something that he can’t reach, such as a bird on the window ledge or a rival cat in the garden, and will take out his aggression on you instead. If you see that your cat is agitated, your natural reaction is to go to him to soothe him, but all you’re likely to get for your trouble is a pawful of claws! Apart from learning to recognise when your cat’s worked up and letting him calm down before you approach him, you should make sure that he has lots of interesting and enriching things to see and do around your home.
Sometimes when a cat has a bad experience, perhaps with a dog or a small child, he’ll come to associate every dog or child he sees as a source of fear, and go on the attack straight away. It’s likely that in the past he’s used aggression successfully, so he’ll continue to demonstrate this behaviour every time he feels threatened – even if there is no actual threat. To curb learned aggression in your cat, the best thing is to completely ignore it. If you comfort or fuss over your cat he’ll see it as a reward or praise, and if you reprimand him you’re likely to inadvertently encourage further aggressive behaviour.
Cats have different tolerance levels to being petted and stroked, and even if your cat is usually a cuddly lap cat, he still has a petting threshold and at some point you’re likely to reach it. The trick is to learn to read the signs so that you can quickly tell when your cat has reached that “I’ve had enough now” point. Petting aggression is often directed at over-enthusiastic, yet well-meaning children who just want to show their love and affection for their pet. To avoid scratches and tears its important to teach children to read the signs too – a swishing tail and flattened ears mean that it’s time to stop and leave the cat alone.
In the animal kingdom, some aggression is necessary in order to survive, so it’s natural for your cat to display aggressive behaviour on occasion. As long as your cat’s aggression isn’t causing harm to you or members of your family (other cats included), then it isn’t a serious cause for concern.
Do you have experience with aggression in cats? How did you help resolve your cat’s aggressive behaviour?