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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?
Image: Tracie Hall / Steve Hardy via Flickr
Sweet Purrfectioins says
Truffle can be a little bully, but she’s never been aggressive with Brulee. It especially happens after one has been to the vet!
Cathy Armato says
What an interesting post! I’ve never experienced aggression in a cat but these causes all make a lot of sense. A friend of mine had a cat that suddenly, after several years, became aggressive towards their other cat for no apparent reason. I bet it was Redirected Aggression, my friend did mention a new cat that began hanging out in the yard.
Mary E Haight says
Cat aggression is interesting, except when you’re on the receiving end! I’ve seen these reactions in cats we had as I was growing up. We had two slightly mad Siamese blue points, overbred, that attacked my dad in the yard one day and ripped his leg up for seemingly no reason. It was definitely redirected aggression from something none of the family paid attention to at the time. Another shelter volunteer on the board had a cat from the shelter, overbred Persian unadoptable to the general public, who seemingly lured you in to pet him, purring away, and once you reached to accommodate, he’d smack your hand. Wow, he had some real muscle, lol! Great post — thanks =)
Great post. I never realized they could get petting aggressive, but now thinking back on my late furangel, Smokie, she was so cuddly, but then there was that point where she had enough and would swat you! We now have a rehabilitated feral kitty that Smokie had brought home with her one day and he’s just a love bug. He will kiss you and if you don’t pay attention to him, he’ll paw at you and lick you and rub on you until you do!
Dolly the Doxie says
We found this very informative as you usually don’t think of cats as aggressive. Mom learned years ago with her first cat about pain induced aggression when he attacked her. It resulted from him climbing on top of an open garage door which closed on him and his foot got caught in the door. She found him hanging from it when she freed him he attacked her. Missed her face but she got tore up enough to go to the ER. She always says “never mess with an injured animal.” Love Dolly
I’m so blessed to have two lovely kitties who have never shown aggression.
Beth | Daily Dog Tag says
My cat is very mellow, but my mom’s is a different story. She hates all cats and has sent two people to the hospital with cat bites as a result of redirected aggression. (Both people tried to soothe her when she was agitated by a cat outside her house.) We give her a wide berth now if there is a cat outside.
Talent Hounds says
My cat Nala was very territorial around our house and garden with other neighbourhood cats. She also had a petting threshold and hated being touched on the stomach. She would go from loud purring demanding a head rub or back and neck massage to a snarly pounce. I am sure arthritis contributed as she got worse as she aged (she passed last year at 17.5 years).
M. K. Clinton says
All three of my cats were so lovable. My Manx didn’t like visitors until he got to know them, but none were aggressive. ♥
My cats do get aggressive occasionally, but mostly towards one another.Their conflicts are usually very short lived. As I see it, some aggression is perfectly normal. Manna does have a little bit of play aggression towards humans, but it isn’t anything that I worry about. She is very good about the way she uses her claws and teeth. Great post! There are a lot of cat owners who have problems with feline aggression.
this has a lot of great information,and something that makes you think. We have three cats and sometimes they are aggressive at different times, this article helps me think/realize what it could be
Maureen Lake says
Wow! This post was incredibly informative and even though I am not a cat owner I sure learned a lot! I really liked how you stated to rule out pain first. That is so often overlooked!
I had a cat once who was crazy with the petting aggression. It didn’t take much at all to turn her. But otherwise she was the calmest cat on the planet. She was an odd duck, lol!
Tenacious Little Terrier says
No but we run into a lot of territory aggressive cats. Mr. N was attacked by one last year.
Binga has play aggression – with other cats! I think she was not around other kittens growing up and did not learn how to play nice.
The Swiss Cats says
Very impawtant info ! We’re going to share it ! Zorro experienced territorial agression from Angel Loupi (who was already a very stressed and nervous cat !), and it was just the hell for one year until Angel Loupi slowly began to cool down. Purrs
Caren Gittleman says
Super important info. Thankfully I have never experienced this with either of my cats but I know of many who have!