By Dr. Becker
A few years ago a retrospective study was conducted at the Animal Behaviour Clinic at the Barcelona School of Veterinary Medicine to investigate behavior problems in cats1
The study covered the time period 1998 to 2006 and included 336 cats with behavior problems.
Of the 336 cats, 178 were female (65 percent spayed) and 158 were male (77 percent neutered).
The mean age for problem presentation was 4.5 years.
The kitties came to their owners from a variety of sources.
Some were strays living on the street, some came from breeders, some from pet stores and a few were adopted from shelters.
Most Prevalent Feline Behavior Problem: Aggression
A major finding of this study was that nearly half (47 percent) of cat owners listed aggression as the primary behavior problem (inappropriate elimination was a not-very-close second at 39 percent).
Of the kitties with aggression, 64 percent were aggressive toward other cats and 36 percent toward people.
When the cats were people-aggressive, 78 percent targeted the owner.
The cats who showed aggression toward people did so most often during play (43 percent) or when they were being petted (40 percent).
Play-related aggression toward owners was more common in homes with a single cat. Indoor-only cats and intact females were more aggressive than spayed females.
Study authors theorize cats who lack other outlets for play-related aggression will direct it toward their owners.
They also suggest petting-related aggression is most often the result of owners not knowing how to read their cats' subtle "I've had enough" signals.
Why Some Cats Show Owner Aggression During Play
Strange as it may seem, play aggression is fairly typical behavior in kittens and young cats. Hiding under furniture and jumping out to attack a human foot or ankle – or suddenly pouncing on your tootsies under the bedcovers -- is the norm for many energetic young kitties.
Kittens raised with littermates learn to control biting and scratching as part of their socialization to other cats. Intense play aggression with uninhibited scratching and biting is usually seen in kittens and young cats taken early from their mothers, under-stimulated kitties, and cats without appropriate play outlets.
This behavior can occasionally continue into adulthood. It is most commonly seen in single cat households where kitty is alone all day while his humans are at work or school.
Managing Aggressive Play Behavior
One way to curb aggressive play behavior is to increase the amount of time you spend interacting with your cat each day. Make sure to keep a stash of toys on hand that your kitty responds to, and make it a point to engage him with a favorite toy for short periods several times each day.
The toys and interactive games you select should keep kitty at least an arm's length from you to limit his ability to sink his claws or teeth into you.
Always approach your cat calmly. Talk to her in soothing tones. Make play time fun and challenging, but also gentle. It's a bad idea to play rough with any cat, much less one who is already feisty.
Keep track of when your kitty is most likely to become playfully aggressive. If it happens at specific times of day – say, at bedtime – initiate your last play session right before you turn in for the night.
Make sure your cat has plenty of appropriate scratching surfaces, climbing poles and perches. These items will help answer his natural urge to scratch, stretch, climb and escape to an elevated resting spot.
No matter how painful and upsetting it is when the fuzzy love of your life draws blood, please don't respond with physical punishment of any kind. Not even a tap on the nose.
All you will accomplish is to inflict pain on your pet, cause him to fear and avoid you, and perhaps even increase his aggressiveness. Or, he might think you're actually being playful, which amounts to rewarding his aggressive behavior.
The best approach is to ignore your kitty when she's showing aggression. Walking away when she's behaving aggressively is the best way to help her make the connection that rough play means no play.
Cats who display aggression while being petted have often sought out the attention, but at some point decide it's too much.
When your kitty reaches his petting limit, it's likely he's showing you with some form of body language -- tensing up, flattening his ears to his head, maybe twitching his tail. Or perhaps he's even straining to get out of your grip.
However your cat shows displeasure, chances are he's showing it before he gets aggressive while being petted. The trick for his humans is to learn his body language.
It's also not a good idea to restrain your cat while petting her. In general, it's always best to let kitty come to you. Cats need to feel in control of their environment. They want interactions on their terms. Uninvited touching and handling is not a good way to bond with your feline companion.
The more you let your cat be in charge, the more often you might find her jumping into your lap. And even when she's in your lap, she may not want a lot of petting, so tune in to her body language. Some cats are just cuddlier than others.
Feline Non-Recognition Aggression
Inter-cat aggression is a huge, complex topic I can't do justice to in a single article, so I'm limiting my discussion today to just one type – non-recognition aggression.
Non-recognition aggression often occurs when one member of a multi-cat household returns from a veterinary appointment – one that often involves sedation or anesthesia.
Two kitties who had lived peacefully together are suddenly at war, with the 'stayed at home cat' (Cat A) launching a vicious attack on the 'vet appointment cat' (Cat B) as soon as she's let out of her carrier back at home.
Cat A seems to view Cat B as a total stranger, and a threatening one at that. Unless Cat A immediately snaps out of it, ongoing battles between the former friends can become the norm.
The Cause Remains Mysterious
There are no real answers as to the cause of non-recognition aggression. Some experts suggest the trigger could be the look of Cat B after undergoing sedation or anesthesia. Perhaps Cat B walks differently.
It could also be something about Cat B's smell after a veterinary procedure – iodine perhaps, or alcohol, or vitamin B – smells that are pervasive in many vet clinics.
Perhaps it's not one thing, but a combination of factors that causes Cat A to see Cat B as a scary stranger. However, cat owners have tried to prevent non-recognition aggression in various ways, for example bringing both cats to the vet's office. But no preventive measures have worked consistently.
Non-recognition aggression is usually seen in cats with unpredictable or mercurial personalities. And if it happens once it's likely to happen again.
Since we have yet to determine the cause of non-recognition aggression or effective preventive measures, if you've dealt with this type of reaction in one of your cats, your best bet is to keep the kitties separate for days or even weeks after a triggering event. Reintroduce them gradually. Let their reaction to each other determine the pace at which they are allowed to reconnect.
Also consider using natural products like those from Spirit Essences2 or OptiBalancePet3 to help both your mercurial kitty and the one who winds up his victim manage stressful events in their lives. In my practice, I also use homeopathic Aconitum orally to help reduce cats' emotional responses.