By Dr. Becker
Picture this. You’re gently petting your feline companion who’s sitting contentedly in your lap, when suddenly he turns from housecat to menacing wildcat. His eyes become slits, his tail’s a-twitching and his ears are pinned back against his head. You know what’s about to happen. Now what?
• What not to do. Don’t yell at your kitty, or worse, hit him. Harsh treatment may not stop what’s about to happen, and it may make things worse both short and long term. Even in the face of his hostility toward you, it’s important not to inflict emotional or physical damage on your cat.
No matter how painful or upsetting it is when a pet draws blood, please don't respond with physical punishment of any kind. Not even a tap on the nose. All you’ll accomplish is to inflict pain on your cat, cause him to fear and avoid you, and perhaps even increase his aggressiveness.
• What to do. Calmly remove yourself from the immediate area. Give kitty some space and time to chill out.
If you’re holding your cat, stop what you're doing, stand up if you're seated and let him drop gently to the ground. If you're standing, bend forward from the waist and release him either to the floor or onto a piece of furniture.
Increasing your grip on a cat about to show aggression, even when your only intent is to lower him from your lap or arms to the floor, can exacerbate the situation.
It may help to realize you have lots of company among cat parents. Kitties with aggression issues are far more common than most people realize.
Aggression Tops the List of Behavior Problem in Cats
A 2009 retrospective study covered an eight-year period and 336 cats with behavior problems, including 178 females and 158 males, the majority of which were spayed or neutered.1
All the kitties lived wifth families who had rescued them as strays or acquired them from shelters, breeders or pet stores. The mean age at which the cats developed behavior problems was 4.5 years.
Study results showed that nearly half (47 percent) of cat parents listed aggression as the primary behavior problem. Inappropriate elimination came in second at 39 percent. Other findings from the study:
- Of the aggressive kitties, 64 percent directed their hostility toward other cats and 36 percent toward people
- Of the cats who were people-aggressive, 78 percent targeted their 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
The study authors suggested that cats who lack other outlets for play-related aggression may direct it toward humans. They also observed that petting-related aggression is most often the result of owners not knowing how to read their cats' subtle "I've had enough" signals.
Is Your Cat’s Aggression Masking an Underlying Health Problem?
The first thing I recommend when dealing with an aggressive cat is to visit your veterinarian to rule out any underlying health problems that could be affecting her behavior. Kitties are experts at masking pain. There are also some disorders (e.g., hyperthyroidism and hyperesthesia) that can have a dramatic effect on behavior.
If your veterinarian gives Fluffy a clean bill of health, you can reasonably assume her aggressive tendencies are behavioral in nature. The next step is to figure out the trigger for your cat’s aggression toward you. Typically it’s either play or petting related.
Tackling Play-Related Aggression
Play-related aggression is fairly common in kittens and young cats. Hiding under the bed, for example, and taking swipes at your feet or ankles as you walk by can be a highly amusing pastime for a healthy young kitty. Another fun game is to “stalk” and pounce on your toes under the bedclothes.
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 cats taken early from their mothers, under-stimulated kitties and those without appropriate play outlets.
The behavior can continue into adulthood, and is most often seen in single cat households where kitty is home alone all day.
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 an assortment 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 interactive toys you select should keep little Tiger a minimum of an arm's length from you to limit his ability to sink his claws or teeth into you. Approach him calmly, and speak in soothing tones. Playtime should be fun and challenging, but not rough. Rough play is inappropriate with cats, especially feisty ones.
Provide plenty of feline-friendly scratching surfaces, climbing poles and perches around your home so your cat can exercise his natural need to scratch, stretch, climb and escape to an elevated resting spot.
If your cat displays aggression while you’re petting her, it can be really confusing. This is especially true if your kitty came to you seeking attention, but then suddenly turned on you.
There’s an explanation for the behavior that may make you feel a little better. Some cats, for reasons we have yet to uncover, have a built-in “petting limit.” In other words, they have a low tolerance for being stroked and petted. When your kitty reaches her petting limit, she’s probably displaying body language to tip you off.
For example, she may tense up. She may flatten her ears to her head, twitch her tail or try to wriggle out of your grip. She may even let out a growl. However your cat shows displeasure, chances are she's showing it before she takes a swipe at you. The trick is to learn her “I’ve had enough” body language and let her go at the first sign.
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 like 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 make her own choices, 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.
8 Additional Tips for Living With an Aggressive Cat
- Learn to avoid triggers that may cause your kitty to become aggressive with you.
- Learn what your cat looks like right before he gets aggressive. Common signs are narrowed eyes, furtive glances at the irritant (e.g., your hand), ears swiveled sideways and flattened against the head, and twitching tail.
- If your cat is aggressive at feeding time, prepare her meals while she's out of the room. Place her food bowl in its usual spot and then let her into the area to eat.
- If your cat bites you to wake you up in the morning, he'll need to be kept out of the bedroom at night.
- Cats who aggressively respond when picked up should not be picked up, except when absolutely necessary.
- Train your kitty to obey commands to receive things she values, like food. With the proper incentive (typically food treats), many cats can be clicker trained to perform certain behaviors like sit.
- Consult with a holistic veterinarian about natural supplements that might benefit your cat, including homeopathic and herbal remedies, L-theanine, rhodiola and passionflower.
- Depending on the severity of the problem, you might want to consult an animal behavior specialist (Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists, American College of Veterinary Behaviorists) who has experience with feline aggression.