Nearly Half of Cat Owners Named This Their Primary Behavior Problem — Do You?

aggressive cat

Story at-a-glance -

  • Aggression is a common problem in cats, and many aggressive kitties direct their attacks at their owners
  • If you have an aggressive cat, it’s important to rule out an underlying health problem first before assuming the problem is behavioral in nature
  • It’s important to learn to recognize the signs of an impending attack; if it happens during petting sessions, you’ll want to learn your kitty’s “I’ve had enough” signals
  • If your cat’s aggression is play-related, make sure his environment is feline-friendly and aside time each day to interact with him
  • Also explore natural therapies that may be beneficial for your cat, and if you need help, reach out to your veterinarian or an animal behavior specialist

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

A not very well-kept secret among cat parents is that many feline family members are aggressive toward their caregivers. In fact, a 2009 study of 336 cats with behavior problems showed that nearly half (47 percent) of the cats' owners listed aggression as the primary behavior problem.1

Of the aggressive kitties, 64 percent directed their hostility toward other cats and 36 percent toward people. Of the people-aggressive kitties, 78 percent targeted their owner, 43 percent became aggressive most often during play and 40 percent during petting sessions.

The study also revealed that play-related aggression toward owners was more common in homes with a single cat, and indoor-only cats and intact females were more aggressive than spayed females. The study authors theorized that cats who lack other outlets for play-related aggression may direct it toward humans. They also observed that petting-related aggression most often occurs when owners don't know how to read their cat's body language.

First Things First: Make Sure Kitty Isn't Dealing With a 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. Cats are masters at masking pain. There are also some disorders (e.g., hyperthyroidism and hyperesthesia) that can have a dramatic effect on behavior.

It's also important not to over-vaccinate cats. They are tiny creatures and the same dose of vaccine that protects the lion at the zoo is used to protect your 10-pound "house lion."

Consult your integrative veterinarian on a customized, common sense vaccine/titer schedule for your cat based on her exposure (time outside) and risk of infection (minimal) versus potential systemic side effects (significant, over time) of unnecessary vaccines. Remember: most feline vaccines last a lifetime, just as human vaccines do.

If your veterinarian gives your cat a clean bill of health, the next step is to figure out the trigger for your cat's aggression toward you. Typically it's either play or petting related.

How to Recognize the Signs of an Impending Attack

It's not often that cats attack without warning, though it can seem that way if you don't know what to look for. There are often subtle changes in the way a cat positions her body before she strikes.

Defensive postures are often the result of kitty's anxiety or fear about something you're not even aware of. These postures are used when she wants to make herself look small and can include flattened ears, raised hackles, turning away from you, crouching, tucking her head, hissing and swatting at you.

Offensive postures do the opposite — they're intended to make your cat look bigger than he is, and therefore intimidating, and include upright ears, stiffened legs and tail, raised hackles, staring at you and moving toward you.

If your kitty is displaying either defensive or offensive postures, give him space to avoid being the target of his aggression. Never lose sight of the fact that an attacking cat can move with lightning speed and do a surprising amount of damage quickly with his sharp teeth and claws.

Managing Petting-Related Aggression

If your cat unexpectedly gets aggressive while you're petting her, it can be really confusing — especially if she came looking for attention from you and then suddenly turned on you. Fortunately, there's an explanation for the behavior that may make you feel a little better.

Some cats, for reasons known only to them, have an innate "petting limit," meaning 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. 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 hiss or growl.

The trick is to learn her "I've had enough" body language and let her go at the first sign. Also, 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 stay on good terms 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.

The Best Way to Handle 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 highly entertaining for a healthy young kitty. Another fun game is to "stalk" and pounce on your toes under the covers.

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 curtail 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 him 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 aggressive 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.

5 Common Sense Tips for Parenting an Aggressive Kitty

  1. Learn to avoid triggers that may cause your kitty to become aggressive with you. For example, if she's aggressive at feeding time, put her in another room while you prepare her meals. Place her food bowl in its usual spot and then let her into the area to eat.
  2. 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.
  3. Consider training your cat to obey commands to receive things she values. With the proper incentive (typically food treats), many cats can be clicker trained to perform certain behaviors like sit.
  4. Consult with a holistic veterinarian about natural supplements that might benefit your cat, including homeopathic and herbal remedies, L-theanine, rhodiola and passionflower.
  5. If kitty's aggression problem is severe and you can't manage it on your own, talk with your veterinarian or consult an animal behavior specialist (Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists, American College of Veterinary Behaviorists) who has experience with feline aggression.