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Reasons for Cat Aggression

Clare Deming
aggresive cat

While an aggressive cat may initially not seem as frightening as an aggressive dog, with four sets of claws and a mouth full of teeth, aggression in cats is not something to be taken lightly. To help an aggressive cat become more calm, it is important to figure out why the cat is acting out. There are several causes of feline aggression that can be directed at both other cats and people.

The Normal Cat

To make sense of why a cat becomes aggressive, it can help to understand the normal social structure for cats. When kittens are first born, they get along well with their littermates, learning appropriate play behaviors. According to the Animal Humane Society, kittens will stay with their mothers until they are six to twelve months of age. Sometimes several groups of female cats and kittens will live in a large social group.

The older tomcats travel through a larger territory and will chase the other males away as they mature. As long as resources are plentiful, the female groups can remain fairly amicable. Keep this social structure in mind and some of the reasons why cats develop aggression will make more sense.

Pain and Medical Problems

Even a normally docile pet may react with aggressive behavior if it is in pain. If your cat starts to show aggression, Cat Behavior Associates recommends that you have your feline friend evaluated by your veterinarian. This can help identify medical reasons that your pet may be showing a change in behavior.

Any painful condition can cause aggression, including arthritis, pancreatitis, kidney problems, spinal problems, dental disease, or an accident or injury. There are also diseases that can cause aggression such as rabies or seizures. Your veterinarian can tell you if these are concerns for your pet.

Types of Cat Aggression

The different types of cat aggression can be divided up into two main categories: inter-cat aggression and aggression toward people. These can overlap for some causes of aggression, but the treatment can be different depending upon the cause of the aggression.

Aggression Between Cats

Even though social cats exist, many are loners. This tendency can lead to stress and strife when introducing a new cat to your home. Inter-cat aggression can also occur in cats who have lived together for some time. It is thought that cats that are better socialized as kittens and have had more of a chance to learn appropriate play with littermates are more likely to enjoy the company of other cats. According to the ASPCA, pets that had less contact with other cats are more likely to have poor social skills that lead them to react poorly to a multi-cat situation.

Specific types of inter-cat aggression include:

  • Territorial aggression
  • Inter-male aggression
  • Maternal aggression
  • Fearful or defensive aggression
  • Redirected aggression

Aggression Toward People

Wounds inflicted by an aggressive cat can be a serious concern. The Centers for Disease Control report that getting bitten or scratched by a cat can transmit the organism Bartonella henselae which causes cat scratch disease. Cat bite wounds are also prone to becoming infected, most commonly with the bacteria Pasteurella multocida. According to VCA Animal Hospitals, this infection can spread through the body, leading to more severe infections such as cellulitis or septicemia.

Specific types of aggression toward people include:

  • Play aggression
  • Petting aggression
  • Redirected aggression
  • Fearful or defensive aggression
  • Maternal aggression

Inter-Male and Territorial Aggression

This type of aggression occurs because in a natural setting tomcats will fight over territory and mates. If you put more than one mature male cat (especially ones who are not neutered) together, they may feel the need to compete for territory or for a specific female cat.

Even neutered males or female cats can become territorial. The best treatment for this problem is to make sure that all of your pets are neutered, preferably at an age before they are sexually mature. To avoid this type of aggression, the Humane Society recommends that you introduce all new cats slowly. Occasionally, territorial aggression can be directed toward humans.

Maternal Aggression

This type of aggression is straight-forward and occurs when a female cat is protecting her kittens. The mother can react to a perceived danger from a person or another animal. According to the ASPCA, you should avoid handling newborn kittens for the first few days of life if the female cat shows any signs of aggression.

Fearful or Defensive Aggression

In any situation that causes fear for a cat, it is possible to produce aggressive behavior. The fearful cat may cower or try to make itself appear smaller. The ears may be pinned back flat, and the fur of the tail and back may stand on end. This cat may growl or hiss if approached and will hold its tail wrapped around its body. Some fearful cats will urinate, defecate, or express their anal glands. The ASPCA suggests that the best answer to this type of aggression is to leave the cat alone until it relaxes and is no longer fearful.

Redirected Aggression

This form of aggressive behavior can be difficult to understand. It is also called displaced aggression. According to the Cat Hospital of Chicago, this unusual behavior happens when a cat responds to an upsetting stimulus, but then reacts with a sudden and unpredictable aggression toward an unrelated victim. The trigger is often the sight of another (outdoor) cat, but can also be a loud noise, an unusual odor, or anything else that upsets the cat.

The attacks with redirected aggression can be more violent and dangerous than with other forms of aggression, and can continue well beyond the time of the inciting stimulus. Often, the cats will need to be separated and then slowly reintroduced. Any form of punishment or startling stimulus can increase the aggressive cat's fear and anxiety and can make the behavior worse. Reward training and controlled reintroduction of the cat to other household pets may be needed in more severe cases.

Petting Aggression

When a cat demonstrates petting aggression, the cat may suddenly scratch or bite when touched, even after seeming to enjoy that attention immediately beforehand. The Humane Society reports that the reasons for this phenomenon are not well understood. It is thought that some cats may reach a limit to their tolerance for being touched, or that some may have sensitive locations.

If your cat reacts in this way, it can help to look for subtle cues that could indicate that the cat has had enough. These can include lashing of the tail, restlessness, flicking of the ears, movement of its mouth toward your hand, or growling, hissing, or a short meow. The best treatment for this form of aggression is to stop petting the cat once you see any of these signs. Any punishment or scary event can worsen the cat's tolerance of petting.

Play Aggression

Play aggression is common in kittens and young cats. This occurs when the cat becomes overly enthusiastic with its play and will stalk or jump at a person in the house.

According to the Humane Society, this type of aggression should be managed by using toys that keep the cat at a distance from your body, such as a fishing pole type toy with a feather or fuzzy toy on the end of a string. If the kitten does pounce on or bite your hand or ankle, then a sharp or startling noise should be made to dissuade the behavior. Do not strike or yell at the cat, because this can make the animal fearful.

Sometimes a kitten will not be deterred from overly rough play. When this happens, play time is over and the kitten should be ignored until it calms down. In some cases of play aggression, adding another young cat to the household can help by providing a companion to play with.

Special Types of Aggression

Predatory aggression is a normal behavior in cats and stems from their hunting instincts. This form of aggression has some overlap with play aggression when it is directed toward people. According to the Cornell Feline Health Center, placing a collar with a bell on your cat can help to alert people when they may be targeted. When your cat exhibits this behavior toward small pets, like gerbils, mice, hamsters, or birds, these animals should be kept well out of reach of the cat.

When a cat demonstrates aggression and no inciting cause can be found, this is called idiopathic aggression. There may be no way to treat this unless the reason for the behavior can be identified. Consultation with a veterinary behaviorist may be able to help when other options have been exhausted.

Think Like a Cat

By working through these possible explanations for feline aggression, you can try to figure out why your cat is acting out. With some time and patience, most of these problems can be treated and you can minimize any risk to your family or other pets.

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Reasons for Cat Aggression