All is calm and peaceful when you are petting your cat. Then suddenly, the claws come out and he aggressively swats away your hand. If you are a cat owner, you may be familiar with this scenario. Aggressive behavior in cats can be concerning, but when approached with the proper care and understanding, it can be managed and reduced. Dr. Jill Sackman, BluePearl’s head of behavioral medicine, talks about the signs, causes and treatment of cat aggression.
As you begin to explore the topic of cat aggression, it’s first important to understand that by nature, cats are not highly skilled at diffusing social tension. Cats have a much different social history than humans and dogs, who evolved in groups with a dependency on social interactions. Cats are more solitary and self-sufficient, and are better at running and hiding than offering behaviors that can resolve a conflict.
The signs of aggression in cats can escalate very quickly and can also be subtle. Oftentimes, your cat will show subtle body language indicating stress before he resorts to hissing, biting or scratching. In some cases, however, your cat may exhibit early signs of stress and tension, such as swishing his tail, crouching, low growling or flattening himself to the floor.
From petting to a big trip to the vet, there are many potential causes for cat aggression. Here are the most common classifications of aggression triggers in cats:
Play aggression – If your cat bites at legs that walk by, a skirt that swishes or hands that move under the blanket, he may be exhibiting play aggression. This almost always stems from a high need for play and relative lack play of enrichment. To prevent play aggression, provide lots of opportunities for play and enrichment. Always avoid using your hands to play with your cat. Kittens have a very high drive to pounce and grab as they practice at being a predator, so provide lots of different toys and time for interaction with you to help exercise this high play drive.
Fear-based aggression – Fear can be a common trigger for aggression in cats, especially if they feel they are unable to run away or hide. Common fears for cats include too much or unpleasant handling, restraint, new smells and trips to the veterinarian. Cats are both prey and predators, so sitting in a carrier on the floor in a veterinarian’s waiting room while dogs are staring at them is highly frightening!
Petting-based aggression – You may love to pet your cat all day, but he may not be a huge fan. While some cats find stroking pleasant, others find it highly uncomfortable. Almost all cats enjoy being lightly touched on the top of the head. They also head bunt, which is the way they would greet other cats. Instead of long head to tail pets, try a light touch on the head or even a nose to nose touch with your cat as a greeting.
Inter-cat aggression – Some cats exhibit aggressive behavior when together in the home.
There are a few factors that determine the predictability of aggression in cats. Above all, cats without proper enrichment, their own personal space including food and water, lots of vertical climbing space and interaction with their owners are more likely to become aggressive.
While you can’t stereotype all cats by their breeds, some breeds of cats are known for being more affectionate, active or aggressive than others. If you’d like to know more information on this subject, Dr. Benjamin Hart explores breed and gender differences in cat behavior in his book, “Your Ideal Cat.” A study called Behavioral associations with breed, coat type, and eye color in single-breed cats also explores behavioral differences in certain types of cats. Also, a research study by Dr. Sandra McCune suggests that young cats with friendly feline fathers are more likely to develop friendly behaviors such as approaching, touching and rubbing.
As mentioned, cat enrichment is highly important for preventing aggression because it helps keep your cat happy and pleasantly exhausted. Adding more enrichment to your home can be as simple as putting up some cat shelves, adding a few more water sources or buying some interactive toys. You may even consider upgrading your patio to a “catio.”
Your veterinarian may also recommend nutraceuticals or pheromones to promote calmness. For cats with petting-based aggression, try not to handle your kitty as much and associate touching with pleasant things such as some tasty cat treats. If your cat has fear-based aggression, try to decrease the source of fear in the environment, if possible, and reduce the unpleasantness by pairing the trigger with food. An example of this is offering food while you trim toe nails.
If your cat is afraid at the vet, it’s important to find a veterinarian who is sensitive to your cat’s fear. Your veterinarian may examine him in his carrier, avoid handling him repeatedly and respect his need to hide in the exam room. Dr. Sackman specializes in low-stress handling, a program designed to decrease the fear many pets experience at the veterinary hospital.
“It’s important to offer empathy for fear aggressive cats because they are often just plain scared,” says Dr. Sackman, “And if you notice your cat developing aggression, talk to your primary veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist about his behavior.”