Is your cat biting or scratching you, stalking and pouncing on you? Is he biting you after you have been petting him for a short period of time or after you touch him in a certain place? Don’t despair: There are ways to deal with aggressive behavior in cats.
Below are some general recommendations for dealing with feline aggression problems. Before treating your cat’s aggressive behavior at home, make an appointment with your veterinarian. Occasionally, medical problems that can cause pain or irritability will lead to aggression; treating these conditions may resolve the behavior.
Some displays of seemingly aggressive behavior are actually normal ways for cats to communicate. Cats use behaviors such as biting, scratching and pouncing to tell other cats that they do not wish to interact, to protect their territory or valuable possessions (including food), and in play. Cats may hurt people or other animals simply because they don’t know how to play appropriately. Your cat may need to be taught more desirable ways to interact or you may need to help him become more comfortable in certain situations so he doesn’t feel the need to communicate in an undesirable manner.
Because we are not privy to cats’ thoughts and feelings, it’s not always possible to know what’s causing aggressive behavior. In addition, aggression is a complicated subject that behavior experts are still learning about. With that said, there are several known causes behind aggressive behavior in cats, including these:
Fear. Sometimes the best offense is a good defense! This is true of our fearful cats. When a cat feels threatened, he may act in ways to defend himself. This is the most common type of aggressive behavior, so keep in mind that the goal when you’re developing a behavior modification plan is to make your cat feel comfortable, not threaten him further.
Play and excitement. Some cats have a hard time distinguishing between appropriate and inappropriate play. Forms of play that may be appropriate with their litter mates may make us bleed. These cats often have difficulty controlling themselves and may not have learned the self-control necessary to regulate their play before it causes injury.
Redirection. Have you ever been so upset with someone at work that you go home and yell at a family member? That’s called redirection: You can’t take out your frustration on who or what is upsetting you so you pick on someone else. Cats sometimes do this, too.
Dislike of petting. Some cats show a high sensitivity to being petted in certain places, and their annoyance can flair up in an instant. For example, some cats behave aggressively when touched on the rear end or when being petted while sitting on someone’s lap. The reasons behind this behavior are not well understood, but these cats sometimes learn to accept petting for short amounts of time.
Pain and sensitivity. Numerous medical conditions can cause pain and discomfort. Just as we might lash out to protect ourselves from pain or anticipated pain, cats do the same.
The first step is preventing your cat from harming you. Trim her toenails (or, if necessary for safety, take her to your veterinarian or groomer for a pedicure) so that if she scratches, she will do less damage.
The next step is to identify the triggers for the aggressive behavior. Write a list of all the circumstances surrounding the onset of the behavior, including the time of day and day of the week, interactions with other animals and people, activities involving your cat, sounds and smells. Once you’ve identified them, avoid the triggers (when possible) while working on resolving the undesirable behavior.
Many of the warning signs a cat shows are common to the species, but individual cats may also have their own distinctive signals. Pay attention to your cat’s body language and learn to recognize the signals that occur shortly before your cat attacks. For some cats, this means dilated pupils and a change in ear position. For other cats, it means a rapidly swishing tail or a crouched, tense body posture. The goal is to recognize the signs that your cat displays before she behaves aggressively and to stop interacting with her before she gets to that point. You may get hurt by ignoring the warning signals.
Enrichment of the cat’s living environment can have multiple benefits for cats showing undesirable behaviors. It can relieve boredom and frustration, stimulate the mind, and provide an appropriate form of play and energy release. Many undesirable behaviors can be curbed by providing your cat with enough enrichment options. Keep in mind, though, that some forms of enrichment may not be appropriate depending on your cat’s triggers, so make sure you are providing enrichment that doesn’t cause your cat to be overly aroused or fearful.
How can you make your cat’s life more exciting? Here are some ideas:
Managing the behavior by avoiding all circumstances that cause aggressive behavior is an appropriate solution if you are staying safe and your cat does not seem emotionally troubled. If management has improved the situation, then don’t feel obligated to take further steps. However, you should seek professional help if the situation has remained static or is worsening, or if your cat has unavoidable triggers or seems anxious on a regular basis. There are veterinarians who specialize in cat care and certified feline behavior consultants. One of these professionals can offer help to you and your cat while keeping everyone safe.
In the meantime, basic behavior modification techniques that you can try include:
Additional things that you may want to try include Feliway pheromone products and a calming collar. It’s also a good idea to consult with your veterinarian. She may suggest nutritional supplements (e.g., Nutri-Calm, Zylkene, Solliquin), a change in diet or prescription medication.
There are some techniques that you should always avoid. Steer clear of the following and seek additional advice if the professional you’re working with recommends them:
Finally, put yourself in your cat’s shoes: Think about how he might be feeling and try to understand his behaviors from his point of view. It’s important to remain patient and supportive of your cat while keeping everyone safe. There are many professionals with considerable experience working with these issues so you can take comfort in the fact that this is not a problem unique to your cat.