As a holistic vet, I’m frequently asked, “How can I deal with my cat’s
bad attitude?” The problem area dubbed “feline aggression” can be
complicated, upsetting and potentially hazardous for pet parents. Not
only can cat bites and scratches really hurt, they can transmit
diseases, too, such as cat scratch fever (yes, it is real). While most
cat moms and dads prefer a purring lap-warmer, especially on cold winter
nights, some felines need extra help learning how to sheathe their
Unfortunately, feline aggression is not well understood or handled
appropriately. An important first step in dealing with this frustrating
issue is to understand the behavior. Learning why a cat lashes out can
help pet parents deal with the issue patiently and properly.
In this post I’ll be covering the five basic types of aggression in
Pain- or Health-Related Aggression
A cat who is experiencing pain or ailing may exhibit aggressive
behavior, so it’s vital that your first stop be a trip to your vet,
especially if what you’re witnessing is a recent change in behavior.
Medical conditions that can cause pain and aggression include abscesses,
dental disease and arthritis. Additionally, hyperthyroidism is
associated with increased aggression in older cats. Alleviation of
underlying medical conditions can often resolve the aggressive behavior.
This form of aggression is typical of young cats and kittens. You can
recognize play aggression by the feline’s posture: stalking or crouching
like a lion, lashing the tail from side-to-side, especially when their
pupils are dilated. As unsuspecting “prey” passes, whether it’s your dog
or your spouse ... pounce! The cat who attacks your ankle and then
disappears in a flurry of fur isn’t trying to maim you - he’s playing,
The best way to address play aggression is integrate a toy, such as a
cat fishing pole or a laser pointer, into play sessions. These toys
serve a dual purpose - they will hold your cat’s attention while burning
off excess energy and keep your hands out of the “strike zone”. A
stuffed sock can provide the perfectly-pouncible object. If additional
measures are required to curb the behavior, consider blocking access to
your cat’s favorite stalking places or use a noise deterrent, such as
shaking a can full of coins. Remember that you must use a noise
deterrent within the first few seconds of the inappropriate behavior for
it to be effective. Never let your cat, even when he is a cute kitty,
view you as an acceptable chew-toy. You might also trim her nails to
minimize the “ouch factor” (here’s a video that shows you how).
When a fearful cat encounters an unpleasant situation, such as the
veterinary office, he will likely take steps to protect himself. Fear
clues include crouching with tail and legs tucked under, hissing and
baring teeth, flattened ears, dilated pupils and fur standing on end. If
your cat is fearful, it is important to identify and avoid, if possible,
the thing triggering the fear. To overcome fear aggression, you can try
to desensitize your cat to the fear-inducing object by keeping it at a
distance and rewarding your cat with treats for non-aggressive behavior.
Also, try to minimize stress in a fearful feline’s home environment. If
your cat is completely out of control, have your veterinarian refer you
to a behavioral specialist who can work with you and possibly prescribe
medications to get your cat through the rough spots.
I like to refer to this type as “innocent bystander aggression”.
Redirected aggression typically occurs when a cat is aroused by one
stimulus, such as a bird outside, when another pet or person intervenes.
A cat exhibiting redirected aggression can be staring at something while
growling and pacing with a lashing tail and dilated eyes. Avoid this cat
until he has calmed down because interaction can lead to injury. If you
can identify the stimulus that sets off your cat, you may be able to
prevent the aggression. If it’s an external stimulus for an indoor cat,
try using sticky tape or window blinds to prevent him from perching on
windowsills. This, coupled with motion-activated lights (or sprinklers)
to discourage outdoor visitors, could end the behavior. If your cat is
aroused for an extended period of time, you can herd him with a thick
folded blanket to a “time out” room equipped with food, water and
litter. After he becomes calm, reward him with loads of attention.
Similar to redirected aggression, overstimulation usually occurs when
you are petting your cat and out of the blue they grab you and sink
their teeth or claws into you. For highly reactive and vivacious cats,
even a single long stroke down the spine can elicit an aggressive
reaction. The key here is to recognize the warning signs: when the tail
starts twitching, stop petting. Restrict your affections to areas that
your cat enjoys, such as behind the ears or under the chin. If your cat
grabs you, try not to overact; in fact, if you can, simply freeze … they
will usually calm down quickly and let go.
If you take-away anything from this article, I hope it’s to never, ever
hit a biting or scratching cat. Physical punishment, even a light rap on
the nose, can increase fear and anxiety, potentially worsening the
aggressive behavior. With time and patience, you can turn even the most
claw-happy kitty into a loving companion.
Thank you for all you do to make the world a better place for companion