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cat behaviour >> Aggression

There are many different forms of aggression in cats.   Aggressive actions might include vocalizations, body postures, facial expressions and attacks.   These attacks might include warnings or actual bites/scratches.  If you have an aggressive cat, please see your veterinarian and/or seek referral to a veterinary behaviourist.   Any person bit by a cat should seek medical care immediately due to the risk of rabies (fatal) and infections etc.

This article will discuss:

  • Types of Aggression
  • Prevention of Aggression
  • Dealing with Aggression

TYPES OF AGGRESSION

Here is a list and descriptions of some of the most common types:

Fear/Defensive Aggression: 

This is a cat that shows aggression when it is frightened.  Cats that are fearful at the veterinarian’s office are often showing fear aggression.

Play Aggression: 

This is when a cat redirects normal social play activities such as hunting and stalking towards human. 

Intercat Aggression: 

This is aggression between two cats.  Note that this can range from subtle behaviour such as one cat staring at another cat to full blown vicious fights.

Status Related Aggression: 

Most commonly this is seen when a cat allows petting for a while and then bites.

Redirected Aggression: 

This is when a cat is in a highly aroused state and attacks an animal or person other than the initial target or cause.  The most common example is when owners try to separate two fighting cats and the cat bites them.  The cat doesn’t recognize that he/she is biting someone that is trying to help, they are simply in a state where they feel their life is in danger and are reacting instinctively.

Note on Medical Issues:  Behaviour changes can occur due to pain, metabolic issues or neurological (brain) diseases.  Testing should be done to rule out medical causes.

Identifying the type of aggression and all the situations (triggers) that cause aggression can help in formulating a behavioural treatment plan.

PREVENTION OF AGGRESSION

Socialization: 

Kittens that don’t have some human contact before 14 weeks of age are prone to fear, lack of curiosity, and aggression.  Even just 5 minutes of socialization/day can make a big difference.  This is why it is very important when you get a kitten to ensure that it is had proper socialization.  Some cats that lacked early socialization never become very social.

Proper Play: 

Kittens should never be allowed to bite at hands or feet.  Play is encouraged but with toys that are on a stick or string (caution that they don’t eat it though) and never hands.  Adequate play and exercise is also very important to give the cat the proper outlet for his/her energy.

Good Handling and lack of Abuse/Neglect: 

Poor situations can lead to cats that are very nervous and fearful of people so getting pets out of these situations early may allow rehabilitation.  Physical punishment should never be used.

Proper Space and Resources: 

In multi-cat households lack of space or resources can lead to aggression between pets and/or redirected aggression (Keeping Peace in MultiCat Households).

Early Intervention if Your Pet is Aggressive: 

Seek veterinary attention early to rule out a medical cause and to try to change the behaviour before it is well ingrained.  Chance of rehabilitation is worse for problems that have been going on a long time.

DEALING WITH AGGRESSION

Safety First: 

It is very important to seek help as soon as possible from a veterinarian and/or a behaviourist.  In the meantime, try to identify all the situations where aggression has occurred and figure out ways to avoid them.  Consider the following:

  • If you need to separate two fighting cats a large blanket may be able to be used safely.  Another method would be to carefully place a large box over the aggressive cat.  If able to do so, try to separate the cats into separate rooms and do not release until the signs of arousal have decreased.  Use the box and walk them slowly or make the blanket into a large loose wrap.  It may take several days for the cats to settle down.
  • If there are children in the house the cat(s) should be confined in a separate area with a child proof lock until the problem is under control.
  • If cats are aggressive toward each other, they should be separated into different areas that are quiet, have lots of toys and perches, adequate food water and litter boxes.
  • In multi-cat houses separating into groups can help.
  • Again, never punish an aggressive cat.  In their high state of arousal they may attack you or become more aggressive to other cats/pets due to fear.
  • Discontinue any type of rough play if the pet is attacking feet/hands.

Behavioural recommendations:

The exact recommendations would vary depending on the situation.  In general, the below recommendations are suggested to improve the environment.  See Handout:  ‘Fun Things to Do with Your Cat’ and ‘Multi-Cat Household’ (information on play, training, and setting up your house to be cat friendly)The recommendations in these handouts can help you make some management changes that give outlets for playing and hunting type behaviours and reduce boredom and frustration.

  • If aggression is related to pets outside doors/windows/screens or occurring in these areas then vision through these areas should be blocked with thick drapes or even sheets.   Humane devices such as motioned activated air cans or water sprinklers outside (not in Canada winter of course) can help keep pets away from your house.
  • If play is triggering events then use remote objects to play with the pet like toys on the end of fishing rods or even a remote controlled mouse. 
  • If the pet is stalking you, try to make the usual hiding spots unappealing.  This can be done with two sided sticky tape or a mat with some bristles on top that the cat doesn’t like.  Also carry a toy so that you can throw it before going through ambush areas.
  • Put a bell on the aggressive cat so you, and other cats, can tell where the pet is.
  • Reward the cat with small food treats when it is behaving well.  Consider clicker training.  You can throw the treat!  Go to: www.clickertraining.com.
  • Consider having the pet hunt for its food using a food dispensing toy or putting small bits of food throughout the house.

I hope this is helpful and will improve your relationship with your pet and/or between your pets. 

Dr. Liana Mawer

Websites/Videos etc:

Veterinary Partner:  Biting & Aggression article –

Veterinary Partner:  Reading your Cat’s Signals –

Play Aggression Video on You Tube:

Cat Behaviour Introduction on You Tube:

Sophia Yin cat training on You Tube: