Walking down the hallway, minding your own business, your cat suddenly leaps out from behind the bedroom door and scratches and bites your ankles like they were mice. What happened to your friendly feline? Why did it suddenly go on the assault?
“When cats become aggressive, it’s usually a matter of boredom, predatory frustration, inappropriate play, or they are simply trying to defend themselves,” says Sarah Wilson, pet behaviorist and co-author of Good Owners, Great Cats. She says most cats are not deliberately aggressive towards their owners, nor are they trying to be vindictive or mean. Animal behaviorists classify feline aggression into four main categories. The most common is play aggression, normally a result of playing “chase the hand under the blanket” games when the cat is a kitten. “It may seem like a cute game when the cat is young, but as an adult it’s biting harder,” says Pam Johnson-Bennett, a feline behaviorist and author of Psycho Kitty: Understanding Your Cat’s Crazy Behavior. If you yell at your cat for playing too rough, it will have no idea why you’re upset it’s playing the same way it always has. Your cat will be even more aggressive if it stays home alone all day with nothing to do and no outlet to burn up excess energy.
A second type of aggression is petting-induced aggression brought on when you pet your cat for a longer length of time than what it enjoys. “Sometimes what happens is the owner thinks, ‘Oh, my cat loves stroking so it will love being petted for 10 minutes rather than just a minute,’ but that’s not necessarily true,” Wilson says. The cat may hiss at you, bite or scratch, to let you know it’s had enough.
With male cats in particular, “excessive stroking can get them too aroused and over-stimulated,” adds Johnson-Bennett. “When that happens, some male cats bite. This is kind of a holdover from the mating ritual where the male bites the back of the female.”
Cats often exhibit fear aggression when cats are confronted with unfamiliar people or new situations, most typically when they go to the veterinary clinic. “A trip to the vet can cause a cat a lot of stress. The animal is put on the examining table and restrained, and the cat defends itself,” Johnson-Bennett says.
A final category is redirected aggression, which happens when your cat’s aggression is redirected to you from something else that has caused it to be angry. For example, your cat may be looking out the window and see another cat in the yard, which gets it very upset. If you go over to your cat to pick it up, it may displace its anger onto you and scratch or bite you.
Taming your tiger
Feisty behavior is something you should never ignore in your cat. Chances are, the problem won’t “get fixed” by itself and sooner or later, a family member, guest or neighbor is bound to be injured. For that reason, it’s important that you nip aggression problems in the bud. Here are some steps you can take:
Understand what motivates your cat to be aggressive: Your first step should be to take your cat to the veterinarian and have it evaluated for medical problems. A cat that is in pain may lash out at anyone who tries to pick it up. Certain diseases can cause a cat to be cranky. Cats, like humans, are bound to be more irritable if they are not feeling well.
Once medical causes are ruled out, sit down with your vet or behaviorist and come up with a behavioral diagnosis. Try to line up your facts: When did your cat start becoming more aggressive? Under what circumstances does it happen? What factors bring on your cat’s assaults?
Address the root cause: Once you know the cat’s stimulus, eliminate or decrease the factors that motivate your cat to be aggressive.