In the US, there are more than 400,000 cases of cat bites every year. One out of three individuals required hospitalization for injuries sustained from cat bites. Domestic felines may not have the jaw size nor the bite force of their canine counterparts. However, their teeth are razor-sharp that they’re designed to penetrate and tear through tissues. Not only is there a loss of skin integrity, the risk of introducing pathogenic microorganisms in the tissues is also high. So, what triggers feline aggression? How do you know that a cat is already displaying signs of feline aggression? What is aggression in cats anyway? And how do you deal with unprovoked aggression in cats? These are the questions that this article will hope to answer.
Defining Aggression in Cats
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals or ASPCA defines aggression as any behavior that is either threatening or harmful. The recipient of the aggressive behavior can be a person, another cat, other pets, or other animals.
It is important to realize that thousands of years of domestication will never extinguish the animal instincts of cats. Man, for all his intellect and sense of right and wrong, is still prone to fits of aggression and violence. If a creature known for his rational behavior can still show aggressive tendencies, what more with animals?
Causes of Feline Aggression
There are many reasons why cats can display aggression. Some are defensive in nature, such as when a cat needs to protect its territory or its young kittens. There are also those forms of aggression that are offensive, such as a male cat establishing its dominance over another male cat. This behavior is not only restricted to domestic cats, however. All animals will display some form of aggression in one way or another. What is important now is to understand what can trigger a cat to become aggressive.
This is a type of aggression that gets triggered by the cat’s predatory instincts. We all know that cats are the domesticated cousins of some of the fiercest beasts in the wild. They are exceptional hunters. And while the domestic cat will not hunt deer, an impala, or a gazelle, they are very proficient in hunting smaller prey.
Cats learn this behavior from their respective moms. As kittens, they need to watch how mommy cat stalks a potential prey before pouncing on it for the kill. They need to know how to hunt for food; otherwise, they will grow hungry and may die. Hence, at an early age, kittens know that they have to do everything they can to survive. They practice this predatory skill on their littermates.
A cat that is displaying predatory aggression may pounce on an unsuspecting individual. It can scratch and bite without provocation and without warning. Such a behavior is unfair to other pets in the household. They may not be doing anything wrong to provoke such an attack, but the cat does it anyway. It can also go the other way. If the cat displays predatory aggression towards a wrong prey like a snake, the cat may die.
Cats are more or less solitary creatures. Mommy kitty taught them to look at the world this way. Mother cats always teach their kittens how to fend for themselves and how protecting one’s resources is crucial to their survival. In the wild, resources are scarce. There is not much food around. Wild cats have to hunt all day long if they do not want to starve.
While domestic cats have almost everything they can ask for, they still view this as “their” resources. The food you give them, the bed they sleep on, and the toys they play with are “theirs”. They also consider their human owners as “theirs”. They have this thinking that anything and anyone within the confines of their home is “theirs”. To the cat, this is its “territory”.
Territorial aggression in cats occurs when another cat enters a cat’s perceived territory. Stray cats that visit your backyard are examples of kitties that infringe the territory of your cat. The same is true when bringing home a new cat. The existing kitty may display territorial aggression towards the new cat. This is because it believes there is now competition for its resources.
Almost similar to predatory aggression, play aggression is quite common among kittens and cats that are less than 2 years old. Remember what we said about kittens having to practice what the mother cat taught them about being a predator? Well, they are practicing their predatory skills with their littermates. For us, it may look disturbing. But for kittens, it is normal.
The problem with play aggression is that kittens can extend this behavior to their human owners. When young children play with kittens, it is possible that the young cat will be quite aggressive towards the child. This can hurt the child. And while it is easy to think about punishing the kitten, it is not its fault.
On a more positive note, play aggression does tend to taper off as the kitty grows into an adult. However, keep in mind that this kind of aggression is often replaced by predatory aggression.
Fear can trigger the aggressive tendencies of cats. If a cat is scared or feels threatened, it may want to avoid confrontation. However, if it does not have any other choice, then the cat will have to be ready to lash out in an aggressive manner.
This is quite typical during veterinary visits. The cat may associate the trip with something that it dreads. You can also see fear aggression in cats that may have had a negative experience facing another cat or another person. Injured or sick cats can also display fear aggression. This is understandable since they may be protecting an injured or painful body part. They do not want you or anyone else to touch this sensitive part of their body.
Cat fanciers say this is the most dangerous kind of feline aggression. The attacks are often uninhibited, damaging, and frightening. Many pet parents consider this as unprovoked aggression in cats.
Redirected aggression occurs because the cat cannot get back at something or someone that agitated the cat in the first place. For example, if another cat is present in the backyard and your cat sees it, it may want to attack the cat for “invading” its territory. Unfortunately, your kitty is inside your house and it cannot get out. This is frustrating for the kitty. Hence, it redirects its negative energies from the invading cat to something or someone else. That could mean you or any other member of the household.
Not all cats enjoy petting. That is why there are some that may look fine at first only to get up and scratch or bite the person petting it without warning. Feline behaviorists do not know the exact cause of this aggression in cats. It is possible that the cat being petted has reached its comfort threshold. It may no longer feel the petting action to be comfortable. Hence, it displays its aggressive tendencies towards the person petting it.
More often than not, the cat will show warning signs. It may twitch its tail or start looking around its surroundings. Some may also have their pupils dilated. If you see any of these signs while petting your cat, it’s your cue to stop what you are doing.
This type of aggression is typical among tomcats or male cats. They fight among each other as to who among them is more dominant. This behavior is also heightened by the presence of a female cat in heat. There is competition as to which tomcat can get the female.
Diseases, pain syndromes, and other feline health problems can also make a cat more aggressive. Rabies, hyperthyroidism, and liver disease can all produce aggression in cats. Pain syndromes related to arthritis, abscess, and dental and gum diseases can also trigger feline aggression. Other potential causes include feline ischemic encephalopathy, thiamine deficiency, and brain injury.
Symptoms of Feline Aggression
In learning how to deal with an aggressive cat, it is important to recognize the telltale and not-so-obvious signs of feline aggression. Animals communicate to us through their body language. Cat parents have to pay attention to both subtle and overt behavior that may already signal an impending aggression.
Aggression can manifest through a cat’s defensive or offensive postures. In general, an offensive-aggressive cat will try to make its look more intimidating.
- Stands upright with legs straight and stiff
- Rear legs are stiff with its rear end higher than its head
- Stiff tail that points straight down
- Upright ears
- Direct stare
- Constricted pupils
- Hackles up
- Faces opponent in a direct manner; may move towards its opponent
- Yowling, howling, or growling
A cat that is aggressive because it is in a defensive mode will try to look smaller. It will also adopt a posture that will protect itself.
- Head tucked in
- Crouching stance
- Eyes are wide open
- Dilated pupils
- Tail tucked in and curved around the cat’s body
- Ears flat on the cat’s head either sideways or backward
- Turns sideways to its opponent
- May “jab” or deliver quick strikes at opponents using its front paws
The above-mentioned manifestations of feline aggression are subtle compared to overt signs of aggression. The important thing to remember is that these signs are a cat’s message to you to leave it alone. Do not go anywhere near this cat. If you heed these subtle messages, then you will be able to save yourself from a nasty cat bite or cat scratches.
Overt aggression in cats can manifest through the following:
- Shrieking or growling
- Striking with its paws
- Rolling onto its back or side to expose its claws and teeth
- Attempting to grab an opponent and draw it close to its mouth to bite it
These overt manifestations of feline aggression can occur in either a defensive or offensive cat.
Managing Aggression in Cats
Now that we have an idea as to what can cause cats to become aggressive, it’s now time to learn how to calm an aggressive cat. It is also critical to learn how to manage feline aggression as a whole.
If you see cats fighting, do not go in between. This can lead to serious injury on your part. Instead, distract the fighting cats by throwing a blanket or a towel over them. Creating a loud noise also works to distract these cats. If you have a water gun or a garden hose, spray water on the cats. As an alternative measure, you can separate the two by using a broom.
Preventing feline aggression hinges on one’s understanding of the causes of the behavior. If it is predatory or play aggression, then giving your cat plenty of toys to “attack” should do the trick. For fear aggression, the best way to avoid it is by avoiding the situation that the cat is afraid of. Otherwise, you can help the kitty make a careful adjustment to the said situation.
For petting-induced aggression, vigilance of the warning signs often helps. At least, you will avoid getting cat bites and scratches. Redirected aggression can be tricky to manage since you can never be too sure what triggered the behavior.
Managing territorial aggression in cats is all about preventing other cats from gaining access to your home. If you have a new cat to bring home, it is a good idea to make the introductions gradual. Spaying and neutering cats can also help. This also works for intermale aggression.
If the aggression is the result of a medical condition, then working with your vet is the best course of action. Managing the medical condition can help bring your kitty back to its jolly, non-aggressive self.
Aggression in cats is something that you should never take lightly. Always consult your veterinarian for the best possible course of action.