Aggression is an integral part of animal behaviour. A cat will use aggression in a number of situations, such as to catch and kill prey; to defend itself, its young, its territory and other resources (such as food); and to ward off competitors.
If your cat is aggressive, the first step is to question why. Is she fearful or anxious about something? Is she in pain? Is she defending her territory? Is she redirecting her aggression or hunting instincts towards you or others? Or is she simply playing too boisterously and not keeping her teeth and claws in check? In all cases of feline aggression, it’s highly advisable to get your cat checked over by a vet as quickly as possible. Pain-induced aggression is common, and it could be that your cat is in discomfort for some reason, which your vet can explore and treat, and then your cat may be a lot more comfortable and a lot less irritable.
Aggression when handled
Most cats enjoy being stroked and handled. It’s part of their great appeal, and is a quality that has helped to ensure their survival as such a popular domestic pet! Some cats, however, are rather intolerant of being petted, often because they weren’t handled enough as kittens or were roughly handled. Whatever the reason, you’ll need to start from scratch (to excuse a pun!), to increase your cat’s tolerance if she is reluctant to be petted for very long. This is best achieved with short but frequent petting sessions, which your cat should view as positive, rewarding experiences. Steer clear of sensitive areas, such as the tummy and tail, and stroke only along the top of the head and down the shoulders and along the back. Speak to her reassuringly and perhaps give her a tasty treat if she’s food-motivated. End the session while she’s still happy to be petted, so monitor her body language closely throughout. If the purring stops, if her eyes dilate, if she stiffens, if her tail flicks menacingly, or if her ears flatten, end the petting quickly before she strikes and have another session a few hours later when she approaches you. Slowly increase the length of the petting sessions over time and as her tolerance to handling increases. Be realistic about what you can achieve: some cats simply don’t like being picked up or having their tummy tickled - and never will!
The same desensitizing approach should be used with cats who have so-called ‘petting and biting syndrome’, where the cat will be affectionate and enjoy being petted - in fact, she will often elicit attention - but will unexpectedly turn and grab and bite or scratch your hands. Perhaps she is confused by her dual identity as pet cat, where she happily regresses to her kitten-like state of enjoying being ‘mothered’ by us, and her ‘other side’ as solitary hunter who then suddenly feels threatened by the close contact with us and lashes out to defend herself.
If you are scratched or bitten…
If your cat does scratch you, remain calm. Shouting, moving in an erratic, menacing way, or, worse, retaliating with physical punishment, will simply compound her fear of you and make her even less likely to accept future handling. Wash any scratches or bites promptly in warm, soapy water, treat with antiseptic cream and seek medical advice if you develop an infection at the injury site, or if you develop any symptoms, such as a fever, headache or swollen lymph glands. Of course, always ensure that keep your tetanus immunization up to date.
Inappropriate hunting targets and redirected hunting
In some cases, when playing with their cat, an owner can become the ‘prey’, so never play using your hands, or you may be pounced on when you don’t expect it! Use fishing-rod or remote-controlled toys to play at a safe distance. Redirected hunting is often seen in indoor cats with limited opportunities to express natural hunting behaviour. In the absence of mice or other prey to stalk, they might choose to lie in wait behind a door and pounce at you as you pass. As with most inappropriate behaviour, it is best to ignore it. Stand still, remain silent, and do not react in any way. If you do not respond to the attack, your cat will lose interest. If you anticipate an ambush, or kow where it might occur, divert her hunting to a piece of rolled-up paper that you flick across the room for her to chase.
If a cat becomes highly aroused for any reason, she may redirect an aggressive response to a nearby person if disturbed and touched. This happens most commonly when cats are agitated by the sight of a rival cat or a bird nearby, or have been trying to catch a fly in the room and so are primed to react to any stimulus. If you approach, she might instinctively attack, as if she hasn’t realised that it is you and not the previous object of her attention. Distracting her by talking to her before approaching can help to ‘snap’ her out of her focused state and make her aware of your presence and more likely to respond with her usual greetings and affection.
Aggression to other cats at home
Cats are often quite solitary creatures, but they can live in feral groups of often-related individuals and can rub along quite peaceably with their own kind. Some cats are very affectionate and loving with each other, and many other happily learn to tolerate each other provided they have adequate space to avoid close contact if required. If the living quarters are too cramped, or if there are not enough litter trays, beds or food bowls for each of them, squabbles can erupt. Cats are generally non-aggressive, seeking to retreat from threatening situations, so if you have more than one cat, make sure there are plenty of high escape routes - such as cat activity centres or uncluttered windowsills - to which they can retreat and feel safe. If they cannot avoid each other, then fights may occur.
Genetics and personality also play a part. Some cats are genetically asocial loners, and others don’t get the chance to learn to enjoy the company of other cats due to inadequate social opportunities when young or negative past experiences. Some cats simply do not like to share their home with other cats, and others may tolerate most cats but simply take a dislike to one particular cat - just as humans sometimes have personality clashes with certain people. In such cases, a veterinary referral to a behaviourist is advised, although sometimes re-homing one of the cats is the only option to be safe and fair to all of the cats involved. Always seek the advice or your vet or a feline behaviourist before introducing a new cat to your existing cat(s). Careful management of introductions can greatly improve the chances of success rather than simply bringing a new cat home and seeing how your other cats take, or don’t take to her!
Avoid punishment or telling your cat off for showing any negative reaction to the other cats in your home, as this can lead to further negative associations and exacerbate the problem.
Aggression to neighbourhood cats
Aggression to neighbourhood cats is most dramatically seen in entire (unneutered) male cats, who are generally more territorial and aggressive in competition, but the vast majority of pet cats are neutered, and so most live far more peaceably together in our towns and villages. Cats will usually avoid physical conflict with one another through posturing, ‘swearing’ threats and retreat, and reach a time-sharing arrangement so that they can use the same area. But sometimes cats of either sex that are competing for the same territory can come to blows, particularly in cramped urban areas where many cats are wanting to use the same space. In such cases it’s advisable to try and come to a time-share arrangement with your neighbours, so the cats are let outside at different times and are less likely to meet. Also, let your cats out only after they have been fed, so they will be more lethargic and less competitive about resources.
The information contained in this article is not a substitute for individual veterinary or behavioural advice and is for information purposes only. You should always consult a veterinary surgeon if you have any concerns about your pet’s health. He or she will be able to take a complete medical history and physically examine your pet, to then recommend appropriate individual advice or treatment options. For detailed behavioural advice tailored specifically for your pet, we recommend that you contact a qualified pet behaviourist. For further details of local canine and feline behaviourists practising in your area and how they offer help for with problem pets, please contact The Coape Association of Pet Behaviourists and Trainers at www.capbt.org, or the Association of Pet Dog Trainers at www.apdt.co.uk. Do bear in mind that while dog trainers can take you on as a client directly, pet behaviourists will always require a referral from your veterinary surgeon.