Putting the Brakes on Feline Aggressive Behavior

There’s a reason - and a resolution - for most types of aggressive feline behavior.

Fortunately, most aggression can be stopped or modified once you understand the trigger(s) that drive your cat’s behavior. While some are obvious, others are more subtle and will take patience and careful observation on your part to decode. Most types of cat aggression can be categorized as one of the following:

Play/Predatory Aggression: Social play and social fighting are intense, but normal stages of cat behavior. Play attacks mimic natural hunting (and survival) skills and usually involve an element of surprise. Kittens stalk and pounce on their victims, then disengage quickly. The best way to discourage play aggression is to anticipate and distract her while she’s planning an attack. Startle her with a clap of your hands, a loud whistle, foot stomp or spray bottle. The key is anticipating, then averting, her intent before she actually attacks. Once you’ve distracted her, leave the room until she calms down. This will help reinforce acceptable behaviors. You can also put a bell on her collar to minimize “surprise” attacks.

Never discipline or play with your cat using your hands or feet. Use toys, instead, so she clearly understands that attacking body parts is off limits.

Fear, Pain or Illness-induced Aggression: Sudden changes in your pet’s behavior can indicate an underlying physical condition or illness. Cats often will lash out if they’re in pain. If your cat suddenly demonstrates unusual behavior, have your veterinarian check her out.

Fear of something in her environment also can trigger feline aggression. Her natural instinct is to protect herself by biting or scratching, a reaction of self-defense, rather than intent. The best solution is to identify the threat and remove it if possible.

Stress-induced Aggression: Cats are extremely sensitive to their environment. Stress may manifest itself in the form of biting, scratching or changes in sleeping habits. Other cats may internalize the stress and develop neurotic behaviors or habits. If you think your cat may be stressed, try:

  • Relaxation: Spend 5 or 10 minutes of quality “quiet time” each day with your cat. Gently talk to, stroke or massage her in a soothing, unhurried manner.
  • Play/Exercise: Make sure your cat gets plenty of aerobic exercise to work off pent up energy. Cover her scratching post with sandpaper to buff down her claws.
  • Plenty of Privacy: Environmental changes like moving or rearranging furniture can upset your feline. Minimize her stress by making sure she has access to a quiet retreat, like a cat tree house or favorite perch.

Overstimulation: A euphemism for “too much petting,” some felines simply want your affection on their terms. Rubbing sensitive areas like her belly, or petting her while she is resting, may upset her and cause her to grab your hand or arm with teeth and claws. What to do? Freeze, wait until she lets go, then slowly withdraw your hand. To ward off future attacks, stay alert for warning signs – often a twitching tail – that indicate she’s had enough.

Redirected Aggression: This is a territorial “attack” response triggered when your feline sees or smells a trespassing cat out-of-doors. She can’t attack the other cat, so she automatically launches herself at the next best target – the family dog, another feline companion or you. The best way to eliminate this behavior is to change her environment so she can’t see or smell outdoor intruders.

In rare cases, extreme feline aggression can be caused by severe psychological problems or neurological issues. Consult your veterinarian if your cat continues to demonstrate violent behavior. You may also consider asking your vet for the name of a reputable animal behaviorist. Often times, just a few office visits can give your cat a new lease on life.