Aggression in Cats
Aggression in cats is usually defensive and is related to self-protection. This is not offensive aggression (although some cats will attack offensively, this is not common). When cornered, a frightened cat will nearly always take aggressive action.
During socialization, a kitten learns to relate to and trust humans. This trust must be strong enough to overcome the natural fear and avoidance behavior seen in cats who grow up in the wild. Cats who miss the period of primary socialization at 3 to 9 weeks of age may never make a good adjustment and will always retain some anxiety when confronted by unfamiliar people.
Many cases of unexplained aggression are brought on by environmental stress, leading to heightened fear. A distressed cat may suddenly attack another cat or a person who is nearby, even though that person played no part in causing the upset. A cat who has just been in a fight may accept handling by one person, yet scratch and bite another who approaches too closely. This is known as displaced aggression.
Some cats, when they are rubbed anywhere on the belly or along the back near the tail, will turn suddenly and scratch or bite. These cats are saying “no” to petting. Some cats like to be petted; others do not. Some cats will accept petting for a while, and then decide they have had enough. An outright display of aggression is almost always preceded by a signal-such as ears back, lashing tail, twitching skin, whiskers coming forward, or a vocalization-that gives you enough time to stop petting before the cat strikes.
Cats who develop a thyroid problem often become aggressive. Hunger and physical stresses may induce irritable behavior. Pain can also cause aggression. A cat with hip dysplasia may lash out if the hip area is petted. Always have a thorough physical examination and blood work done on an aggressive cat, especially if the aggression represents a change in behavior.
Use startle techniques, such as a whistle, a puff of compressed air, or a small, soft object thrown across the cat's field of vision (not at the cat), to interrupt aggressive behavior.
A poorly socialized cat should be allowed to retreat from threatening situations and not forced to confront the causes of his anxiety. These cats are often “one person” cats. They make excellent companions but must be watched carefully around strangers, particularly children.
A frightened cat who resists handling should be left alone until he is relaxed. Minimize all stimuli that impose stress and elicit fear. One way is to feed the cat. Sit alongside as the cat eats and speak soothingly. Soon, the cat will come to you for petting. However, if the cat is too frightened to eat with you nearby, leave him alone for meals, because not eating can lead to serious health problems.
When cornered in unfamiliar surroundings, a frightened cat may hiss in an exhibit of defensive aggression.
Cats who like to be petted or handled on their own terms should be respected as individuals and treated accordingly. Do not encourage aggressive play as it may easily escalate. And never, ever play with any cat, no matter how relaxed, using your hands or any part of your body as a toy. The cat cannot be expected to know when body parts are fair game and when they are not.
It is important in cases of aggression to seek the advice of a qualified feline behavior expert. Try to identify the exact type of aggression, as this will aid a behaviorist in setting up a modification program. To determine the cause of aggressive behavior, consider how and when it started, the circumstances under which it occurred, and what the various attacks may have in common. True aggression should be distinguished from play pouncing.
A truly aggressive cat may need behavior-modifying drugs and you should consult a behaviorist or veterinary behavioris, but they should only be used in conjunction with behavior and environmental modifications.
This article is excerpted from “Cat Owner’s Home Veterinary Handbook” with permission from Wiley Publishing, Inc.
Copyright © 2008 by Delbert Carlson, DVM, and James M. Giffin, MD. All rights reserved.