Understanding your cat can help you both understand aggression and work with your cat to avoid situations where he or she may become aggressive. An aggressive cat can be dangerous, especially toward children who may not be able to recognize the physical cues that are the warning signs. Additionally, cat bites and scratches are painful and can transmit disease. Neutering males before they reach maturity is definitely a must in lowering aggression.
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What Triggers Aggression
There is a real difference between play aggression, which is a normal behavior in kittens over about five weeks of age as they become independent hunters and work towards being able to exist on their own in the world and aggression that will be problematic. In domestic cats this stage of aggression in development still occurs, even though your cat will never have to hunt its own dinner. In addition to the play aggression stage, at about the age of 14 weeks kittens will start to learn about social fighting, which is again a survival of the fittest learning skill that will determine which males will successfully mate with females, passing on their physical characteristics.
A kitten that is involved in either play social fighting or play hunting aggression will hide or couch down, leap out at you and swat at your feet or ankles or bite, then immediately run off. If not stopped this behavior will continue to escalate over time until it become a serious problem with a full grown cat attacking your feet when you walk past. Aggression can be triggered by specific situations that may occur in the home. In their wild state cats respond to sudden noises and feeling trapped or cornered in one of two ways – fight or flight. In most cases a cat will run away if they feel threatened, however if they can’t escape, they will resort to aggression. Typically this type of aggression can be avoided by simply stepping away and giving the cat time and space to become comfortable again.
There are some cats that are just more aggressive by nature. These may be cats that have been mistreated, feral cats that have the only partially tamed or domesticated after they matured, cats that have an illness or injury or those that need to feel that they are the “top cat”. This behavior is known as status-related aggression and can cause serious injury to people, other pets and even other cats in the house.
Cats sometimes seem to be truly bipolar in their behavior. Once second they may be sitting contentedly on your lap and purring and the next second they have your thumb between their teeth and their claws firmly lodged in your leg. This type of an instantaneous change from calm to aggressive is more likely in the status-related aggression, where the cat is letting you know he or she is the boss.
For most cats the signs and signals of aggression include their body movements, vocalizations and general behavior. As mentioned above most cats will try to get away from trouble, not actively pick a fight with another animal or a person. If a cat feels trapped or cornered, watch for signs of the ears pulled back along the head, hissing and spitting, widely dilated pupils, arched back and the tail standing straight up and bushed out like an old fashioned bottle brush.
Cats may also indicate dissatisfaction and potential aggressive behavior by their tail movements. A gently swaying tail tends to indicate a happy, relaxed and contented cat whereas a wildly twitching or just the tip of the tail jerking back and forth will indicate that the cat has had enough of whatever is going on. Purring cats that suddenly stop purring or switch from purring to a more high-pitched vocalization like a growling or yowling sound may also be indicating that they are about at the end of their tolerance range. A content purr is a very deep, rumbling sound that appears to be coming from their chest or the center of their body, a growl or hiss of displeasure is from the back of the throat.
Aggression towards other cats or animals is very similar to aggression from being startled. The cat will try to arch his or her back, puff out their hair and look as ferocious as possible to hopefully get the other cat or animal to back down and go away. Once cats move into the attack mode cat aggression can be very damaging and it is not a wise idea to stick your hands in between two fighting cats or a cat and a dog. If at all possible distract the animals with a loud noise or a spray of water and then move between then. Sticking your hands on or between animals that are fighting each other is a potential risk that can result in very serious injuries, even though the animals would never hurt you under normal conditions.
Correcting Aggressive Behavior
Kittens learn from playing with their mothers and litter mates that if they are too rough they will be corrected, or they will be left without anyone to play with. Correcting aggressive behavior with kittens, even as a human, needs to follow those same rules. When a kitten first starts to show any aggressive type of play, simply stop playing. You may also want to indicate a sharp “Ouch” or “No” when the kitten bites or uses their claws. Immediately give the kitten a toy and allow him or her to understand that rough play is for the toys, not for the people. Don’t hit or spank the kitten and don’t pick it up by the scruff of the neck and give it a shake, no matter what you might read. This will only increase the kittens struggling and reinforce that aggression is the way to handle human interactions. If the kitten doesn’t respond to the sharp “No” and ignoring, consider carrying a small misting bottle filled with clean water and direct a small shot of water at the kitten’s nose when he or she becomes aggressive. Don’t use water as a toy or to tease or play with the kitten and only use when necessary.
Mature cats are more likely aggressive either because they are frightened or because they feel that they are the boss of the house. If your cat is frightened, increasing socialization such as regular petting, grooming and attention may help to solve the problem. If you cat’s behavior has changed due to a move or change in the house, you may need to provide a private, quiet place and give the cat time to adjust.
Status-aggressive cats that need to be in control should only be petted or attended to when they are behaving correctly. At the first signs of aggression, immediately move away from the cat, don’t push or hit at the cat, as it will attack at this point. A water bottle can be effective in getting the cat off you lap or out of your space. Once he or she is calm again, give them a treat and avoid petting until he or she comes to you. Always keep your petting time short and be in control of the contact.
If this behavior persists, do get in touch with your veterinarian. Some cats behave aggressively because of a medical condition or complication. Cats with orthopedic problems, thyroid abnormality, adrenal dysfunction, cognitive dysfunction, neurological disorders and sensory deficits can show increased irritability and aggression. Geriatric cats can suffer from confusion and insecurity, which could prompt aggressive behavior. Certain medications can alter mood and affect your cat’s susceptibility to aggression. Even diet has been implicated as a potential contributing factor. If a medical problem is detected, it’s crucial to work closely with your veterinarian to give your cat the best chance at improving.
Here’s to everyone getting along!