Health Topics

The Aggressive Cat

(This article was originally published in the July/August 2009 Issue of Pets Magazine and is reproduced here with the permission of the publisher.)

The cat that bites or scratches its owner exhibits behaviour which can be very disconcerting and confusing. The most common cause of aggression can be linked to pain or discomfort brought on by illness or injury.

Play Aggression

A healthy cat, especially a young one, will spend some part of its day engaging in active behaviours and playing. Normal play activities are running, climbing, stalking, pouncing, biting and clawing. Most owners find this play acceptable and amusing when it is directed at designated toys. This, however, becomes a problem when it is directed to furniture, rugs, curtains and especially pets and people.

The difference between normal play and play aggression is usually not difficult to recognize. The play-aggressor animal will chase after a person or other household pet and leap on them, biting and chewing. In its most severe forms, play aggression can be frightening and painful.

There are two methods of correcting play aggression:

  • redirecting the cat's play into appropriate, acceptable channels
  • punishing unacceptable behaviour

To redirect the cat's play, you should provide it with numerous toys that will allow it to move and attack. Toys such as balls or objects that hang down and swing or toys maneuvered by owners are much more interesting to an active cat.

If punishment is used to correct play aggression, it must be administered immediately, every time the misbehaviour occurs and must be of appropriate type and intensity for the individual cat. Punishment should never involve hitting an animal. Squirting them with a water bottle can work well. If your cat does not respond to these methods, speak to your veterinarian.

Fear Aggression

A cat with fear aggression behaves differently than a cat with play aggression. Fear aggression can be identified by several characteristics, such as the cat avoiding people, crouching with its ears flattened and tail held low, hissing or growling at people when they are near. It is common for cats to show fear aggression under certain circumstances, but the cat that regularly avoids people and responds to attempts at interaction with aggression behaviours requires veterinary attention.

Processes called desensitization and counterconditioning should be used to treat a cat who exhibits fear aggression. Desensitization involves gradually exposing the cat to people it is afraid of at distances and in situations that do not induce fear. Exposure to these people and situations is increased slowly over time so that no new fear responses develop. The counterconditioning phase of the process involves eliciting a response from the cat that is both behaviourally and physiologically incompatible with the fear response. To do this, we can use both food and toys to entice the cat to socialize with a person. For example, tie a toy to a long string and entice the cat to play. As the cat becomes involved and shows no fear, gradually shorten the string. Once the string is short enough the owner may try touching the cat. If the cat starts to retreat lengthen the string and continue.

Intolerance of Petting

While many cats seem to enjoy being petted for long periods of time, others have a limited tolerance of petting. With these cats petting starts out normally and at some point the cat will give a signal of impending aggression, such as twitching its ears or tail or tensing its muscles. Should the owner continue petting, the cat may bite or scratch. To reduce these incidences of aggression, identify your cat's petting tolerance and pet only within those limits.

Redirected Aggression

Redirected aggression occurs when an owner attempts to handle a cat when it is aroused by something else, such as a strange cat outside the window and gets bitten or scratched. When this behaviour occurs regularly, it requires the owners attention. The best way to avoid redirected aggression is to not approach the cat when it is aroused by another source.