Cat attacks are either predatory or play aggressions, and the two behaviors may appear identical. These behaviors in cats range from mild scratching and biting to severe biting. It is unlikely that a scratch or bite from a house cat will be fatal, but such injuries can be painful and put you at risk of infection.
There are ways to treat a cat’s aggressive behavior, most of which require no more than a little more attention from the owner.
Why are Cats Aggressive?
The stalking and hunting instincts of their ancestors are still extreme in modern domestic cats. Usually, a cat sees something moving in a way that triggers the instinct to attack, which means the cat considers the object (a hand, a foot, a small child) a threat or prey. Either way, the cat is forced to use its claws and possibly its teeth to complete the attack.
A cat that is protecting its “territory” from a perceived threat or an intruder (such as a small child or another animal) may also become aggressive. Although this behavior may be normal at first, if it doesn’t go away in a few months, it may be time to take corrective action.
Of course, aggressive behavior can come from a cat protecting its cats. An animal in pain or feeling threatened may also lash out. But if it attacks under these circumstances, it is easily attributable to a specific cause, other than sustained or frequent aggressive behavior.
Signs of Aggression in Cats
Both play aggression, and predatory aggression involve different body language:
- Any combination of stealth, silence, alert posture, hunting postures, and throwing or jumping over “prey” moves suddenly after being motionless.
- Bluffing behavior, such as when a cat arches its back, does not usually lead to an outburst but is how a cat shows another that it should not be disturbed.
Triggers for Cat Aggression
Most cats who mate at an early age learn to coexist peacefully, with occasional disagreement. Cat owners are the most frequent cat aggression targets, especially those who do not live with other cats.
Almost any type of movement, from walking to lifting an object, triggers the behavior. What starts as “play” can turn into dangerous aggressions, bites, and direct attacks when the kitten or cat becomes aroused. Pet owners’ hands and feet are the most frequent targets.
Hand-raised cats and those weaned at an early age are more likely to engage in this behavior type. They have been known to terrorize shy, fearful cats, intimidate younger kittens and tease geriatric felines, as well as attack owners.
Although less dangerous in cats, older cats that behave like predators of young children or smaller pets can cause serious injury, so it is important to train cats to stop behaving this way before becoming a problem.
How to Stop Cat Aggression
Before trying behavior modification techniques, it is worth going to the vet to ensure there is no underlying medical condition causing a cat to be attacked. Common cat diseases such as toxoplasmosis, rabies, or hyperthyroidism can cause your otherwise docile and friendly cat to become aggressive without warning. A check-up to ensure your cat’s overall health should be your first step.
If your cat receives a clean bill of health, the next step is to monitor her behavior. This may take some time because cats are not social animals like dogs and do not respond in the same way to aversion therapy. Be prepared to be patient.
There are several ways to encourage healthy, vigorous play in your cat, but avoid aggressive behavior that can lead to injury.
- Stop an ongoing attack through a water gun, citronella spray or the sound of an aerosol can whistle. Experiment to find out which works best.
- Place a harness and leash on your cat to give you better control and the ability to interrupt undesirable behavior. Simply stepping on the end of the leash can stop a pet in its tracks.
- Place a bell on the attack cat to give other cats or small children in the house time to escape and to signal so that the behavior can be interrupted and stopped.
- Play interactive games with your cat to burn off energy. One tip is to move the toys up and down through her field of vision, rather than toward or away from it, to spark the most interest. The interactive play also builds confidence in shy cats so they can learn manners.
- Create a regular routine that includes a specific time to play, so that playtime becomes part of your cat’s daily expectations.
- Spay or neuter cats before their first birthday. This greatly reduces aggression between cats, especially if the animals housed together are of different sexes. Sometimes even neutered male cats will fight with each other.
- A second cat of the same age, size, and temperament can often provide a target for a playmate and help teach a feisty cat to bite and use its claws. Be sure to present the pair correctly.
If you suspect your pet is sick, call your vet immediately. For health-related questions, always consult your veterinarian, as they have examined your pet, know its health history, and can make the best recommendations for your pet.