Aggressive Behavior In Cats

The solution to stopping aggression in cats begins with knowing why a cat is acting aggressively; there are five common causes of cat aggression.

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Hissing and low, flat ears are just two signs of aggression in cats. Anna Sematkina/iStock/Thinkstock
Rita Reimers

I recently received a call from a very stressed cat owner. She told me that her newly adopted cat, Barney, was acting aggressively toward her, her husband and the other cat in their household.

When I asked her to describe his behavior, what she told me may or may not have been aggression. She said Barney stalks and jumps at them, often grabbing ankles or jumping onto the back of their other cat, Bella. He never hissed or growled, he was just very physical and highly charged whenever he interacted with them.

After visiting with them, observing Barney’s behavior with Bella, and interacting with Barney myself, I was able to clearly identify what was going on. Barney had play aggression — all he really wanted was to play. This cat never had a home before. He grew up in the shelter and was never properly socialized because he lived in a cage. He had lots of pent up energy and lots to give, but he lacked the social skills needed to make friends with people or cats.

Was he being aggressive? Yes, but not in the traditional meaning of the word. There are different types of cat aggression, and just as many different reasons why this behavior comes out. More important than just seeing the aggressive actions, the circumstance around the behavior is what really tells the story. It’s easy to mistake play aggression for fighting aggression, unless you can identify the subtle differences.

What Cat Aggression Looks Like

What was my client seeing that led her to think that Barney was being aggressive? Barney was exhibiting a few classic characteristics of aggression:

  • Stalking
  • Chasing
  • Grabbing
  • Dilated pupils

However, what made this PLAY aggression versus fighting aggression was the absence of:

  • Biting
  • Hissing and/or spitting
  • Growling and/or screaming
  • Low, flat ears
  • HUGE black eyes (i.e., full dilation)
  • Showing of claws

Had this been a case of aggression that was about to become a fight, Barney would have been using his teeth and claws to attack once he jumped on the object(s) of his fixation.

Types And Causes Of Cat Aggression

Cats have different types of aggression, and many different reasons why they may react the way they do. Below are five of the most common types of aggression and what generally causes these reactions.

1. Play Aggression: This is usually seen in young kittens who are just learning proper social behaviors. Kittens use their high energy to roughhouse with their littermates. These play sessions are also where kittens learn to hone their fine hunting skills by “stalking” and jumping out at one another. They also will scold one another when they play, scratch or bite too hard. This is how they learn acceptable/unacceptable play behaviors.

You might also see an improperly socialized adult cat exhibit play aggression, as in the case of Barney. Humans may also unwittingly encourage aggressive play behavior by playing rough with their kittens using hands and feet instead of toys. It might be cute to let that sweet, 3-month-old kitten bite your hands and toes, but it won’t be so funny when she is a full-grown cat.

2. Overstimulation: Have you ever been petting your cat as she sits quietly in your lap, and all of the sudden she turns around and bites you? What happened? She became overstimulated and wanted you to stop. If you were distracted while petting her, you invariably missed the cues she gave you before she bit. There are always signs before the bite! Undoubtedly her eyes blackened, her ears went back and her tail began to twitch wildly. She may even have given you a low growl. All those were signs to warn you that she was about to strike.

3. Fear: Another common call I get: “I brought home a new cat, she is under the bed hissing and growling at me. Why is she doing that?” The answer is simple: She is scared. Think of everything your new cat has just been through. She was probably in a shelter, a rescue or a foster home before you adopted her. Then perhaps she was taken to an adoption fair where she sat in a tiny cage feeling vulnerable. Finally salvation: You came along and adopted her. If she were a person, she would understand that now she will have a great life. But she doesn’t know that. All she knows is that now she is in a brand new place with new people and new smells, maybe even another pet in the household. So your new cat reacts by telling you she is scared and by using aggressive behavior to make sure you don’t get too close until she is ready. It’s a perfectly normal reaction, and given some time she will come around, once she gets accustomed to her new surroundings. (Tuna bribes work wonders to promote the bonding process!)

4. Food Aggression: I have mostly seen this type of aggression in tiny kittens, or cats who have been foraging for food outside for a long time. Kitten aggression over food happens when kittens are weaned too young. I will never forget when I brought 7-week-old Peanut home (yes, that is too young to be taken from momma cat!). I also had 8-week-old Boo-Boo and Pinky kittens at home, and it didn’t take long for them to become friends. Until mealtime, that is. Tiny Peanut stood in the middle of the plate of wet food and growled as loudly as his little lungs would let him. The other two kittens were confused about this, but putting out a second food plate solved the problem. Peanut grew out of that behavior eventually.

As for adult cats, I have seen alpha cats demonstrate their status by pushing another cat away from a plate of food. Usually the other cat will just peacefully go to another plate.

5. Territorial Aggression: Perhaps the most common type of aggression I see between cats is over territory. This happens especially when another cat is added to the household, or when there aren’t enough places for each cat to claim for herself. Cats need their own space, even cats who get along. Adding tall cat trees and cat cubbyhole hiding spots will usually help alleviate aggression over territory and space. Also be aware that, to a cat, you are their territory as well, so be sure to give each of your cats love, attention and playtime every day to help avoid jealousy. At night, my cat Punkin has claimed the space next to my head for himself. If any other cat is in his spot, he gets a swat from Punkin.

Calming The Aggressive Cat

It’s important to tone down the aggression and calm your cat quickly before anyone gets hurt. Talk softly to your cat, but don’t try to pick her up or pet her during an aggressive episode. If this behavior happens frequently, try using a product that puts calming cat pheromones into the air, or some calming flower essences to her water to take the edge off her aggression.

If your cat’s behavior is constantly aggressive, she should be seen by your veterinarian to rule out medical causes for her behavior. Illness or pain can cause your cat to behave in an overly aggressive way, so be sure your cat has a clean bill of health before you decide she has a behavior issue.

Once medical issues have been ruled out, identify the cause of your cat’s behavior so you can find a solution. Does she want your attention? Is another cat trying to play too roughly? Does she need a safe place of her own to climb upon? Could she be seeing another cat outside who is upsetting her? Do you need to add another food dish at feeding time? Usually one simple change will solve the problem, once you identify the reason for your cat’s aggression. My article “Cat Spats” offers more ideas on managing aggression and fighting between cats.

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Article Categories:
Behavior and Training · Cats