If a previously friendly cat starts biting or scratching you it is essential that you should take it to the vet. A cat in pain from dental disease (Lund, 2012), arthritis, cystitis, arthritis or injury may bite when handled (Bower 2012). It may bite if it is seriously ill or if it has a brain tumour. Pregnant cats or cats with litters are aggressive in defence of their litters. When the kittens have grown up, the mother’s behaviour usually alters.
NEVER punish or chase. This will intensify aggression. Ignore bad behaviour by walking away, keeping silent (no screams), withdrawing eye contact, no confrontations. Reward calm behaviour with cat treats. Avoid situations which will result in cat aggression. The difficulty for owners is working out what kind of aggression they are dealing with. This is where help from a cat behaviour counsellor can be essential to help reduce and manage the aggression.
FEAR AND ANXIETY AGGRESSION
Aggression to human often results from fear.The problem may arise from a dysfunctional kittenhood. The kitten is brought up without enough contact with humans, and therefore will never become wholly domesticated. To be truly domesticated, kittens need to be handled before the age of eight weeks (Karsh 1983). Relatively unsocialised cats may still bond, but probably only to close family. It will be best to give this kind of cat plenty of space and independence (Turner 2000). Allow the cat to initiate contact with you (Heath, 2005), as this freedom to choose will result in more, rather than less, affection (Mertens, 1991).
Cats that are under stress may also become aggressive to their owners. In general try to reduce the stress in this cat’s life, so it becomes less anxious. Read the article, Reasons why your cat is stressed, on this website.
Some cats are aggressive only in specific situations that frighten them. They are friendly much of the time but lash out, for instance, when being picked up. Or they are aggressive if they feel they are cornered and cannot escape human handling. Soon they learn that being aggressive keeps humans at a safe distance. If this happens, they begin to be aggressive quicker because they learn that this tactic works (Heath 2009). A pet behaviour counsellor can help you work out exactly what triggers your cat’s aggressive reaction and how to avoid or manage it.
Frustration aggression may be more common in hand reared kittens, as these were not weaned in a natural way (Neville 1996). Kittens learn to tolerate frustration when their mother starts pushing them away from the teats. As the bottle is never withheld by a human, they are never frustrated. Hand reared cats have no emotional control because they were not put through this process.
Cats that have no coping strategy for frustration (for whatever reason) just lash out. They may try to control their owners by this. Their aggression is encouraged because the owner (naturally) backs away showing the cat it can control its human. Turn round the relationship by clicker training or reward training the cat. Get help from a cat behaviour counsellor for this.
PETTING AND BITING SYNDROME.
This is common among cats – they invite petting then bite or scratch . There is a separate article on this on my website.
TRANSFERRED OR REDIRECTED AGGRESSION
Occasionally an otherwise docile cat will attack its owner, because it is aroused by something else. For instance, if it is watching another cat through the window, and feels threatened by it. If there is a threatening cat on the block, or cats within the same household are fighting, your cat may take out its aggression on you. You will also get bitten severely if you interrupt a cat fight. Consider a microchip cat flap to stop strange cats entering the house. Block off the view of them through the window using greenhouse paint or lots of house plants. Deal with the aggression between household cats.
Attention seeking biting is not uncommon. Some cats nip their owners legs to get food put down. The answer is to refuse attention. Don’t shout, don’t wince, don’t cry, and don’t punish – these reactions are attention. Just walk out of the room immediately and stay out for three or four minutes. Attention seeking biting will stop if the cat stops getting the attention. If necessary start wearing wellies in the house for a couple of weeks. A cat behaviour counsellor will help work out an individual programme for you.
PLAY RELATED AGGRESSION
Kittens that are allowed to or encouraged to play rough games with humans grow into cats that continue this now-painful habit (Amat et al., 2009). Cease all contact games before the cat becomes too highly aroused. Play games that allow a safe distance, such as fishing rod toys (Curtis, 2008). Give indoor cats more to do. Play aggression is similar to Predatory Aggression (next). Play between cats may be rough but has claws retracted and bites inhibited: if there are injuries read Cats that Don’t Get on With Each Other.
Sometimes a cat is bored and attacking humans becomes a substitute for hunting mice. The instinct to hunt is so strong that they will even leave a delicious meal in order to pounce on a rat (Adamec 1976). This is normal behaviour for cats and they need to do it (Heath 2009). It is instinctive for them to pounce with claws out and to bite down hard. Pouncing, say on feet, with the owner’s shriek, is exciting and fulfills its natural instinct. Sometimes kittens have been encouraged to pounce on toes and feet, so that cat is, so to speak, trained to behave in this way.
If possible give the cat the chance to express its nature with real hunting. Install a cat flap, or even a cat ladder, so the cat can do some proper mousing. If you can’t do this, you MUST give the cat more to do. The indoor cat article on this website has several ideas. Lots of games with fishing rod toys will help. Carnivores are hard-wired to hunt.
If better arrangements for the cat make no difference, try distracting the cat by throwing a toy, a wine cork, or something similar away from yourself, so that the cat locks on to a different moving target (Crowell-Davis 2007). Learn about cat body language so you recognise the lowered head, hard stare, and crouched body which predicts an attack. It may help to put a collar and bell on your cat so you can hear it coming! Or if there is a particular place from which it ambushes you, block that area.
It is essential you don’t run away, make rapid movements, flinch or shriek. These reactions just make the hunting more fun for the cat! Keep hands still. Cats are turned on by moving targets and high pitched sounds. Wear wellies or, if the cat pounces or scratches higher up the leg, wear leather chaps or fishing trousers. Spray the wellies or chaps with a deterrent spray used to keep cats off gardens just in case this helps. Think about blocking the attack with a stairgate or just blocking the area from which the cat launches its attack with furniture.
Other possibilities, arrange a timed feeder so that cat is feeding at times it might be pouncing, or simply shut the cat in a different room at times/places when you know it pounces. Do not let it in the bedroom where it can pounce on your face.
Read Safety and Cat Aggression on this website.
Adamec, R. E., (1976), ‘The Interaction of Hunger and Preying in the Domestic Cat (Felis catus): An Adaptive Hierarchy,’ Behavioral Biology, 18, 263-272.
Amat, M., de la Torre, J. L. R., Fatjo, J., Mariotti, V. M., Wijk, S. & Manteca, X., (2009), ‘Potential risk factors associated with feline behaviour problems,’ Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 121, 134–139
Bower, C., (2012), ‘Feline Aggression,’ APBC 2nd Annual Feline Conference Proceedings, 5-6
Crowell-Davis, S. L., (2007), Human Feet Are Not Mice: How to Treat Human-Directed Feline Aggression,’ Compendium, 29, 483-486.
Curtis, T. M., (2008), ‘Human-Directed Aggression in the Cat,’ Veterinary Clinics Small Animal Practice, 38, 1131-1143
Heath, S. E., (2005), ‘Behaviour Problems and Welfare,’ in ed, Rochlitz, I., The Welfare of Cats, Dordrecht, Netherlands, Springer, 91-118
Heath, S., (2009), ‘Aggression in cat,’ in eds: Horwitz, D. F. & Mills, D. S., BSAVA Manual of Canine and Feline Behavioural Medicine, Second Edition, Quedgeley, UK, BSAVA, 223-235.
Karsh, E. B. (1983) ‘The Effects of Early Handling on the Development of Social Bonds between Cats and People,’ in eds Katcher, A. H. & Beck, A. M., New Perspectives on our Lives with Companion Animals, Philadelphia, USA, University of Pennsylvania Press.
Lund, E., (2012), ‘Epidemiology of periodontal disease in older cats’, Veterinary Focus, 22, 23-24
Mertens, C., (1991), ‘Human-cat interactions in the home setting,’ Anthrozoos, 4, 214 -231
Neville, P., (1996), ‘The Behavioural Impact of Weaning on Cats and Dogs,’ The Veterinary Annual, 36, 98-108
Turner, D. C., (2000), ‘The human-cat relationship,’ in eds Turner D. C. & Bateson, P. The Domestic Cat, Second edition, Cambridge,Uk, Cambridge University Press.
These notes are my copyright. I am also usually happy to have the exact words reproduced on websites, in return for a link, my name, and if permission is asked beforehand. I like to check the websites where it might be used. Email me via this website for permission which will usually be given. Organisations wishing to use them in print should contact me via this website. Copyright © 2007 Celia Haddon. All Rights Reserved.
All normal safety precautions should be taken when dealing with animals. The advice in this section should be taken only at the owner’s own risk. All sick animals should be seen by a vet.
General advice of the kind found in this website is no substitute for an individual consultation with a vet or qualified behaviourist working on a vet’s referral.