You walk into your living room, minding your own business, when BAM! Your cat lunges out of nowhere, all teeth and nails! He latches onto your ankle, delivers some kicks and a painful bite, then slinks away before you even know what hit you. You are shocked, annoyed and in pain. What causes this Jekyll and Hyde behavior in your normally lovely, adoring cat?
Human-directed aggression in housecats is an all-too-common problem. At minimum, it is upsetting and annoying when your feline crosses over to the dark side. At worst, severe injury can result.
If your cat is habitually hurting people, it’s time for professional veterinary help. Painful conditions such as dental disease, arthritis, and skin problems could be causing your cat to lash out. Your vet will do a full medical and behavioral evaluation to determine the exact problem and the solution.
Aggression in cats is not a trivial matter. A cat scratch, and particularly a cat bite, can cause severe injury. This is especially true if the victim is very young, is immuno-compromised, or in frail health. Consult a physician without delay regarding any worrisome bite or scratch.
Two leading causes are play aggression and status-related aggression. Characterizing the problem and its triggers can help with damage control. The sooner the better, because these problems can intensify with time.
Play aggression in cats
This is probably the most common scenario that causes cats to scratch and bite their owners. Luckily it is usually the most amenable to treatment.
Young kittens hone their sparring skills early in life. Littermates play-fight and play-hunt by stalking each other, then pouncing, kicking and biting. The pantomime can be quite rough. But kittens quickly learn to keep claws sheathed and soften their bites, lest they suffer retaliation and the cessation of play. Kittens who lack this critical early socialization, by virtue of being orphaned or adopted too early, can grow into cats who play too rough.
The classic play-aggressive cat will crouch, stalk, and pounce at your moving arms, hands, ankles or toes. Some will hide—around a corner, under a bed—then ambush as you walk past. Body cues such as flattened ears, dilated pupils, and swishing tail are signs that your cat is in play-hunt mode and about to strike. Play aggression is most common in kittens and cats below the age of three. It may be more of a problem in one-cat households and where the house is empty most of the day. All that pent-up energy needs an outlet!
The following measures may help tame your feline aggressor:
Status-related aggression in cats
Play-aggressive cats, left untreated, may be at risk for the next problem: status-related aggression. Like the dominant-aggressive dog, the cat with status-related aggression has a need to control people and situations. Examples include the cat who begs for attention but then swats or bites shortly into the petting session (see ). Another example is the cat who lashes out when removed from a favorite sleeping spot. Or one who stakes out a doorway and swats when you walk through it.
These are cats with a confident, assertive temperament. They will pace, rub, vocalize, and demand attention one minute (e.g. when you’re working on your computer or talking on the phone) and then bite and run the next. They may be pushy to some family members and deferential to others, depending on what they think they can get away with.
While these attacks may at first seem to come out of the blue, careful observation will usually reveal a pattern to the behavior as well as telltale postures that precede the strike:
As contrasted with play aggression, the direct stare and low growl signal that the cat means business.
Treatment aims at gaining control over the cat while avoiding situations where the animal has the upper hand. Timely treatment is important because this problem has a strong learned component. When you recoil to nurse your wounds, your cat learns that biting works.
Startle your cat with a homemade noise maker like:
With diligence and perseverance, your cat can be taught not to bite the hand that feeds him!
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