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:
- Tire her out. Toys that appear to flutter, jump, or scurry like or a bird or small rodent are the best choices for your tiny tiger. Fishing pole toys with feathers, balls on tracks, and catnip-filled mice all fit the bill. Perches, condos and scratching posts give your feline athlete plenty to do. Schedule routine play sessions at least twice a day when your cat can leap, jump and pounce to her heart’s content.
- Prevent. Learn to anticipate the play-hunt attacks. Does your cat always bite your feet through the covers as you turn in for the night? Pre-empt this with a rigorous play session half an hour before bedtime. Does she ambush you as you step out of the shower? Keep the bathroom door closed and have a toss toy ready to distract her when you come out. Putting a bell around her collar may warn you when she’s lurking.
- Redirect. If you sense an attack is imminent, startle your cat with a loud “no” or a blast from a squirt gun. Then be ready with a more appropriate toss-toy to send her charging in the opposite direction.
- Don’t get physical. Never roughhouse with your cat or use your hands or feet in play. This will only give the go-ahead for more unwanted attacks. Hitting your cat never helps. In fact it aggravates matters and can lead to other behavior problems.
- Kitty time-out. If your cat is simply too jazzed up, put her in another room and close the door until she’s gotten her kitten-crazies out.
- Get another cat. If your home and lifestyle allow, a new feline playmate can actually help. Opt for a young adult cat who is likely to have a similar energy level.
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 petting-related aggression article). 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:
- Tail twitch
- Flattened ears
- Direct stare
- Dilated pupils
- Tense body
- Low growl or hiss
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.
- Prevention. The first step is to avoid, if possible, the situations where your cat’s pushiness is likely to come to blows. Don’t pet her past her breaking point. Don’t shove him off your favorite chair. Remember that cat bites and scratches can be very serious.
- Ignore. Refuse to give in to your cat’s entreaties for petting or snuggles, tempting though this may be. All interactions occur on your terms, not your cat’s.
Startle your cat with a homemade noise maker like:
- a metal can filled with loose change.
- an aluminum can filled with pennies, place tape over the top so the pennies don’t fall out.
- Interrupt. By contrast, if you can recognize that your cat is about to strike and startle her in a non-interactive way (such as a sharp noise or a squirt of water), this can effectively diffuse the situation.
- Take control. As with an aggressive dog, the pushy cat must learn that all the good things in life (such as food, attention, affection and playtime) occur at your bidding. Cats must be quiet and calm before being petted. Many cats can be taught to obey simple commands like “sit” or “come” for a small food reward. The cat must then “sit” (for a food treat) before climbing in your lap. He must “come” for a food reward when it’s time for him to vacate your workspace.
- Avoid physical correction. Even a small tap on the nose can be perceived as a challenge and escalate the aggression. This is an easy way to get hurt. And of course rough play with your cat is a no-no.
- Seek veterinary advice. Status-related aggression can be serious and hard to treat. Your veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist can determine the exact nature of the problem and its treatment. Due to the sometimes refractory nature of this problem and the risks involved, drug therapy is often used alongside behavioral treatment.
With diligence and perseverance, your cat can be taught not to bite the hand that feeds him!
- 1. "Feline Behavior Problems." Cornell Feline Health Center, Cornell University, College of Veterinary Medicine. 15 Nov. 2006. Web. 18 Apr. 2010.
- 2. Landsberg, Gary. Handbook of Behavior Problems of the Dog and Cat. Philadelphia: Saunders, 2003.
- 3. Overall, Karen L. Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Small Animals. Saint Louis: Mosby, 1996.
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