By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 1 September 2011)
Batting at things or tackling moving objects is normal behaviour in cats. If your cat pounces on you or other members of the household, she may simply be bored and require more interactive playtime. However, unprovoked hissing, growling, scratching, and biting can indicate a problem.
Causes of Aggression in Cats
Cats may be aggressive because they were not properly socialized as kittens or because they have been mistreated. Some cats are aggressive because they have inherited the tendency from a parent, and sometimes people train their cats to be aggressive without realizing it. Encouraging a kitten to pounce on your feet and bite your toes or tackle your wiggling hands may be cute, but when an adult cat does this, someone might end up in hospital with an infected bite wound.
Cats may also become aggressive as a result of pain or anxiety. It is important to bring your cat in for a veterinary check-up to rule out any medical problems before attempting other treatments for aggression, particularly if a formerly mellow cat has suddenly become aggressive.
Aggression Toward Other Animals
Aggression toward smaller animals is a natural hunting behaviour, and it is unreasonable to expect cats to curtail these tendencies. If you don’t want your cat to catch birds and mice, putting a noisy bell on her collar will ensure that she rarely has a successful hunt.
Aggression toward larger animals is also natural. Cats are highly territorial, both toward their own species and animals of other species. Also, dogs are natural predators of cats in the wild, and many cats retain the instinct to defend themselves aggressively. This defense instinct may also be applied to people. If you have a cat that is attacking other pets or people in your home, there are treatment options available.
Treatments for Feline Aggression: Desensitization, Conditioning, Reinforcement, and Medication
There are strategies that can be used to help new pets grow comfortable with resident pets and vice versa. These include desensitization, which means allowing the two animals to gradually become accustomed first to one another’s scent and then to the sight of one another. This can be done by feeding two cats on either side of a closed door or confining a dog with a baby gate to one portion of the house until the two animals are comfortable in each other’s presence.
Conditioning involves associating one thing with another. For example, if you provide her favourite food whenever your aggressive cat is in the same room as the animal or person to whom she is showing aggression, she may come to associate the presence of that individual with the positive experience of good food. When using this strategy, it is important to ensure that other people and animals keep a respectful distance and don’t bother the cat while she is eating.
Reinforcement involves providing rewards, which can be anything from verbal praise to pats to treats, when the cat curbs her aggressive response. When the cat is in the room with the person or animal that provokes her hostility, you can first calm her down by patting her and speaking in a soothing voice, and then offer the reward when she is behaving calmly.
There are a number of medications used to treat anxiety and aggression in cats, including tricyclic antidepressants, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), and benzodiazepines. These medications can also be used to treat other anxiety-induced behaviours, such as pulling out fur. However, they should only be used as a last resort, as they can have side effects and cats may become addicted to benzodiazepines. Medication is usually only used for a few months, though in some cases it is required for more than a year.
Punishment, which can be physical or verbal, actually increases fear and aggression in cats, and should be avoided. A cat that is punished in the presence of the animal or person to whom she shows aggression will associate that individual with negative experience and the hostility will be exacerbated. If your cat is scratching or biting, you can grab her gently by the scruff of the neck to pull her away and say “no,” but anything more forceful, such as hitting or shouting, will likely increase her aggression rather than diminish it.
Consult a Veterinarian
Before implementing treatment for aggression, consult a veterinarian. Specific medical issues may be contributing to your cat’s aggression, so it is important to speak to a professional in order to develop the most effective treatment strategy.
For more cat articles, see the main Cats page.
- Merck & Co., Inc., Eds. Cynthia M. Kahn, BA, MA & Scott Line, DVM, PhD, Dipl ACVB. (2007). The Merck/Merial Manual for Pet Health, Home Edition.
- Whiteley, E., Dr. (2008). “How to Solve Cat Behaviour Problems.” HowStuffWorks.com.