By Jillian M. Orlando, DVM, DACVB
Photo courtesy of the Dr. Sophia Yin Collection
If you have ever had your cat snuggle up to you on the couch then nip at your hand when you try to pet them, you are not alone. This is just one scenario in which some cats have shown aggression to their owners. Many other situations can lead to cats swatting, scratching, or trying to bite their human partners. While these are unwanted behaviors from our feline friends, there are often logical explanations for their actions. Trying to stop the aggression starts with understanding when and why it might be happening. Then, you can determine how to approach the problem behavior.
This type of aggression occurs when play goes too far or when a cat misdirects play behavior. Many owners roughhouse with their cats, especially as kittens, using their hands as objects for the cats to mouth or kick. While it may seem cute and harmless at first, it can teach your cat that the correct way to get your attention is to play fight. To prevent this behavior from becoming a problem, use toys as the target. If playing with your cat causes them to get too aroused or worked-up, the play becomes rough or escalates to aggression toward you, end the session and walk away or try to redirect their focus onto a toy.
Another sign of play-related aggression is stalking and attacking moving feet. Cats often use predatory behavior when playing, therefore try to redirect your cat to appropriate objects. Waving wand toys, tossing toy mice, or even skittering pieces of kibble across the floor can help satisfy the desire for that predatory style of play.
When aggression is triggered by petting, understanding why this happens is the tricky part. It seems like your cat wanted the attention and petting in the first place. Just because your cat wants your attention or closeness doesn’t necessarily mean they want to be petted. Sometimes, cats only want to be near (or on) you without being petted, or maybe they do want to be petted but not in that spot or not for very long.
Most cats prefer to be petted on the top of the head, cheeks, or under the chin. Many cats do not like long strokes down the back or having their tail touched; every cat has their individual preferences. The key is for you to find out what your cat likes and stick to those areas. For cats who only tolerate brief bouts of petting, try petting for a few seconds and then stop. If they ask for more by nudging or leaning into you, then keep going for a few seconds more. Another common misconception is that when cats roll over, they want you to pet them on their belly, but this isn’t always an invitation to touch them on their tummy. Remember to respect your cat’s likes and dislikes.
Defensive or Fear-related Aggression
Cats use aggressive behavior to defend themselves when feeling anxiety or fear. This aggression often includes situations during which the cat is being handled or restrained, such as for nail trims, brushing, veterinary exams, or when there is a potential threat – real or perceived – from another animal or human. Most cats prefer to avoid conflict, but when they cannot, they may use aggression to protect themselves and feel safe.
Cats may be anxious about restraint. If routine handling for grooming or other procedures was not part of their kitten socialization and exposure, they may be anxious in those situations as adults. Preventing this type of aggression can be done by creating positive associations with handling and new people from an early age. It’s not just about exposing young cats them to these things, it needs to be a positive experience, usually by pairing it with high-value food. If the anxiety or defensive aggression has already started, more focused behavior modification will be needed.
Physical discomfort can also be a factor in human-directed aggression. Painful cats have a lower tolerance for human interaction. If a previous experience was painful and your cat learned to associate that handling with pain, he may be aggressive when handled. As with any type of aggression, but especially with a recent onset, see your veterinarian for a physical examination to search for subtle signs of pain or illness.
This aggression occurs when your cat becomes aroused or highly upset. When that target is inaccessible, they may redirect their aggression onto something else, such as you or another pet. One of the most common scenarios is when a cat sees an outdoor cat on the other side of a window or door, seemingly taunting them. Because the cat cannot access the intruder, they turn their frustration and aggression to what is closest. Sometimes these episodes can be quite extreme. This reaction can become a learned association, and the aggression toward that individual can recur even without another outdoor cat present. With redirected aggression, you have to identify the trigger and prevent your cat from being exposed to it.
Whenever your cat is exhibiting aggression, consult with your veterinarian. Take note of when the aggression occurs and what events precede it. This information, together with an examination, will help your veterinarian determine the next steps. If pain or illness is contributing to the aggression, treatment should start with addressing those issues. For petting-induced and play-related aggression, changing the way you interact with your cat, and learning your cat’s petting preferences may be needed. Frequently, you need to alter your behavior. If fear and anxiety cause your cat to react defensively, then your cat may need behavior modification. In some cases, medication may be needed to lessen your cat’s anxiety or overarousal.
Regardless of the type of aggression or its cause, punishment should never be your response. While it might seem normal to scold or correct your cat, it may cause more harm than good. If your cat is fearful, being punished increases anxiety, potentially making the behavior worse. This is also true if your cat is in a highly aroused state. Punishment does not teach the cat what the appropriate behavior is, does not improve the cat’s underlying emotional state, and can often have unintended consequences. Do your best to avoid known triggers and become familiar with changes in your cat’s body language indicating anxiety or impending aggression (see poster below). If your cat becomes aggressive, calmly stop, and remove yourself from the situation. Cats have limited ways that they can communicate to their humans that something is bothering them. Aggression is one way they try to tell us what’s wrong. Take that information and use it to help them feel safe by avoiding that trigger.