For cats in the wild, aggression is a natural and healthy behavior. If cats were not aggressive creatures, they would have never survived in the wild. However, now that man has domesticated them, we no longer find their aggressive tendencies acceptable. According to feline behaviorists, there are ten types of cat aggression. However, the cat owner typically sees four of the following types of aggression:
- fear or defensive,
- re-directed aggression
- offensive (or status) aggression
Signs of Aggression
A cat will "warn" you if it is uncomfortable by twitching or lashing its tail, growling, and staring with narrowed eyes. Finding a constructive way to channel the cat's pent-up energy can be a challenge. It is up to us, as owners, to recognize the cat's signals and warning signs and to know how to resolve them. If you observe your cat starting to get "upset," you can discharge the cat's pent-up energy by playing with him using a teaser (or similar) toy. The cat(s) will soon realize that playtime is a much looked forward to event. If the aggression is happening between two cats, interrupt the behavior and play with the cat(s), they will learn to associate time spent playing together with happiness, rather than anxiety.
If the aggression is between two or more cats, interrupt the fight with a loud noise. We use canned air, but clapping your hands, or shaking a can full of coins will also work to disrupt the cats. Only perform this interruption in a calm, unemotional manner, because otherwise, your cat will pick up on your tension which can cause the aggression to escalate.
Defensive and Fear Aggression
When a cat becomes frightened, it will either run away or fight the perceived threat. For example, the cat is backed into a corner by an overly-friendly dog or another cat and sees no escape. Interrupt the cat (as talked about in paragraph one), and try to keep it distracted by engaging the cat in play.
Often, a cat can become aggressive when being petted. Be sure to watch your cat's body language for signs that he has had enough. By watching the cat's behavior, you can stop petting the cat while it is still enjoying it, rather than wait until he has had enough and lashes out. Always try to stop stroking the cat's tummy before he gets cranky. Most cats do not like their stomach rubbed. Being on their back and exposing their stomach is a submissive position and cats like being the one in control.
This type of behavior will exhibit when the cat is unable to get to the object of his anger, so he takes his anger out on an innocent bystander.
In the wild, as with dogs, there is a "pack order." There is the "top" cat, and then the others on down the line, with each one more submissive to the one above it. When a cat shows this type of aggression, he is trying to "move up" the social ladder by using force to assert his position as the higher-ranking cat.
The first thing to do when your cat suddenly starts acting aggressively is to get him to the veterinarian to rule out any underlying injury or disease. If there are no medical issues that would cause aggression, it is probably due to stress, and it is up to you, the owner, to figure out what is causing him to be uncomfortable and fix it or minimize his anxiety level.
If you have tried all the remedies and suggestions above and your cat is still showing signs of aggression, talk to your vet about the possibility of drug therapy. Antidepressants or anti-anxiety medication can help desensitize the cat to whatever is triggering his aggression.
Click for an in-depth article on Feline Aggression by Cornell Veterinary University.