Aggression is a fairly common behavior problem in cats. There are various forms of aggression. Triggers and targets can vary widely, which can make identifying and correcting the problem challenging for cat parents.
Consequences of aggression
While some forms of aggression may be more of an annoyance, consequences can be serious, especially when directed at humans. Even though cat bites only account for 10-15% of animal bites reported by emergency rooms, they pose a much greater risk of infection. Cat bites create narrow, deep puncture wounds. Unlike other animal bites, which can tear flesh and even break bones, these deeper wounds are much harder to clean. Additionally, cats’ mouths carry a large number of bacteria which can cause serious infections in bite wounds.
Injuries to other cats are also a concern, and continued inter-cat aggression often results in cats being surrendered to a shelter. A recent study suggests that 27% of cats given up for behavioral issues were cats with aggressive tendencies. It goes without saying that these cats have little chance of being adopted out again.
Even if cats are not surrendered, unaddressed aggression makes life miserable for all the cats and human in the household.
Types of aggression
One of the most common forms is play aggression.
Cats need to play, and play is nothing more than channeling their innate hunting instinct into play. If they don’t get enough of a chance to exercise this instinct through appropriate play with either a feline friend or the human members of the household, the cat’s frustration can manifest as play aggression.
One of the most common signs of this form is “angle grabbing.” You may be walking by your cat and all of a sudden, she grabs your ankle and either scratches or bites. Play aggression can also be directed at your hands, especially if you use them to play with your cat – something that may be cute when she’s a kitten, but not so cute when she’s turned into an adult cat.
This common form can have a number of causes. It can sometimes be an indicator that a cat is in pain. Some cats may have been poorly socialized when they were kittens. Single kittens who did not grow up with litter mates often exhibit petting aggression. Biting during play is normal among kittens, and kittens learn from each other or from their mom when to stop. Kittens who did not have much interaction with humans may also respond with aggression to petting. Some cats simply have a lower energetic threshold to being touched than others. They may enjoy being petted, but only for a short period of time, or only in certain places. Biting is their way to say that they’ve had enough.
Some cats may react to certain noises, smells, unfamiliar people, and other triggers with fear aggression. This type usually comes with some warning via both body language and vocalizations: flattened ears, piloerection (hair standing up,) growling, and hissing. These cats typically won’t attack unless they’re further approached. This aggression is an extreme defense mechanism.
This form of can happen between cats who have formerly been best buddies after one of them goes to the vet’s for a check up. After returning home from the clinic, instead of receiving a warm welcome, the cat who stayed home hisses and attacks the other cat. The two former best friends have turned into sworn enemies, and a formerly peaceful home has turned into a battle zone.
This type can be devastating for cat parents to deal with. It happens when a cat is agitated by an animal, event, or person it can’t get at. Unable to lash out at the perceived threat, the cat turns to the nearest victim. This may be another cat or pet in the household, or it may be the cat’s humans. These attacks happen seemingly out of the blue, and they can be fairly damaging to the victim.
Of all the types, this is the most difficult form to deal with, because it may not always be possible to identify the trigger, and because, unlike with petting or play aggression, there’s usually no warning from the cat in terms of body language because these attacks happen so fast. It becomes especially difficult when the attack is directed at another cat in the household, because in most cases, the triggered cat will continue to be aggressive toward the victim.
General tips for managing all types of aggression
- If you recognize signs of aggression between two cats, try to distract them.
- The earlier you intervene, the most likely you are to avoid serious problems.
- Never reach between two fighting cats with your bare hands. Use a pillow, broom, or piece of cardboard to separate the cats.
- Separate the cats and reintroduce them slowly to each other as if they had never met.
- Avoid situations that you know trigger aggression.
- Never punish aggressive cats. Punishment will only increase a cat’s fear or anxiety and make things worse.
- Use food treats to reinforce positive behavior between cats.
- Provide an enriched environment with plenty of resources for all cats in the household.
The following articles provide detailed information on how to cope with and prevent specific types of aggression:
You may also want to read this comprehensive article on feline aggression from the Cornell Feline Health Center.
Consult a professional
If you notice sudden aggression between your cats without an identifiable trigger, you may want to consult with your veterinarian. Sudden changes in behavior can be caused by a medical issue. Extreme cases of aggression may require medication.
Behavioral issues can be extremely complex, especially in multi-cat households. A professional cat behaviorist can evaluate your unique situation, including the dynamics of your household, the environment the cat(s) live in, and the specific issues. If you can’t find anyone local to you, I can highly recommend Dr. Marci Koski of Feline Behavior Solutions, who is authoring our current behavior column, and Mikel Delgado of Feline Minds. Both offer remote consultations.