Cat aggression - introduction
After bad toilet habits, aggression is the second most common problem behaviour in cats. According to statistics from the USA, cats bite about 750 000 people there every year. Cat bites come with a generous mouthful of bacteria which more often than not gives the victim a nasty infection to go with the bite. So it is no wonder that much effort goes into understanding cat aggression and how to deal with it.
Aggression is the normal feline reaction to territorial intrusion. Neutered cats and cats raised with people and other animals (both dogs and cats), are more likely to get along in larger animal groups. Such cats are more tolerant to newcomers whether human or feline. But even well-socialized cats have a million years of inbred territorial possessiveness to contend with. There is never more than a thin line between tolerance and attack, and even a relatively trivial event can tip the balance. Once you get more than two cats, the possibility of territorial aggression gets pretty high. When you have four or five cats, it is very likely that at some point fur is going to fly.
With cat aggression, we have to distinguish between aggression toward people and aggression towards other cats. Sometimes the same thing will make a cat aggressive to humans or other cats - for example redirected aggression, when the cat takes out her anger on innocent bystanders. But other types of aggression are specific to species. Cat attacks on humans come in four basic forms: playful aggression, fearful aggression, aggression after 'excessive' handling and redirected aggression. Common forms of aggression among cats are: territorial aggression, inter-male aggression, defense aggression and redirected aggression.
Playful aggression is normally found in young cats, usually less than two years old. This is normal in a growing cat. Young cats are much more active than adult cats, and spend a lot of time exploring, and developing their hunting skills. They will pounce on and bite any moving object which looks as if it might be prey. When the cat is in a playful mood, humans may well find the kitten pouncing on, scratching and biting their ankles. Playful aggression rarely leads to injury unless the kitten is encouraged to play rough. If mother cat is around, her tail might regularly get lightly mauled.
Fearful aggression occurs in cats that are scared, perhaps because the owner is trying to punish them, or because the cat is receiving medical treatment it does not understand. Like any frightened creature, cats might lash out in self-defence.
Petting aggression is the form of feline thuggery which owners resent the most. The cat sits on a person's lap content purring contentedly as she is petted, then suddenly she turns and bites or scratches the hand that pats her. Even more annoyingly, it is often the cat that came for a cuddle in the first place. The simple explanation is that some cats have a limited tolerance for petting and handling. If the petting goes on too long, the cat literally makes makes her irritation felt.
Redirected aggression occurs when a cat is aroused by a situation (for example a bird on the window sill on the other side of the glass). The cat is emotionally charged up but unable to attack the bird. Instead she may transfer the aggression onto someone who has just happened to stroke her. Likewise if a cat is suddenly frightened she might lash out at the cat slumbering innocently beside her.
Territorial aggression is the number one casus belli among cats. This happens when a cat's territory has been invaded by an intruder. Territorial aggression often occurs when a new cat is introduced into the territory already established by another cat. This happens in multicat households or when a new cat encounters neighborhood cats in the garden.
Inter-male aggression is common in households where there is more than one male. These behaviours can occur as sexual challenges over a female, or to achieve a relatively high position in the cats' loosely organized social hierarchy.
Defense aggression is similar to the fearful aggression discussed above. It happens equally among male and female cats. Basically, this is the cat standing up for herself. Though not generally social animals by choice, cats have a good grasp of what a pecking order is, and do not want to end up on the bottom of one if they can help it.
A cat's behavior may change all of a sudden, taking the owner very much by surprise. People often ask what causes this. Sometimes the causes are obvious, for example, moving home can upset the balance between the cats in the household. A new place means new territory to establish and defend. Sudden aggression may also occur in indoor/outdoor cats which encounter strange cats outside and become emotionally charged especially if the encounter has not been resolved satisfactorily. The cat returns home in an aggressive mood and may snap at the slightest provocation. Another trigger for violence is the death of a cat in a multicat household, especially if that cat was the dominant male. This causes various ructions until a new balance of power has been found.
Big changes such as these are easy to pinpoint. More often the triggers for violence are too subtle for us to even notice. Many owners claim that aggression 'just started out of the blue'. However, cats are unlikely to attack unless provoked. It is just that sometimes we don't see the provocation. For example, if an aggressive Tom has scent-marked a territorially-minded animal's cat-flap, the owner might be left wondering why he was given a bloody hand for giving kitty a 'welcome home' pat. Watch the cat's normal behavior and pay careful attention to any subtle changes. Responding to the warning signs can often nip trouble in the bud before your cat nips you on your ankle.