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What to Do If Your Cat Is Aggressive with People

It's distressing to have an animal you lavish with love show their appreciation with bites and scratches. Here are several reasons why cats can be aggressive toward people, along with solutions to keep you from visiting the first-aid kit.

Play aggression
Petting aggression
Redirected aggression
Territorial aggression
Other explanations

Play aggression

To a cat, play is all about prey. Body postures of play aggression are the behaviors a cat shows when searching for and catching prey. They stalk their target from behind a door or under a chair, crouch, twitch their tail, flick their ears back and forth, then pounce, wrapping their front feet around the prey, chewing it and kicking it with the back feet.

We enjoy watching these cat antics, but kittens don't know when to stop. Their rough play can result in scratches and little bites that don't break the skin. You must teach your cat when enough is enough; otherwise, as they get older, the scratches may get deeper and the bites harder. (Note: In cases where a cat's bite has broken the skin, seek medical advice; a cat bite can be a serious matter.)

Solution:

  • Use a fishing pole type of toy to keep your cat away from your body when playing.
  • If they start chewing or scratching any part of your body, immediately say "uh-uh," and redirect them to a toy. If your cat continues to chew or scratch after you say, "uh-uh," stop playing immediately. Never hit her or yell, or they'll become afraid of you.
  • Don’t resume playing until she has calmed down; then use the toy.

Some cats are easily overstimulated, and their play can escalate into true aggression. Pay close attention to your cat's body language; if they're getting too intense, stop playing immediately and give them time to cool off.

Petting aggression

Sometimes when you're petting your purring cat, they might bite you out of the blue. This behavior isn't well understood even by experienced animal behaviorists, but it's thought that some cats just have very sensitive spots or a very limited tolerance for being touched.

Cats vary in how much they'll tolerate letting you pet or hold them. There are usually warning signs that they're reaching their limit, but their signals can be subtle and hard to detect.

Look for:

  • Restlessness
  • Tail twitching
  • Ears turning back or flicking back and forth
  • Turning or moving their head toward your hand
  • A sharp meow, low growl, or a hiss
  • They may even put their teeth on you lightly to tell you to stop.

When you see any of these signals, it's time to stop petting the cat immediately and let them decide if they still want to sit on your lap, or go their own way. Never yell or hit; any kind of physical punishment almost always makes the problem worse, as it makes the cat more likely to bite. Plus, they might fear you and/or associate petting with punishment.

Solution:

If you have a cat who doesn't like being petted, you could try to win them over with food rewards.

Before your cat shows any of the behaviors described above, offer them a special tidbit of food. Pet them lightly for a short time while, offering treats. The cat will come to associate being stroked with more pleasant things.

Stop petting before you see the signs of irritation. If you keep petting until the cat reacts badly, you've defeated the purpose. Each time you work with your cat, try to pet them for slightly longer periods using the food.

Redirected aggression

Redirected aggression occurs when a cat is stimulated by an animal or person, but has no outlet for their naturally aggressive feelings.

The cat gazing out the window may have seen another cat outside, which makes them want to defend their territory. When they can't get to that cat, they attack the first thing that crosses her path. They're so worked up about that strange cat that they're not aware that they have redirected their aggression toward you.

Solution:

Observe your cat closely before approaching her. Are they:

  • Staring so hard out the window that they don't know you're there?
  • Not respond when you call them?
  • Jerking their tail back and forth?
  • Growling, hissing, or meowing loudly?

Don't mess with them! Clap your hands loudly to break their fixation, or just walk away and let your cat calm down alone. You may also be attacked if you try to interfere with two cats fighting. Don't get in the middle of it. Use a squirt bottle or pillow to break up the fight and distract the cats.

Territorial aggression

Cats are by nature very territorial, but usually cats only feel the need to defend their territory from other cats.

Once in a while you'll come across an extremely dominant cat who thinks they own the house. Such a cat may, for example, try to prevent you from entering or leaving a room. If you're visiting a friend with a cat like this and notice that the cat is displaying the signs of aggression listed above, steer clear.

Solution:

If your cat becomes territorially aggressive and tries to control your access to places in your home, give them a squirt with the water bottle to let them know who's boss.

Other explanations

If your cat's behavior has started suddenly, there could be a medical issue causing it. Take them to the vet for a check-up; if they get a clean bill of health, you should seek behavior modification.

If their behavior improves when they're confined to one room, their aggression may be due to stress in the environment (loud kids, other cats or pets).

When nothing works

If you've tried everything to resolve your cat's aggression, but they'r not responding, consult your vet and the animal behaviorist to see what your options are.

If the aggression is stress-induced (caused by loud noises, young children, other cats or pets, etc.) and you can't find ways to relieve that stress, it may be time to reevaluate their presence in your home. They might be better off in a calm home with no other pets. However, you should be extremely cautious about placing them in a new home; you don't want to pass a problem on to someone else without hope of resolution.

Adapted from material originally developed by applied animal behaviorists at the Dumb Friends League, Denver, Colorado. All rights reserved.

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