Aggression is the second most common feline behavior problem seen by animal behaviorists. Aggressive behavior can range from cats who hiss, to cats who attack. Cats who bite can inflict severe lacerations, which are painful and can easily become infected. They can also cause cat scratch fever, a usually benign but potentially serious infectious disease that causes flu-like symptoms.

So how can you stop this behavior? The first step is to figure out why your kitty is acting out. Because we are not privy to cats’ thoughts and feelings, it’s not always possible to know what’s causing aggressive behavior. With that said, there are several known causes behind aggressive behavior in cats, including the two most common:

  • Fear
  • Play and excitement

Fear – Fear aggression can occur when a cat perceives a threat, and feels it can’t escape. When a cat feels threatened, he may act in ways to defend himself.

Typical body postures associated with fearful or defensive aggression are a combination of defensive signals (such as crouching, flattening of the ears and tucking the tail) and aggressive signals (such as hissing, spitting and growling). This is the most common type of aggressive behavior, so keep in mind that the goal to improving behavior is to make your cat feel comfortable, not threaten him further.

If a situation cannot be avoided, then you can attempt gradual desensitization by briefly exposing the cat to the stimulus that causes the fear from a distance, and then rewarding non-aggressive behavior with food and praise. Often the best way to deal with a defensively aggressive cat is to simply avoid him until he calms down.   

Fear – Fear aggression can occur when a cat perceives a threat, and feels it can’t escape. When a cat feels threatened, he may act in ways to defend himself. Typical body postures associated with fearful or defensive aggression are a combination of defensive signals (such as crouching, flattening of the ears and tucking the tail) and aggressive signals (such as hissing, spitting and growling). This is the most common type of aggressive behavior, so keep in mind that the goal to improving behavior is to make your cat feel comfortable, not threaten him further. If a situation cannot be avoided, then you can attempt gradual desensitization by briefly exposing the cat to the stimulus that causes the fear from a distance, and then rewarding non-aggressive behavior with food and praise. Often the best way to deal with a defensively aggressive cat is to simply avoid him until he calms down.  

Play and excitement – Some cats have a hard time distinguishing between appropriate and inappropriate play. Despite the playful intentions of a cat, when such play is directed toward people or becomes overly rambunctious, it can cause injury.

Cats that engage in play aggression will often thrash their tails back and forth, have their ears pinned to the tip of their head, and have dilated pupils. They may stalk their target, whether animal or human, and will often pounce from a hiding place as the target passes by.

To intervene in play aggression, preempt the aggression by distracting the cat with play or denying access to places that encourage the behavior, such as under the bed. The use of noise deterrents within a few seconds of aggressive behavior, such as a bell, may be helpful in startling a cat and redirecting his attention. The goal is not to scare the cat, but to distract him and refocus his attention. Walking away and ignoring a cat engaged in play aggression may also teach them that inappropriately aggressive play results in no play at all.

Always work with Your Veterinarian. Aggression can be a dangerous behavior problem and a medical workup is essential. Some cats may behave aggressive because of a medical condition. If a medical problem is detected, it’s crucial to work closely with your veterinarian to give your cat the best chance at improving.

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