From Frisky to Foul: A Look at Feline Aggression (and How to Deal With It)
Taut whiskers. Pinned-back ears. Thrashing tail. Dilated pupils. Any of these signs of feline aggression are powerful warnings, but when combined with a fierce growl or hiss, an attack is imminent.
There are no questions about a cat’s ability to defend themselves, but when they act out of character around their loved ones, it can be extremely worrisome. What’s behind feline aggression, and how should owners respond to it?
Big and Bad
Cats are experts at efficiently communicating using specific elements of body language. A close look at tail positioning can reveal their mental state. For instance, when they are scared or feel threatened, they will hold their tail close to the ground. Whipping it side to side may also be seen.
Likewise, cats will puff out their fur coats (piloerection) in order to appear larger to potential threats, and turn sideways. What comes next usually includes yowling, spitting, hissing, clawing, and biting. Alternatively, some cats will crough low to the ground, flatten their ears, and try to look smaller.
Generally speaking, it’s not a good plan to approach a cat that’s demonstrating any of the above. Attempts to pick them up will likely be met with self-defense. Please do not react by scolding or punishing them. Instead, give them time to cool off and space to relax in.
Types of Feline Aggression
Some owners may need help discerning the type of feline aggression they witness at home:
- Petting-induced aggression occurs at the moment when a cat has had enough physical attention. You might have been enjoying a snuggle, but they have reached their maximum limit, and use their teeth and claws to prove it.
- Play-related aggression happens when cats tune into their predatory skills. You might have been playing an innocent round of cat and mouse, until they begin to bite and claw at their “prey”. This could be explained by little or no time with littermates or buddies to learn when it’s time to stop.
- Territorial aggression is a given among cats. They feel really strongly about their property, including the people they love.
- Feline aggression can stem from underlying medical problems that cause sensitivity, pain and discomfort. Some medications can also lead to certain behavioral changes.
- Nonrecognition aggression happens when familiar cats are separated from each other, and then reunited. It can happen after one cat goes to the vet and returns home only to receive a poor welcome from their friend. If the returning cat smells different, the resident cat may take it the wrong way and act aggressively toward them.
- Fear or stress-related aggression stems from a frightening or threatening encounter. This can happen after a visit to the vet, a move, following a boarding experience, or when a new roommate or pet arrives.
How to Cope
The first rule of thumb is to carefully monitor your cat and jot down observations in a notebook. If your cat is fighting with other household pets, do your best to contain them apart from everyone else. If you or someone else in your home is bitten or scratched by your aggressive cat, please apply first aid immediately.
If feline aggression can’t be explained by their environment (say, a move or change in domestic life), and doesn’t improve over a few days, we recommend scheduling an appointment. It may be that your cat is struggling with an illness or injury that’s causing them to lash out.