Aggression to humans

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Is it normal for cats to be aggressive?

Aggressive responses seen in pet cats are closely related to the natural behaviour of the species and are a normal part of predation, play and social conflict.

However if cats start to show  aggression towards humans then this would constitute 'problem behaviour'. It then becomes important to establish the cat's motivation for this behaviour and whether, in the context, it is normal or abnormal. Normal aggression is relatively predictable and, if the cat’s needs are met, can be resolved with behavioural intervention. Abnormal aggression however is less predictable, not appropriate to the context and more complicated to address.

What causes cats to become aggressive?

Aggression is not a diagnosis but a consequence of an emotional state, so, once it has been established as a problem for the owner, each individual case needs to be assessed by taking a thorough history of the cat, its environment, how the problem first started and how it has progressed.

Aggression in cats is usually motivated by, or related to:

  • Social pressures
  • Fear or anxiety
  • Frustration
  • Inappropriate play
  • Illness or pain

As with all behaviour problems, the cat’s health should be checked to ensure it is not motivated by pain or illness. Safety and the prevention of  injury should be address prior to any assessment and treatment. Physical causes can then be ruled out or treated where necessary. If the aggression caused injury to a person and the vet could not find a physical cause, then it may be decided at this stage to refer to a behaviour specialist.

Here are some scenarios which explain some behaviours which are seen as aggressive.

My kitten is biting me when we play, what should I do?

Kittens fight each other when they are young and engage in enthusiastic rough and tumble fights. These are always interrupted if they become a little too violent so that the the kittens learn to inhibit their biting when playing. Unfortunately when humans attempt the same kind of games, using their hands, they often reinforce the highly excitable behaviour and encourage kittens to grow up, biting and scratching in the name of play with an intensity that can cause injury. The cat’s preferred target of hands soon generalises to bare feet and, as an adult, the cat will pounce on hands and feet at every opportunity. 

You need to address this now to ensure your kitten doesn’t grow into a cat that plays roughly and gets labelled as ‘aggressive’. Play aggression is easily prevented by ensuring that human body parts never form part of any games with your cat. There are numerous toys on the market, many of which are attached to rods or sticks to enable easy manipulation from a distance. Hands are then associated with gentle stroking, holding and feeding rather than predatory play. Don’t be tempted to shout or tap your cat’s nose or any other form of intended punishment as this will either be seen as part of the game or as a threatening gesture. This will not teach your kitten new, acceptable ways to play.

See playing with your cat

Why does my cat bite me when I am petting it?

This is a common problem that is often referred to as the ‘petting and biting syndrome/threshold’.

Many cats enjoy the sensation of being stroked since it is like being groomed by their mothers when they were tiny kittens. However the adult cat has a strong instinctive survival mechanism and they can feel vulnerable to attack if they allow themselves to become too relaxed and comfortable. They develop a sense of conflict between pleasure and potential danger and this can result in a sudden aggressive gesture to escape from the situation. Cats can often be seen running away a few steps and then stopping to groom their paw quickly as if they are rather embarrassed by the incident!

Some cats will tolerate more stroking than others and this can be influenced by their experiences with humans when they were young kittens. Any cat that displays this behaviour will provide strong signals beforehand to give you plenty of warning. For example, it will stop purring, visibly stiffen, start to thrash its tail from side to side and may even make a hissing sound. If you stop stroking at the first sign you will probably not get bitten.

Why does my cat hiss at me when I approach?

Aggression can be used both offensively and defensively. When it is fear-based it is purely utilised as a survival strategy in circumstances when the cat feels vulnerable and in danger. Many cats deprived of early socialisation with humans will remain fearful in their presence and unwanted advances and attention can result in the use of aggression as a deterrent. If the threat of aggression does not result in your withdrawal then unfortunately teeth and claws may then be employed to enable the cat to escape.

Why did my cat attack me when it saw another cat through the window?

There are occasions when it is possible for humans to become the victims of re-directed aggression in response to movement or touch. Owners often reassure their cats when they see them alarmed by the sight of another outside and pay the price as they become the victim of an attack. This emotional response can be so intense that all future contact with the owner can trigger a similar state of mind. This is further compounded by an obvious sense of apprehension from the owner, anticipating an attack, and it doesn’t take long for the trust to go out of the relationship. Your veterinarian will advise you if this occurs and refer you to a behaviour specialist.

What do I do if my cat bites me or scratches me badly?

It is extremely distressing if a cat bites or scratches badly and when this happens the priority has to be safety and prevention of further injury. Do not attempt to touch or approach the cat, particularly if it has remained highly aroused after the attack, (e.g. aggressive vocalisation or body language) or is generally behaving abnormally for the individual.

The first task is to separate the cat from any humans or other animals that could potentially be attacked. This cat may well be very frightened itself so keeping as calm as possible will reduce the likelihood of further incidents. You may be able to shut yourself and others out of the room where the cat remains or allow it to escape into another room and shut the door. Make sure you don’t stand in the way of any potential escape route and certainly don’t attempt to shout, confront or punish to ‘dominate’ the cat as this will undoubtedly result in increased aggression as it will be seen as threatening behaviour.

Once the cat is secure, treat any wounds by flushing with running water and seek medical advice straight away. You will also need to contact your vet to discuss the aggressive behaviour, offering any insights you may have regarding any triggers or specific behaviour before, during or after the attack. It is quite normal to be shocked by this so recalling the incident is often very difficult.

Protecting vulnerable parts of your body, such as legs and arms, is important and heavy boots and gloves can be useful temporary indoor clothing. You may also feel safer to protect your eyes with glasses or goggles if you need to approach your cat for any reason. Cats often calm down after a couple of hours of the incident but it is always wise to be cautious.

Are cat bites dangerous?

Cat bites tend to inflict deep puncture wounds that may lead to bacterial infections due to the presence of pathogens such as Pasteurella multocida in the cat’s mouth.

Children, the elderly and immune-suppressed individuals are particularly susceptible to complications from cat bites and scratches. Always seek medical attention if you experience any swelling, redness, pain, fever or headaches after being bitten by a cat.

Will I be able to prevent my cat from being aggressive again, once I’ve been bitten?

The prognosis for cases of aggression to humans will vary depending on a number of considerations, including how old your cat was when it first happened, how long you have tolerated bouts of aggression and also the intensity of the aggression and subsequent injuries. It is more common for cats to inflict superficial scratches and ‘nips’ that don’t actually puncture the skin - it is comparatively rare for your own pet to inflict damage that requires medical treatment.

If you are looking for a resolution to the problem, the prognosis will depend on the predictability of the behaviour and whether or not you can safeguard the family members, particularly the very young and old or any particularly vulnerable individuals.

There may be underlying medical issues that are difficult to address that are causing this problem and any programme of behaviour therapy put in place may be complicated and all family members would have to be consistent in carrying it out. Careful assessment is necessary after your vet has examined your cat and made a referral to a behaviour specialist, if appropriate.

I’m scared of my cat now, what about rehoming?

It is hardly surprising that owners become nervous around a cat that has suddenly become aggressive. Many decide not to pursue a behaviour programme for this very reason. However rehoming and potentially passing on the problem to another would be irresponsible unless you are completely transparent about the aggression, give full details of any triggers or the circumstances in which it occurred. The rehoming centre will then make a decision regarding the significance of your environment and circumstances and whether or not a simple change of home would lead to a resolution of the behaviour. Each situation will be different so has to be treated as such and assessed on a case by case basis.

What are the warning signs of aggression?

There are often signs to look out for that show your cat (or any cat you approach) is signalling that it’s about to get aggressive with you. They include:

  • Dilated pupils, direct staring
  • Thrashing/twitching tail
  • Hissing, growling or spitting
  • The ears flatten against the side of the head or rotate backwards
  • The body posture often becomes crouched or tense

If you see any of these signs then it is best to turn away and not pursue any physical contact. The cat doesn’t want to attack you unless you absolutely force it to do so by ignoring its signals and continuing your approach.

How should I treat a cat that has shown aggression in the past?

This does depend under what circumstances the aggression occurred but, generally speaking, it is always best to allow any cat to initiate contact and to keep your responding physical contact brief, concentrating on the forehead, cheeks and chin – at least until you know the cat well enough to appreciate what level of attention it will tolerate and enjoy. It is always best to allow the cat to determine the quality and quantity of interaction that takes place.

If your cat is wary of approaches or nervous of people in general, always allow your cat to escape from any situation, however harmless, when it feels threatened. It is a natural instinct to flee from danger and if you block its exit then this could result in a fearful cat becoming aggressive.

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