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Cat Aggression Toward People

Nov 4, 2011 · Updated May 23, 2014 · ·
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  1. Anne
    Fiendish Cats?

    Watching an enraged cat can be daunting. If you haven't seen one up-close, you've probably seen the image in some scary movie. A snarling cat with sharp teeth showing through a wide- open mouth, ears flattened backwards and eyes wide open with dilated pupils. The soundtrack of growls and hisses is not very pleasant either.

    Understanding the reasons for the different types of feline aggression and learning to recognize the warning signs may help you deal with incidents of feline aggression.

    Warning Signs

    Sometimes, it may seem that an attack came out of the blue, but more often there are plenty of warning

    signs. Knowing these signs and learning to recognize them can prevent some painful bites and scratches. Some of the physical signals that an

    aggressive (or potentially aggressive) cat may present are:
    • Wide open eyes.
    • Dilated pupils (in case of a perceived threat), or very constricted pupils (as the cat tries to threaten back).
    • Flattened ears.
    • Tail lashing or straight tail with bristled fur.
    • agitated meows that turn into growling and snarling.
    • hissing voices and sometimes even spitting.
    Behaviorists often categorize aggression toward people according to the source of the aggression. This allows for a better understanding of the underlying causes to the cat's behavior, which, in turn, can hopefully lead to a better resolution. Following are five types of aggression that cats may exhibit.

    When cats are frightened, their "fight-or-flight" response mechanism is activated. Most cats prefer to run away from danger (real or imaginary), but if they feel cornered or unable to run away for any reason, they may attack. Even shy or timid cats will strike out if left with no way to escape.

    Fear-induced aggression is easy for us to identify if we can recognize the cause of the fear. Sometimes, the cause is not obvious. Timid cats may be afraid of all sorts of imagined threats, even sudden sounds or movements. Your cat may also have experienced something traumatic in the past that makes it afraid of something particular that you are not aware of.

    Fear-induced aggression is also a cat's natural reaction to punishment, especially physical punishment. Cats do not learn from any of the kinds of punishment or rebuke that one might use with dogs or children - instead of changing the misbehavior, the cat is more likely to become afraid of you and react violently.



    Redirected Aggression

    Whatever the original trigger may have been, cats that are not able to retaliate against a source of aggravation may redirect their response to the nearest person, cat, or other animal (the family dog, for instance).

    Your cat may sit by the window and suddenly notice a dog, a raccoon, or another cat. The cat becomes agitated, but, being confined indoors, cannot do much to deter the perceived danger. That very minute, when the cat is focused on the threat outside, you casually walk by and pet its head. No wonder the cat suddenly hisses and lashes out at you. All that pent-up aggression is suddenly released in what may seem to you like an unprovoked attack.

    Pain Induced Aggression in cats

    For us humans, this is perhaps the easiest type of aggression to understand. Poor Kitty is in pain, so it seems natural that she will be confused and try to attack anyone who is around her. We usually sympathize with our cat when she lashes out at the vet for a painful procedure. After all, she doesn't understand that this is for her own good and naturally defends herself from pain.

    Sometimes, it is more difficult to ascertain that pain is the cause of aggression. You may accidentally hurt a cat while picking him up or during a grooming session. Cats have very sensitive skin and may react to pain that we don't even realize we have caused.

    Aggression Triggered By Petting

    This is an event some cat owners are well familiar with. You cat is lying contentedly by your side asking for some petting and you begin to gently stroke the cat. At first the cat is purring away, but within a few minutes the purring slowly stops, the tail begins twitch and then suddenly the cat grabs your hand with its teeth and claws.

    This is a well-known behavior pattern, but it's hard to tell why some cats are more sensitive to petting than others. It may have to do with early socialization with people, or with genetic disposition. Either way, it looks like some cats become over-stimulated and feel threatened when petted too long. Exactly how long is too long differs from cat to cat. If you live with such a sensitive feline, you will usually learn pretty quickly what it considers to be too long.

    h2]Illness Induced Aggression[/h2]Cats may become aggressive because of a medical problem. According to The Cornell Book of Cats, "Meningiomas (tumors of the membrane covering the brain), feline ischemic syndrome (constricted or obstructed blood vessels in the brain), rabies, and toxoplasmosis have all been associated with the development of aggressive behavior."

    Therefore, with any gradual or sudden onset of unprovoked violence, you should first consult your vet and check for medical reasons. You know your cat best and you should note any changes in behavior as part of a regular health assessment.

    Of these diseases, rabies is the most dangerous, since it can be passed to humans and is always fatal. If you suspect a cat's violence (whether the cat is yours or not) may be related to rabies, you must contact your vet and/or doctor immediately.

    Note: Most cat owners get bites and scratches not from one of these types of aggressive behavior, but rather during playtime, or even when the cat is "complimenting" you by the kind of love-bites cats share among themselves when mating or playing with each other. It may feel the same, but this is different from true aggression and will be discussed in a separate article.

    What to do

    If your cat has attacked you and is holding you with his claws and teeth, resist the urge to struggle free, which will only ensure scratches and bites. Instead, keep very calm and do not move or try to pry the cat's mouth open or hit or yell at the cat. No loud noises! With your free hand, gently sooth the cat by softly stroking the tops of his paws and then his toe pads until he releases his grip, all the while speaking gently and calmly to it.

    Do not quickly pull away both hands and get up and away from the cat, but do stop petting or stroking it entirely, keeping your hands away from its teeth and claws. Let the cat sit where it is and only when it is calm, try to carefully ease it away from you. It is best to then leave the cat alone for a cooling-off time.
    • Have your cat neutered - If the aggressive cat is a whole male (tom cat), you should get him fixed as soon as possible. Although unaltered males usually display territorial aggression toward other cats, this aggression can become redirected against people. Neutering will also help to prevent roaming and injuries from catfights, as well as control the serious problem of cat overpopulation.
    • Reduce stress - Stress may be the underlying cause to many behavioral problems, including aggression toward people. Almost any kind of aggression is likely to get worse when the cat is stressed. Stress is caused by changes in the cat's environment, and the cat's tendency to become stressed over these changes differs from one cat to another.
    • Never punish the cat for aggressive behavior! Punishing the cat is likely to add to the stress and make the cat even more aggressive.
    • Consult an expert - Cat aggression can be a serious problem. If you feel that things are getting out of control, consult your veterinarian and ask her to refer you to a local cat behavior expert.
    • Medication - Your vet or an animal behaviorist may recommend drug therapy as a means of dealing with an aggressive cat, even when the problem is not caused by illness. This will usually complement a behavioral treatment program set up by an expert.


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  1. susan timlin
    I have a beautiful Orange and white Male, Manx cat. He is my first cat and he is just a wonderful cat. I have a lot to learn about cats as they are very different from dogs which is what I primarily owned. My husband did not want a cat but I got him anyways. Turns out, he loves him too. He however plays sort of rough with him. He thought that Finnegan liked his belly rubbed. He took his light biting as play. I told him his eyes and ears say "no" . He has adapted his pets to Finney and I believe the cat loves us both. I have gotten love bites from Finney but they are definitely "love bites" Gentle bites on the cheek with lots of purrs and rubs. He loves his chin and neck rubbed and I explained to my husband that he needs to approach him with a more gentle touch. He is not a dog but a sweet gentle kitty. Thank you so much for all the information you give. It has helped me so many times. Finney was abandoned as a kitty and was on the streets for a winter. He loves his home now and I am so grateful to have him.
  2. Parisburns
    I've had my indoor neutered female for a year and a half, we've recently moved house, she's really good when it comes to going to strange places. She comes for car drives and she's been to Cornwall for a holiday and she's always been fine with different environments. We got a kitten about 4 weeks ago, a female. Slowly introducing and for 2 weeks they had been playing/play fighting together and even grooming eachother. A week ago I heard my cats hissing at eachother and the older cat attacked my kitten (bite marks around the neck) I separated them and then the older cat kept yowling. Kept them separated and slowly introducing them again and they were playing upstairs. They were both deadly silent but I could hear noises from kids outside, the older cat started growling and went for the kitten again (the kitten was just sat there) I'm concerned my cat is scared and taking it out on the kitten as she's vulnerable. Please can anyone help me! I love them both to pieces and want them to get along again!!

    Thank you,
    Paris
  3. EmiCat458
    So I have two cats who both gave birth recently. One of my cats had five healthy kittens and the other had stillborns. She was really helpful with the other cat's kittens which I think she needed since she had lost all hers, but recently she hisses and growls at the other kittens whenever they walk near her... It's really concerning me I'm afraid she might hurt the kittens. Can someone help me?
  4. ScarletRain
    So my mom cat just had her first litter about 7 weeks ago, and shes starting to axt aggressive .She usually plays with the kittens softly, but about ten minutes ago she grabbed the runt by the inside of the neck, not the scruff, and wouldn't let go. The baby started crying and clawing at the mom and i had to pull her off .She is now sitting at the door mewing and putting her paws underneath the door clawing at whatever she can reach
  5. Arenee
    I need help. Tonight we got 4 foster kittens I always visit new kittens when we foster. I came in the room sat in the corner quiet and still eventually one of them approached me. I didn’t pet him or touch him just talked to him so he wouldn’t get overwealmed. He came near my face first he was licking my face and rubbing his head on my chin. All the sudden he stands up on my chest and latches his claws into my cheeks unprovoked. I though ok he’s trying to inspect me And my face. All the sudden he went from love bites on my nose to completly latching onto my face he started clawing at me all over my cheeks biting the tip of my nose and naustrals he latched onto my lip hard and refused to let go. This to me was an unprovoked attack. He showed no signs of fear. No flared up fur no fluffed up tail. No ears pointed backward. No growling hissing or dialated eyes. He was actually puring even as he latched into me. I didn’t feel he was at all scared he was brushing up against me. What could this be? Did I piss him off? Was he playing? To me drawing blood all over my face is not at all a love bite. This to me said I’m gunna bite you and I refuse to let go. It took me 10 minutes for me to pry him off of me it was extremely painful. I was yelling very loud to get him to let go. I was holding onto him while shaking my head. I tryed grabbing his paws that just made him bite down and claw harder. I felt his heartbeat and breathing he was breathing heavy and heart racing. I’m very worried does this cat have some sort of screw loose or is he just trying to bite things to explore and got scared. It’s been 3 hours And my face still hurts it’s 230am my family is asleep I’m at a loss what to I do that kitten scares me
  6. Sammoore97
    That was very helpful thank u
  7. Malek
    My 6-year-old male Persian was the most peaceful before we got him neutered, he wouldn't even hurt a fly. His howls stopped, but something in him changed and he began to scratch and bite whenever he's groomed or touched in certain places, whereas he never used to mind.
  8. marianc
    I have an adopted 5-yr-old tabby. After 2 weeks of bliss, she suddenly started biting and scratching me while I was petting her. I tried everything described in the article about dealing with biting from over-stimulation, which is what my vet said it was. None of it worked. I got a spray bottle to spray water on her when she clawed the carpet. When she bit me, I sprayed her in the face. She ran away and came back docile. It didn't make her more aggressive, as I'd read many places that it would. She now bites less and less. So there must be differing solutions to this problem.
  9. abby-kat
    Hey guys, Abby-Kat here. Ive been doing a lot of studying on cat's behavior and what I've come to learn is that if your cat doesn't like some one, it isn't anyone's fault. Everywhere we go we pick up that scent and if a cat doesn't recognize that scent, it can startle them. Lashing out is a very serious matter and should be handled as such.
    When you see your cat lashing out, remind the human it's attacking, to remain calm and to repeatedly talk gently while you, or another family member get the cat off of the person.
    Aggressive behavior is something we cannot fix, exactly, but keeping a hold on it is important. Try letting the cat's 'victim' give him/her treats and pet them.
  10. smokiesmama
    Smokie fits the aggressive pattern - but only towards me.  She follows me around - no matter what room I'm in - she's there.  She likes to cuddle at night in the bed and likes a little petting, but even some times later after I've stopped petting - for no reason - she attacks.  Last week as I was walking down the hall she came out of the guest room and managed to bite both ankles.   She goes to the vet regularly and he does everything to her - exams - shots,etc - and she sits in his arms and purrs, so how do I tell him she's got a screw loose!  But just like a mentally challenged child, you deal with them as best you can and keep loving them!
      Sam71690 purraised this.
  11. rossdavies1971
    Really enjoyed reading this article. Covered all the angles. I just had an experience of a cat bite and this article confirmed my thoughts exactly. My cay was just scared and my wife just did not read the signals correctly. (not that I dare tell her that!)
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