As a veterinarian, one question I am asked fairly frequently is how to deal with biting or scratching behaviours in cats. Let’s face it: feline aggression can be a complicated, upsetting and potentially dangerous problem for cat owners. Cat bites and scratches HURT and can expose humans to blood parasites, such as Mycoplasma haemofelis. Furthermore, a stressed or fractious cat is more susceptible to stress related conditions, such as litter box problems or upper respiratory infections.
Feline aggression is often not well understood or handled correctly. At risk of escalating the aggression or breaking trust with your cat, never hit or ‘punish’ a biting or scratching cat. It is important to note that your cat isn’t ‘being bad’, your cat is stressed, over-stimulated, or afraid. By knowing why a cat lashes out, a cat lover can learn to overcome the problem and restore peace in the household. There are basically 5 types of aggression in cats.
When a cat is afraid, that cat will have one of three responses: freeze, run away, or fight. Signs that your biting cat may be afraid include crouching with tail and legs tucked under him, hissing and baring teeth, flattened ears, dilated pupils and fur standing on end. Oftentimes, a child, a household cat bully, or a dog can elicit fear aggression in scaredy cat. Part of the solution is identifying the thing your cat is afraid of, and then avoiding that trigger if possible. Give your cat plenty of elevated places where he or she can get away and hide: the top of a fridge, a cat tree hiding hole, or elevated shelving are perfect areas for your cat to hide. If you have young children that are scaring the cat, teach the kiddos how to properly handle the cat, and do not leave your child unattended with a fear aggressive animal. Your veterinarian is an excellent resource on more strategies to help a fearful cat.
Cats that are painful can be fearful or aggressive because they don’t feel well. They don’t want to be touched! For example, medical conditions that could potentially cause pain and aggression include arthritis, hormonal disorders, injuries or infections. Reducing pain often reduces aggression in these kitties.
Aggression due to overstimulation occurs when a highly reactive cat claws or bites during petting or play sessions. Somalis, Abyssinians, Chinchilla, Russian Blue, calicos and tortoise-shells seem particularly affected. Avoid this type of aggression by watching your cat’s body language: when the tail or skin along the back starts twitching, stop playing or petting. If your cat grabs you, remain calm and don’t move - a reactive cat will usually let go quickly. Reactive cats tend to do best with petting and scratching only around the head and ears.
This type of aggression is most typical of kittens and juvenile cats. It is just that: PLAY! Cats may crawl, stalk, lash their tails, or crouch like a cougar, just waiting to pounce on your pant legs as you walk by. This is a normal behaviour of young cats and kittens.
If your kitten is exhibiting this behaviour, this is a sign that your cat needs more play! Feathered fishing poles, play sessions with a laser pointer (that has a tangible food reward) can help your cat burn off that nervous energy. If you don’t have time for more play, then get some remote play toys, like that tail ball that rolls around.
You can save your legs by fitting your cat with a breakaway bell collar. That way you know where the little lion is at all times! Keeping nails trimmed at home also decreases the scratch factor, not only on you, but on your furniture.
In this type of aggression, a cat becomes aroused by one stimulus, and then attacks something completely different. For example, if your cat sees a rival cat out in the yard, then your cat may attack you or another pet that is nearby. Typically, these cats will be focused on something, pacing, growling, have dilated pupils, or lash their tail. Determining the trigger and barring your cat’s exposure to it, and avoiding this cat until he or she has calmed down is the best strategy. If the stimulus is an outside cat or local wildlife, utilize double sided tape or window blinds to bar access to windows, or try motion-activated sprinklers to discourage animals from entering the yard. Over-stimulated cats can be confined to a time out in a darkened, quiet room that has food, water, and a litter box to help them calm down.