Many cat owners have had the unpleasant experience of their normally sweet and cuddly cat turning into an aggressive tiger when they least expect it. It could consist of their pet severely biting them, or could be as simple as hissing and swatting at the owner when they attempt to pet the cat. To correct and prevent aggressive episodes, first, figure out the trigger. Below are some of the most common reasons cats turn on their owners–and tips on what to do about them.
Redirected Aggression in Cats
What Happens:Something riles your cat, such as a fight or a strange cat glimpsed from the windowsill. When you attempt to calm her down or move her away from the situation, she lashes out at you.
What You Can Do: Never try to break up a cat fight, and steer clear of a cat that seems upset, is flicking her tail, or has her ears laid back. That’s a signal she is likely to pounce, scratch, or bite. A cat can stay agitated for several hours, so give her chill time: Close the blinds to darken the room, and leave her alone. When she’s ready to interact, she will go back to being her normal charming self, including eating and using the litterbox. No matter what happens, don’t punish her. That can make the cat even more aggressive.
Fear Aggression in Cats
What Happens: A cat may lash out if they feel cornered (you reach under the couch to pull him out) or threatened (you yell or swat at him when he jumps on the counter).
What You Can Do:Recognize what makes your cat fearful and prevent those scenarios. If you can’t prevent them, leave him where they feel safe. If you must get your cat out of their favorite hiding place, for example, give them time, and rather than reaching for them, coax them with treats, toys, and words.
Alpha Aggression in Cats
What Happens: Bossy cats bite their owners to get attention or to announce they’ve had enough petting or playing.
What You Can Do: Teach your cat that you’re in charge. Never reward her domineering or attention-getting behavior; instead, discourage it by ignoring her (cats, like people, hate to be snubbed). Keep petting sessions brief and on your terms. Invite her onto your lap, don’t restrain her, and end the session before her mood changes (for example, if she starts flicking her tail). Give her a treat or a toy as a reward, and slowly lengthen the petting sessions as she builds tolerance.
Hey, I Was Just Playing!
While some cats love to roughhouse, vocal warnings like hissing, growling, and spitting are never playful behaviors. You can also determine when a cat is being aggressive–not just overly playful–by reading his body language. A potentially violent cat will flatten his ears, puff up his body, twitch his tail, look at you with a sideways glance, or bare his teeth. Faced with a cat in such circumstances, “my preference is to exit stage right,” says Nicholas Dodman, BVMS, director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine and author of If Only They Could Speak.
When There’s More to the Problem
The root of your cat’s hostility may be physical. “There’s a whole slew of medical causes that could trigger aggression,” says Dodman. The success of the treatment often depends on the trigger. “If your cat is irritable because of an overactive thyroid or an infection, he may well be restored to normal with medication,” says Dodman. “Even some behavioral problems can be managed with mood-stabilizing medicines like BuSpar and Prozac.” In other words, check with your vet.
New Kitten Do’s and Don’t
Prevent a curious kitty from growing up into an aggressive cat by sending consistent messages about what’s acceptable behavior from the moment you bring him home.
- Provide appropriate toys that let your kitten stalk, hide, and pounce on his “prey”
- Offer a scratching outlet with a cat tree or scratching pads
- Spray your kitten with water whenever he bites or does something that’s unacceptable
- Consider getting another kitten as a playmate
- Hold your kitten on his back so he feels defenseless
- Use any body parts, such as your fingers or toes, as toys
- Let him wrap his claws around your finger or scratch you
- Tolerate his teeth touching your skin, no matter how soft the bite
- Send mixed messages by letting your kitten break your rules