Jane Ehrlich examines some of the many types of feline aggression, one of the most
common behavior problems in cats, and tries to shed some light on this complex issue. This article was first published in BARKS from the Guild, March 2015, pages 24-28.
Inter-cat aggression is one of the most commonly reported behavior problems by cat owners, second only to feline marking behaviors such as urine spraying and middening (Magnus, Appleby & Bailey, 1998; Overall, 1997). The only cat owners likely to have not experienced this often convoluted issue are either those who have never had more than one cat at a time, or never shared their lives with a solitary cat who likes to roam the neighborhood.
There are several distinct kinds of aggression in cats and, until you figure out the type being displayed, it can be hard to stop it. The good news is: you can. In the meantime though it is quite possible that you, your cat, another cat, or all three might get hurt. Cat bites and scratches can be incredibly painful, with both human and feline potentially requiring medical intervention. So the more you know about why the skirmish is happening, the better you can manage the situation. Several of the most common types of aggression (and they can overlap) include:
Redirected Aggression: This one is easy to spot. The cat is looking out the window, sees a bird or cat he cannot get at, reacts, you happen to be near, and he goes after you. Chomp. Scratch. Or, he wants to pick a fight with your other cat or dog, you intervene and… you get it. Suggestion: if Noodles is reacting to outside cats, which is a perfectly normal response, block his view of the other feline interlopers. Cardboard and foil taped to windows (as high as the cat can stretch upward) are aesthetically unappealing, true, so consider translucent sheeting that sticks on merely with static at DIY stores. Make sure you do not approach Noodles when his ire is up. Let him cool down first.
Petting-Induced Aggression: This is your own fault, you know. Different cats have different thresholds for physical affection. Noodles does give a warning, when he has had enough. Watch his body language. The important word here is ‘beginning.’ His body begins to tense, fur begins to ruffle, tail begins to switch, pupils begin to dilate, ears begin to flatten. See? These are the signs. Stop petting immediately. Let him cool down. To lengthen the time he stays on your lap to be petted, give one more stroke each time. If he remains, treat. Love through the stomach. The jury is out about just why cats react so quickly and negatively to petting a little too long. Some feel that cats get lulled into a state of relaxation and their guard is down—then, when consciousness rears its head, the fight-or-fight response kicks in. It has also been suggested that seeing a hand come over the head alerts the survival response, and, jerked from his lull, the cat hits out. This alone is a good reason to learn just where Noodles wants to be petted—and how—not where and how you want to pet him.
Pain-Induced Aggression: I am not referring to the obvious: a pulled tail or a human foot accidentally stepping on her. I mean that you may not recognize a sore spot, say, on the spine. Gracie hurt herself or developed arthritis and you were unaware. Now when you touch an affected part of her body, she nips or scratches you. It is a new response. When it is in the same place, a particular spot, see the vet. It is not only crucial to identify underlying issues that a painful spot may indicate but it shows you what areas to avoid. Handling a cat all over, frequently and gently, might raise her threshold for pain-aggression and will certainly calm her during nail-trims, mouth- and ear-searches.
Play Aggression (Towards Another Cat): What is the difference between play-aggression and real fighting? In play, the claws are not out, there is no – or very little – vocalizing, nobody is running away and both cats take time-outs to reposition themselves before the next launch. When cats play-fight they part easily. The action is over, someone saunters or zips off, and there is no residual tension in the air. Play-fighting is more than healthy, it is how cats learn. This is how they find out this hard a bite means fun; that hard a bite means not good. How to capture prey. A way of judging the character of the other guy. If it looks like it is getting out of hand, quietly intervene – not by picking up one of the cats but by ‘breaking the script.’ So calmly put a piece of cardboard or similar between them and gently usher one cat away to cool off for five-seven minutes but not longer. It goes without saying we should never use punishment. Reward the good behavior and try to ignore the bad.
Play Aggression (Towards a Person): Humans are also prey. Cats may go for the ankles, fingers, eyes, toes – or anything in between. Pounce! Dash out from around corners! In bed! Ouch! Sometimes Truffles arches her back and hops sideways, especially when she is young. Perhaps her mom and siblings were not around, for various reasons, to teach her that this hard a bite is fun; that hard a bite is not. Either way, chances are Truffles is an only cat. So stop the rough-play yourself, get a second cat because Truffles is bored out of her lovely little mind, and make sure she gets real interactive play (with a pole toy) several times a day for at least 20 minutes each time as well. This will enable her to get out that oh-so-natural energy in a positive way.
Inter-Male Aggression: This one is number two on the feline aggression hit parade. As males behaviorally and sexually mature, they challenge each other. You see posturing, depending on your boy’s precocity, from the age of eight months, when he is no longer a kitten but a teenager, through a year, two, or even a bit longer. You suddenly realize Little Bits is not as subservient as he was yesterday. Instead he bats back, does not scoot from the room just because HereFirst sauntered in. A growl escapes if he is threatened, meaning ‘Why on earth should I be the one to move?’ The response to this growing phenomenon is interesting: Does HereFirst fight back? Or, in the depths of his feline soul, does he fight back and do his gesturing? Or, depending upon his age, does he eventually give in to the role change? If he elects not to, then it can become a real problem.
This is particularly common during the breeding period. Posturing, threatening and fighting. Hissing and growling. Aggressive interactions between boy cats often include elements of territorial aggression as well. Neutering helps hugely but neither the fighting experience nor the cats’ ages affect the success of castration. Owners should ensure there is a lot of in-home territory, vertical as well as horizontal (tall perches in front of windows, for distraction, stimulation, safety and that crucial environmental control: the ability to see who is where, when). The cats should be rewarded when they both display calm behavior. We are not looking for love letters in the sand here as much as toleration. Remember the underlying theme: ‘Good Things Happen in Each Other’s Presence’. Scent-swap. Also, Feliway plug-ins may calm the environment. If so, spritz a little on each cat’s collar. Sometimes temporary low-dose medication is useful. Occasionally, when withdrawn, the cat may become aggressive again. At other times, however, that toleration behavior is imprinted well enough.
Fear-Based Aggression (Defensive Aggression): When a cat sees someone or something she sees as a threat, the three responses tend to be freeze or fight until escape is possible—in which case, flee. Defensive behavior all around. We have all seen the signals: dilated pupils, flattened ears, tucked-under limbs, low body position, leaning away from the stimulus, batting, clawing, hissing, spitting, growling. If Noodle’s aggression then drives off that fear-eliciting stimulus, her response is negatively reinforced. Credit or blame both genetic and environmental influences. Some cats are born with cautious personalities, particularly kittens born of feral parents. Those poorly socialized during the first few months are often fearful of people and behave aggressively when approached or handled. Of course, cats who have had negative experiences with people or other animals may also become fearful, evasive and aggressive—and have every reason to.
What can help? Sometimes a gradual, controlled exposure to stimuli that trigger such responses can successfully treat cats who are afraid of people or other animals. Repeatedly expose the cat to that stimulus at a distance from which she is aware but not close enough to show fear. Truffles should be given a hugely desirable reinforcer, such as her favorite gourmet food, whenever she sees the stimulus. Slowly, over weeks to months, the stimulus is gradually brought closer to the pet. In other words, trust-building.
Food is a great means to overcome fear if special treats are withheld at other times. Offer treats when the cat is just far enough from the fear-eliciting stimulus to feel relaxed. For example, if the fear-creating stimulus is a man, a man should approach within 15 feet of the cat or whatever distance the cat can tolerate without eliciting a fear response. Alternatively, have the man sit on the sofa not looking at Truffles and gently toss a treat in her general direction. If she shows no anxiety, then treat. If she does, increase the distance. Gradually he approaches a wee bit closer and so on. The biggest truth? In all cases, no matter how much (or even how little) ’better’ the cat becomes, it is a matter of accepting who she is and what she can comfortably tolerate.
Maternal Aggression: This one is not written up as frequently but it is more common than one might think. My own Grace is a perfect example—that is why she was made available for me to rehome as a matter of fact. Normally gentle and sociable with other cats, she became very aggressive to cats of both sexes, fixed or not, not only while she was pregnant but also while her kittens were nursing and, of course, dependent upon her. From being the queen bee she became a loner, distrusted by the half-dozen former cat-friends around her. Some of the humans were not exactly on her affectionate side, either.
Some queens, typically friendly to people, may be overly protective of their kittens and aggressive in the presence of human intruders. This behavior typically subsides as the kittens become older. Occasionally, just occasionally, it does not disappear, and the distrust remains, especially if the human(s) were unwittingly too intrusive.
Hormones, hormones, but even when the mother situation passes, other cats remember…
Because maternal aggression does not generally last all that long, avoiding the queen may be the wisest action. There truly needs to be more than adequate socializing of the females when they are young. If you have an older cat, lots of gentle handling and hand-feeding a queen starting a little at a time and increasing daily from the beginning throughout her pregnancy and after the kittens are born can definitely help. It is also a matter of reading her body language. Again, the operative word is ‘beginning’ to be defensive. Back off. In Grace’s case, she removed herself from the other cats, who in any case left her alone after her negative responses. In some cases, it may be up to the human to gently guide the cantankerous queen into a cozy room for the duration. However, I would advise that only if the situation becomes untenable and Queenie is truly unhappy.
Territorial Aggression: It is crucial to help maintain area resources for the resident or that resident social grouping. That acute awareness of territory keeps out interlopers and keeps survivors surviving. Territorial aggression is particularly noticeable in male cats during breeding season. Spoiler alert: Despite what books can intimate, I have seen with my own clients that, even when boys and girls are fixed, there still are hormones and they still can be heightened.
However, it is worth noting that territorial aggression usually does not involve the threat rituals one sees in inter-male aggression.
A territorial problem can happen when a new cat is brought into the home and the resident cat becomes aggressive toward him. Our cat focuses intently on him and may either stalk or else immediately pounce upon the newcomer. A territorially aggressive cat acts bolder and approaches or lunges at a visitor instead of shying defensively away, as with fear aggression. A fearful cat growls and hisses from a hiding place at distance and only bites if approached.
Things can get relentless. That is why we have slow introductions—to help avoid this sort of thing. When I still hear, ‘Put them together and let them fight it out,’ I almost want to bop someone. The new cat, understandably defensive, then hisses and growls and there you have it – more problems.
This can also happen when you bring Noodles back home from a vet or groomer visit. If he smells differently from when he left the house, his fur-mate may show signs of territorial (or fear) aggression until she recognizes her roommate, which may take a few hours to several days or more. Wait—they used to be friends, yes? They have eyes, yes? Well, yes, but I believe that scent comes a few split-seconds before sight (and logic) does. Guess which the cat will trust first.
Treatment is the same as for territorial aggression related to introducing a new pet. The cats need to be able to see each other at a distance yet remain calm. Feliway plug-ins can be helpful too. In my experience these work on the majority of cats but we do not know why some cats are affected and others not. Another commonly touted but bad idea is to put one cat in a crate while the other one wanders around him. This still crops up from time to time, unfortunately. This is not only old-school thinking, it is ridiculous. Cats need that crucial sense of control—which is exactly what you are taking away from him. A thousand times, ‘no’!
In the end, what is the moral to this whole story? The more you learn about your cat’s body language, particularly when it comes to whiskers, posture, ears and eyes, the better you can understand what is going through his or her head in any given stressful situation. The mystery is not going anywhere.