The average healthy cat adopted from a shelter is not aggressive and should not hurt you under normal circumstances. Some cats occasionally will bite or scratch at you when irritated or handled roughly. And some may act mean toward other cats in the house or the neighbors’ cats. But generally, the average healthy cat should not hurt you or others.
In this section you’ll get tips on how to curb aggressive behavior that’s directed toward both people and other cats.
Causes of Aggressive Behavior
There are several possible reasons for aggressive behavior.
- Lack of handling as a kitten: Frequent handling of a kitten is a very important part of bringing up a friendly and gentle cat. When a kitten is not handled much or at all, he can grow up disliking being touched and preferring to be left alone. Such a cat may resist handling with a nip or a slap with his paws. A big part of behavior problems with feral cats is the lack of human handling at a critical stage in the cat’s life.
- Mistreatment or abuse: If a cat or kitten is treated very roughly, to the point that it suffers pain and discomfort, he will learn to resist human contact.
- Illness or injury: ill or injured cats, like people, can be quite irritable and even hostile. Even an innocent touch can cause pain or discomfort. A thyroid problem is just one condition known to trigger aggressive behavior in cats. Take your cat to a veterinarian to determine whether your cat’s aggression is caused by being sick or injured.
- Rough handling or play
- Threatening or frightening situations: Cats are cautious creatures. Your cat may be frightened of something as obvious as a strange dog or as trivial as a slammed door. In either case, if you’re holding him when he bolts, he might scratch you trying to get away. If it’s an extremely frightening situation, he might even bite.
- Stressful living environment: A stressed cat is more likely to bite or scratch or, more often, become skittish. Stress can be caused by many different factors. Your home may not be large enough for your family and your cats. Or it may be too noisy—certain noise levels or sounds may trigger aggressive behavior. If your cat was accustomed to regular time outside and now stays indoors, this change can cause stress.
- Diet: Certain foods, malnutrition, and vitamin deficiencies can trigger aggression.
- Old age: Old cats sometimes get grumpy. As long as he’s not hurting anyone, let him growl or hiss.
- Declawing: Declawed cats often are quicker to bite. (See the information about declawed cats in “Special Considerations” below.)
- Lack of exercise
Aggressive Behavior Toward Humans
If your new kitten attacks you, it probably won’t hurt. But never encourage this behavior—you don’t want him to grow up thinking that climbing up people’s legs is acceptable behavior. If he attacks you when he’s an adult, it is definitely not cute. He must learn to attack only his own belongings.
CatBeGood does not address behavior in which a cat bites and draws blood or attacks with teeth and claws with intent to do serious harm. If the cat is and has been super-aggressive we recommend that you seek the help of a qualified behaviorist.
Sudden aggressive behavior could be due to abuse, a bad scare, or a medical problem. If his sudden aggression doesn’t subside in a few minutes, call the veterinarian. A cat that suddenly turns aggressive might be seriously sick or injured.
Dealing with Aggression
If he just growls or hisses, simply walk away. If he actually bites you or scratches, say “Ouch!” immediately, look and sound hurt even if it really didn’t hurt. Rub your bite and walk away.
If he’s a kitten and you’re confident that you won’t get hurt, pick him up and set him down pointing away from you. Walk away. If he persists in being aggressive, lock him in the bathroom for five minutes. Have a lure toy ready and start to play with him when you let him out if he’s still feisty.
Watch for his warning signs of anger or agitation. Pay attention to his posture so you will learn how he holds his ears and tail before he attacks. Watch his eyes and mouth. If you see an attack coming, try distracting him with a lure toy. Or push an “aggression toy” onto him. Give him something that he can kick and bite. Use a large fuzzy catnip toy or a stuffed animal sprayed with catnip. Or make your own: Stuff a tube of strong, snaggy fabric with polyester fiberfill and dried catnip. Sew the ends shut. It should be long enough for him to bite and kick at the same time. A terry-cloth sock works well.
Always handle your cat with care. Almost any cat will defend itself against rough handling. Even if your cat only scratches or bites in that situation, stop doing it. Rough play is not a good idea anyway. You want your cat calm and happy, not riled up. Don’t use your hands to play with your cat. Use a lure toy. When cats play, they use their teeth and claws.
If your cat becomes aggressive when he hears certain noises, avoid creating those noises when you’re around if possible. (One cat for example, couldn’t stand to hear her owner sing. The cat would bite the owner until the singing stopped.) However, at the same time, you’ll need to get the cat more used to human noise by playing music or television every day. Don’t let him always be in a quiet environment. He needs to be exposed to normal human sounds to get more used to living with them.
Add cat vitamin supplements to help alleviate moodiness. Watch his diet. Sometimes a specific food can cause allergic reactions that can lead to angry spells. Tuna, foods that contain yeast, and hormone-injected meats have been known to do that in some cats.
Other ways to alleviate stress and lessen aggression, are in Litter Box Problems.)
Keep his nails trimmed. Kittens’ claws are very sharp and will easily cut through your skin. Adult claws can do even more serious damage.
Do not hold a cat when he’s likely to be suddenly frightened, such as when meeting a new cat or dog, walking near an appliance that’s making noise, and so on.
If you get a kitten that’s really aggressive and doesn’t respond to training, take him back and get another. If your new adult cat is aggressive, consider returning him right away. Do not adopt a cat you think is dangerous.
Cats who live together also play together, often by pretending to fight. Just because they growl and tumble doesn’t mean they’re actually fighting. A serious cat fight has very quick movements, is very violent, includes high screeching sounds (not just howling), often produces blood from at least one cat, and doesn’t last long. Usually, tumbling and slower movements signify playing. (Generally, if either cat has a chance to walk away from the “cat fight,” then it’s not a true fight—they’re just playing or trying to act tough.)
If your cats have had fights that aren’t serious, and you would like them to get along with each other a little bit better and have more fun with each other, here are some things to do:
- While they are calm and relaxed, rub one cat and then the other. The scent from the first cat will linger on your hands. This helps get the cats more familiar with each other.
When a cat sees a strange cat outside the window, he may vent his aggressive feelings on another cat or even on you. It’s similar to when you have a problem with someone at work and you take it out on your husband. Just walk away from a cat that lashes out because he’s angry at something else. Go back to him later and give him attention. If he uses the scratching post, praise him right away. That’s where you want him to vent his anger.
- For one week, put a breakaway collar with a bell on the most aggressive cat. This warns a more timid cat that the bully is coming.
- During mealtimes, feed the most aggressive eater first. Don’t give him an additional excuse to fly off the handle.
- Cats will play by wrestling with each other. This could look like a real cat fight to someone who doesn’t know that’s how cats play. And they may howl and talk to each other as if it’s serious. But it probably isn’t. Just let them go on, they’re probably not going to hurt each other because if they really wanted to cause harm, the fight would be over within seconds. If you think the confrontation is growing more serious, disrupt it by waving a lure toy to get them engaged in playing. Occasionally throw a pillow near them. To further distract them, turn on loud music before getting the toy out. But usually you’ll be able to just laugh off “cat fights” because you don’t want to discourage interaction and play between cats. Laughing at cat fights is often a wonderful way to distract cats from getting too serious with each other.
- If one cat is being hurt and is crying out in pain, and if you know that you won’t get hurt, separate them. Pick up and comfort the cat being picked on. Ask him if he’s all right. Ignore the bully. Don’t say his name or make eye contact for a while. You may briefly sneer at the bully and say, “you bully!”, and then immediately return your attention back to the cat that was getting hurt to see if he’s okay. If he is okay then say, “You’re okay, next time stand up to that bully; I won’t always be around to defend you.”
- If a fight breaks out, tell them both to “Knock it off” in a serious voice. If it looks as if one of them might get really hurt, say nothing. Use a squirt bottle. Be careful not to squirt their heads. Try to prevent fights from escalating by stepping in sooner next time.
- If you have a real problem cat that is constantly bullying everyone, put him in a boarding kennel for a week. He’s likely to reflect on how good his life was before he “went on vacation.” When you bring him back home, confine him to a bathroom for another week. Allow him back into the household when the other cats are napping or are outside. Keep a bell on him for another week.
- If serious cat fights persist, consider finding another home for the bully. If he’s not declawed, look for a place where he can be outside, too.
Some indoor cats become agitated when they see a strange cat outside. Keep a scratching post near his favorite window. When he starts to heat up, direct him to the post. Instead of reprimanding him, tell him how brave he is for protecting the house. You may even want to place a cat bed near the window so he feels that he has an important job.
The most serious confrontations often occur when your cat is outside and unexpectedly encounters someone else’s cat. Most cats try to avoid a fight, but there are a few that want to pick a fight with everything they see. If they do start fighting, break it up with a spray bottle or squirt gun. Spray the water between the brawling cats. Avoid their heads and stay as far away from the action as you can. If the fight is serious, even direct hits of water won’t break it up. Keep your distance. When the fight is over, squirt at the strange cat until he’s out of the yard.
Never touch a strange cat, or your own cat, when he’s angry. Also, never use any part of your body to intervene—you could be seriously hurt. Keep your distance until things calm down. Even the most loving cat may not recognize you when he’s enraged. Don’t make too much of a first fight. Cats get used to each other, and they may actually start to hang out together.
An aggression problem with a declawed cat can take longer to turn around. You may have to accept more frequent biting and other aggressive behavior for a while. But he should improve over time. To help him learn:
- Offer your hands to him when you think he won’t bite. Rub his chin, but be careful; declawed cats can be moody and unpredictable. It may take several months before he learns to stop biting you (and he will learn, if he knows that you will never respond to his bites with violence or handle him roughly).
- When he bites you, say “Ouch!” and pull your hand away. If he doesn’t release your hand, push it into his mouth. This forces the cat to open his mouth and release you. —Let him hiss at other cats. If he hisses at you, walk away. If he hisses at you when you are outside, take him in immediately.
If You’re Still Having Troubles
If the ideas in this section don’t help enough with handling your cat’s aggression, you may need a professional cat behaviorist. A tranquilizer also may help a cat through a stressful period in his life. Ask your veterinarian about it, or consider a new home for him where he can spend more time outside.
What Not to Do about Aggression
If you are considering declawing and/or having his teeth pulled, please reconsider. A cat without claws or teeth will be more stressed and more trouble to care for than the average cat at your local animal shelter would be.
- Large catnip-filled stuffed toy (aggression toy)
- Industrial squirt bottle
- Cat vitamins
See Cat Resources.