Cat Aggression: Why Does My Cat Attack Me?
Part of the mystery of cats is their moody behavior. This is why we love them - we can identify with their mood swings, right? From sweet, affectionate and playful, to irritable and ill-tempered: we can see ourselves in cats. And when it comes to aggression, this is a trait we don’t like to see in ourselves, others, or our cats.
But just like people, aggression has its roots and meaning. And if you’re experiencing cat aggression, don’t feel alone. This is one of the most common problems experienced by cat parents. When we better understand the underlying reasons, the behavior becomes less scary and intimidating.
This first article in a two-part series will broadly introduce the topic of cat aggression. We’ll cover how it looks, offensive versus defensive behavior, and the most common type of cat aggression, and what to do about it. And the second article in this series will be a deep dive into other types of cat aggression, reasons for them, and possible solutions.
Remember: Your Cat is an Obligate Carnivore and a Predator!
Back in the day, before your cat’s bloodline was domesticated into the cute, cuddly, often misunderstood character they are today, they were straight-up hunters. In the wild, your cat relied on their fight or flight mechanism to avoid predators and catch their prey. They weren’t able to survive on passive plant matter, so they always had to be ready and willing to hunt and kill when the opportunity presented itself. And this behavior is still deep-rooted.
So aggression is natural and part of their wiring. Even kittens who grew up without a mother to teach them how to hunt will grow into adult cats with a hunting instinct.
What Does Cat Aggression Look Like?
Aggressive behavior can manifest in cats in many ways. Behaviors like: scratching, biting, hissing, growling, and shrieking. There is also behavior that comes before the actual act of aggression.
Being a good cat parent, like being a good human parent, means interpreting behavior and reacting to it with sensitivity and empathy. And knowing why your cat behaves this way will help you do that without taking it personally.
Why is Cat Aggression a Problem?
It is always unpleasant to be on the receiving end of aggression coming from anyone. And your cat is no exception. But worse yet, your cat’s aggression is telling you something. It’s an unhappy behavior that indicates that something is wrong.
Possible Health Problems
It could be your behavior, it could be your cat’s health or well-being. And if you can’t address it, whatever the issue is will get worse or go unaddressed, which could spell trouble later.
Several medical conditions could be contributing to your cat's aggression. For this reason, it is advisable to check in with your veterinarian if your cat's aggression problems become serious.
Discomfort from abscesses, arthritis, or dental disease could cause aggressive responses. Other serious concerns include toxoplasmosis, hyperthyroidism, epilepsy, rabies, and/or trauma.
Aging-Related Cat Aggression
Aging is also a consideration since sensory decline or cognitive dysfunction can change the way an elderly cat perceives their surroundings. What was once familiar is suddenly frightening and unpredictable. This can induce defensive aggressive responses to previously tolerated and predictable routines like cuddling and playing.
Just as your cat is aware that they are aging, it is your responsibility to be aware of this change and respond accordingly. A failure to make special considerations for an aging cat can potentially worsen the aggressive responses and ultimately the health of your cat.
Cat Scratch Fever and Infections
Furthermore, cat bites and scratches are no joke. The wounds inflicted on yourself or another cat or animal can become infected if left untreated. Cat scratch fever is a bacterial infection that can develop from these wounds. While symptoms are mostly flu-like if they appear at all, some rare and serious complications can come about.
Reading Your Cat’s Body Language
Over time you’ve come to understand many of your cat’s behaviors and yet aggression can still be sudden and mystifying. And this can be because you failed to read additional signs in their body language. Becoming more attuned to your cat's body language will help you anticipate aggressive responses and hopefully avoid stoking them altogether.
Cat Aggression: Is Defensive or Offensive?
Much of what your cat’s aggressive body language communicates comes from defensive or offensive intentions. When your cat is trying to make themselves look vicious and dangerous, they are issuing an offensive threat. These actions can include a direct stare and stiffened tail or rear legs, sometimes accompanied by hisses, growls, or shrieks.
On the other hand, defensive aggression prioritizes self-protection and comes with shrinking body language. Examples include tucking the head in, crouching, with the tail curved around the body, or tucked in.
Cat Play Aggression: The Most Common Type
Many cat parents have noted that their cats like to play with small prey they stalk and catch around the neighborhood, garden, or home. Indeed, many kittens learn to kill prey by ‘playing’ with insects and other small animals while their mother is teaching them to hunt.
When you watch elder cats managing the rough play of kittens, there is a well-defined behavioral authority, at once gentle and dominant. Granted, some adult cats have more patience than others. But for the most part, they will bare their claws and teeth, simulating attack without inflicting injury.
So when kittens or adult cats play with you, they may sometimes fully execute the attack without meaning deliberate harm. This is just roughhousing which would normally be swiftly corrected by another cat, either through aggression, tolerance, or something in between. As a human cat parent, it can be difficult to know how to navigate this space.
Cat Play Aggression Solutions
If you find that you are becoming your cat’s prey in the form of unprovoked attacks involving stalking and chasing, your cat may be trying to initiate play. And it is up to you to establish how to initiate play, to keep it energetic and rambunctious but unaggressive. This could also be an indicator that you need to play with your cat more often.
Cat Toys That Look Like Prey
Give your cat something other than your ankles to ambush. When you are rushing around the house, or fiddling at your desk, your feet are simulating the movement of scurrying prey. How can your cat resist?
Cat Toys are designed to look like natural feline prey for a reason. Bouncing Feather Mouse Toys give your cat a moving target to pounce on that is ideal for small spaces, as it suctions into place. The Windup Mouse Cat Toy is more autonomous and gives your cat the satisfaction of catching the mouse.
Play With Your Cat More Often
This is the go-to solution for many behavior-related cat issues. Even if you're busy, one-on-one, active play with your cat is as important as cuddles and feeding. However, if play-time has become stale, your cat could be acting out from boredom and agitation.
The Basics of Cat Aggression
We hope you've enjoyed this quick primer on cat aggression which we've split into two parts. Hopefully, you can now appreciate the difference between defensive and offensive types of aggression in your cat. And if play aggression has been an issue, you now have some tools to help.
Stay tuned for our second article about cat aggression, which will take a closer look at other reasons for aggression!
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2020) “Cat-scratch disease,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, [online] Available from: https://www.cdc.gov/healthypets/diseases/cat-scratch.html (Accessed 7 September 2021).
Hetts, Suzanne. (1999). Pet Behavior Protocols. Lakewood, CO: AAHA Press. (2021) “Aggression in cats,” ASPCA, [online] Available from: https://www.aspca.org/pet-care/cat-care/common-cat-behavior-issues/aggression-cats (Accessed 7 September 2021).
Jackson Galaxy (2021) 8 Types of Cat Aggression Explained!, Jackson Galaxy, [online] Available from: https://youtu.be/RS5aI8zdHAY (Accessed 7 September 2021).