Hines DVM PhD
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owners report that biting is the second most common behavioral
problem –second only to inappropriate urination. This is
because personality traits are as varied in cats as they are in
people. Early experiences have considerable bearing on later aggressive
behavior but genetic diversity is a greater cause of problem aggression.
Some cat owners just accept the unique temperaments of their pets
but others find aggressive behavior intolerable and search for
a cure. Unlike other personality quirks, aggressiveness can be
a real problem for owners and other pets alike. Cat bites hurt
and can lead to infections.
And Adult Aggressive Play Acting
Although we keep them as pets, Nature designed cats to use their
claws and teeth to defend themselves and to hunt. Even the most
finicky gourmet feline still has these natural urges to lay in wait,
stalk and pounce. They derive great joy in attacking feet, sleeping
owners and unwary birds alike. Cats love to explore, stalk anything
that moves, and bat and pounce on small objects that they pretend
to be prey. This activity is most pronounced in kittens during their
learning period but many adult cats still love to play hunt. If
you encourage this activity rest assured that it will eventually
get out of hand. Kittens that play attack one another quickly learn
the limits of biting and scratching. Their playmates bite back when
play gets too rough. But kittens adopted out at an early age transfer
the activity to their owners who don’t always let them know
when they have gone too far rough housing. Play aggression is easy
to recognize by the exaggerated postures that cats assume. They
crouch, flatten their ears, their pupils dilate and their tail swishes
back and forth while they stalk or pounce at the owner. Some cats
remain “kittens” in this respect well into their adult
As cute as it may seem at first, do not encourage rough play, scratching
and biting. Be sure this is a rule for all family members and not
just some. You can put a bell on the kitten’s collar so you
know where he is at and you can deny him his favorite pouncing places.
You can also clap your hands or use a loud noise when you see him
begin to stalk you. Some of my clients make a rattle from a tin
can full of pennies and shake it to startle the kitten and redirect
its attention. The problem with using startling techniques it that
they tend to make the kitten shy. I prefer to simply not encourage
the behavior and wait for them to grow out of it.
Problem: aggressive cat bite scratch behavior
I have owned cats that have been intensely territorial - even more
so than dogs. In the wild cats are solitary hunters, each with its
own separate territory. Territory-based aggression usually begins
when cats are about a year or two old. Cats that go out of doors
often become intensely possessive of the area surrounding their
home. They let out a very distinctive cry if another cat should
venture into their space but usually ignore strange dogs, other
animals and people. Cats can become extremely upset over these incidents
and may transfer their pent up aggression to other housepet or their
owners. It may take them a half a day to calm down.
territory-based aggression occurs within the home, cats hiss, spit
and growl at their housemates. When outright attacks occur the aggressor
or dominant cat will be the one that jumps at another cats rear
lumbar area. When wounds occur they are on the tail and loins of
the more submissive cats and on the face of the aggressor. Cats
in this situation often urine spray mark the house to reassert their
cues that cats give to one another can be very subtle. Cats that
live harmoniously with one another have learned to live with smaller
territories – such as a favorite room – or through sharing
space at different times of day. Generally, only one cat will be
on a prized object such as a sofa at one time. Sharing is very precarious
for cats so anything that disturbs the situation can lead to aggression
and fights. A new apartment, new furniture or even moving a sofa
or bed may lead to turf arguments. Adding a new cat to the household
always causes stress and battles over turf and authority. When we
are lucky, the cats work these arguments out over a period of months.
disputes among cats can develop gradually in the home. The most
assertive cat in the household gradually begins to guard favorite
objects and space and threaten or attack lesser-ranked cats in the
house. Depending on the temperaments of the lesser cats, they may
make concessions and cease to frequent a given area or only use
it when the dominant cat is away. In these situations any of the
cats may begin hiding, urine spraying, excessive licking and grooming
or other stress related activity.
When you add a new cat to the household introduce it to your other
cats in stages. Start with the new cat in a separate room in a carrier
for a week or two. Enough scent from the new cat will permeate the
house for your other pets to know it is there. Later, release the
cat but keep it closed off in its room. When you do introduce the
cats to one another do it for short supervised periods. Only when
you are sure that you have control of the situation should you allow
the cats to mix with one another. Even then, remember that it may
take up to a year for the cats to fully adjust to a new member of
the family. Give each cat a food treat to encourage good behavior.
cats get into a fight separate them with gloves or a bath towel
or blanket. If you were scratched or bitten scrub out the wound
until it stings from the water and then soak it in alcohol for as
long as you can tolerate. Take the separated cats to separate rooms
to calm down. If you are coming back with a cat from the groomers
or the vet leave them in the carrier for an hour before you release
never works in curbing aggression in cats. It simply makes the problem
worse. Your cat will become fearful or turn its resentment toward
you and the other cats. Instead, simply withdraw your affection
as soon as an incident occurs. Cats quickly learn that life suddenly
got more boring after they became aggressive.
the exception of hunting activity and maternal protectiveness, facial
pheromones can be very helpful in calming cats. Pheromones seem
to have a calming effect on cats and encourage a mellow, friendly
attitude. Synthetic facial pheromone is sold under the trade name
Feliway. It is marketed to discourage urine spraying but might be
useful in managing aggression as well. Be careful not to spray it on the
cat because the product contains alcohol. Instead, spray it on a
folded sheet of Kleenex and rub it on the sides of the head and
back of the cat once the tissue is no longer damp (However, a 2017 study did not find Feliway-type products very helpful in combating stress in cat shelter situations [ref])
sure your cat(s) have plenty of scratching posts to sink their claws
into and plenty of stuffed toys to attack.aggression
the toe nails of your cat clipped short. File them with an emory
board if the cat will let you.
patient. Improvement takes time. A good way to socialize with your
cat is by brushing it down with a slicker comb. Be happy with small
successes and don’t push the cat too much. Try to read the
signals and body language that your cat is giving you before things
get out of hand.
Toward Humans a
Cats that threaten their owners usually have star-crossed beginnings.
If they were not adequately handled, petted and socialized when
they were between five and twelve weeks of age they may grow up
to be fearful, wary of people or easily upset and angered.
that are frightened assume a characteristic position. They crouch
with their ears laid back, their tails curled inward and they tilt
their bodies away from the perceived threat. They will likely lash
out and claw or bite anything that approaches them. This behavior
often occurs when the cat is in new surroundings or being approached
by a stranger. The cat’s eyes often dilate and they may hiss
and show their teeth. Their hair may stand on end.
Begin to correct the problem as soon as it first occurs. Do not
wait until the behavior is ingrained in the cat’s personality.
The best time to get cats used to owners, strangers and children
is when they are still kittens. Take time to get kittens used to
being touched everywhere and introduce them to dogs and other cats
while they are still young.
accustom a cat to be touched, begin when the cat is relaxed and
content. Start off scratching and rubbing its head. Make no sudden
moves. Progress to stroking its back and the base of the tail. Talk
to the cat while you are doing this and watch for any signs that
the cat is becoming agitated. Finish this short lesson with a food
treat. Eventually the cat will enjoy being touched and handled.
aggressiveness in adult cats present a much harder problem. When
they feel threatened by strangers or a new owner it takes much longer
to overcome the problem. Let the cat get hungry and then have the
person hold the cat’s favorite treat. Do not let the person
approach the cat. Let the cat overcome its fear and approach the
person on its own terms to develop confidence and trust. If the
cat is too shy to approach have a member of the family with whom
the cat has a good relationship give the treat while the second
person is in the house. Over a series of weeks the visitor can be
closer and closer when the treat is offered.
Redirected aggression is a phenomenon I see frequently in cats and
parrots. In this situation a strange person or animal upsets the
cat. But instead of showing aggression toward this new individual
the cat turns its wrath on the pet owner(s) or another pet. We see
the same event occurring in marriages when an agitated wife or husband
takes out his or her frustration on their spouse.
When redirected aggression occurs it can destroy the bonds between
cat and cat and cat and owner that took years to establish. Sometimes
it is not more than a stray cat passing by the window that sets
of such a confrontation. If a lower ranking cat becomes the object
of redirected aggression it may defend itself, leading to a serious
First try to decide what the stimulus was for the aggression and
remove it. Lower the blinds on the window if a stray cat has approached
and shoo it away. If the aggression is directed at you leave the
cat alone until it calms down. Do not punish or yell at the cat.
If the cat is being aggressive with housemates place each cat in
a separate closed room. Turn off the lights in the rooms. Interactions
with a cat during this problem are counterproductive. If the cat
is highly agitated it is best to wrap it in a beach towel when handling
it. Calm your pet and praise it. Once the agitated cat has calmed
down, reintroduce the cats slowly. Place them far apart in a room
and stroke and praise each one. A food treat comes in very handy
in these situations. Remember, even faint smells of another cat
can trigger redirected aggression. That is why cats returning from
the animal hospital are sometimes attacked by their housemates.
Due to Medical Problems
If it is unclear why your cat has suddenly become aggressive the
first thing to do is to take it to see a veterinarian whom you trust.
Be very cautious placing these cats in carriers and under no circumstance
bring the pet to the veterinarian without a carrier. If a thorough
physical exam does not indicate a problem an X-ray might. In some
cats arthritis of the spine or limbs is the root problem. These
cats will often growl and hiss when picked up or handled. Other
cats develop neurological conditions that lead to sudden intense
pain. I call these sudden twinges of pain “ghost pains”.
Often it is the spine and tail that seem affected. The skin over
the spine of these cats may ripple during an episode.
Solution: aggressive cat bite scratch behavior
When arthritis is the cause of aggressive behavior I often try the
cat on aspirin therapy at 4-8mg/pound. Unfortunately I have found
that less than half the cats can tolerate aspirin even when it is
only given every second or third day. Cats do handle chondrotin
and glucosamine anti-arthritis supplements well and in a few cases
these drugs are effective. We do not know why cats develop ghost
pains but they often disappear when the cat is placed on birth control
medications such as medroxyprogesterone acetate (Depopovera). Some
of these cases may be a form of epilepsy. When I suspect this I
place them on a trial dosage of phenobarbital, a drug used to control
epilepsy. Still other cases turn out to have the “dry”
form of feline infectious peritonitis, a chronic and terminal disease
caused by a coronavirus. I have heard that cats with severe dental
disease can show personality changes but I have never encountered
Occasionally in multi-cat households removing a cat for a period
of time leads to aggression on the part of cats that remained in
the household. The cats at issue are often returning from the veterinarian,
groomer or boarding cattery with strange odors still lingering on
them. With out the “right” odor the other cats do not
recognize these cats as the same animal that left. If the cats get
into a fight their relationships can take a long time to repair.scratch
If you do take your cats to the groomer or veterinarian take them
all along for the ride in separate kennels. Place the kennels side
by side until late in the evening before releasing the cats and
try to release them in a neutral area that the cats rarely frequent.
Feeding each cat a pungent canned treat before releasing him or
her also helps. Some of my clients mist feline pheromone spray into
the air these situations.
Cats that seem immensely pleased by your petting only to suddenly
whirl around and bite you have always perplexed me. These cats purr
up to the moment they attack. Some say that this is due to the cat’s
short attention span. That there is a fine line between what is
pleasurable and what is annoying. Others think these displays occur
when a sensitive area on the body has been touched. Some cats will
beg for attention only to sink their teeth into you a few minutes
Release your cat at the first sign it has had enough petting. Some
signs that you are approaching the limits of the cat’s tolerance
are restlessness, tail twitching, flattened ears, twitching ears
and a tendency to move its head toward your hand. One can attempt
to deprogram these cats by feeding them a tasty treat just before
you think they might attack. But I have found no solution for the
Dr. Jekel and Mr. Hyde cats whose tempers turn on a dime. I just
accept their idiosyncrasies and sterilize the cuts and scratches
with iodine and alcohol.
A few cats treat owners like another cat in the household and attempt
to dominate them in a peck order or hierarchy. These cats may growl
or hiss when you join them on the bed or attempt to move them. Some
will block doorways and show the typical signs of aggression such
as tail switching, dilated pupils, flattened ears, and hissing and
spitting. Signs of aggression between cats are often subtle. Some
owners misread the maneuvers of these cats as simple play. Cats
that are not dominant in these situations often loose their potty
training and look unkempt. Generally dominant cats are cats that
are highly territorial as well. Cats do not reach social maturity
until they are about two years old so sometimes this problem can
be late in occurring.
The best way to handle these cats is to withhold love, attention
and treats until the cat is mellow and relaxed. Relaxed cats carry
their tails and head high. They stand high on their paws with small
eye pupils and a portion of the third eyelid showing. Punishment
only makes the problem worse. The use of pheromone mist around the
house can be very helpful as can food treats given at just the right
All mother cats are very protective of their kittens and may react
violently if they perceive a threat to the kittens. Some queens
react by moving their kittens around restlessly when they perceive
a threat. Others may attack people, other cats and dogs that they
normally trust or ignore.
Disturb cats with young kittens as little as possible. Aggressive
behavior will subside as the kittens grow older. Let your cat give
birth in a low-stress environment without foot traffic or the presence
of other cats. If you must handle nursing mothers put a little tuna
juice on your hand first. Better yet, spay your cats.
First off, shame on you for letting your cat outdoors unsupervised.
Cats have a normal urge to kill small prey, be it wild birds and
rodents or the pet canary. It is unrealistic to expect them to change.
A cat on the prowl looks like a miniature tiger stalking its prey.
Keeping your cat indoors solves most of these problems. If you have
indoor pocket pets be sure they are out of reach of your cat. Never
assume that because your cat usually shows fondness for a small
animal or bird that it will not one day treat it like prey.
you can anticipate short periods of stress in your cats diazepam
(Valium) is a very useful medication. With time, cats become resistant to the effect of
diazepam so it is often only useful for periods of a few weeks at a time. Acepromazine
tranquilizers also work well.
have found that the antihistamine, cyproheptadine (Periactin) has
a prozac-like effect in cats. This drug can be given for long periods of time with no apparent
side effects. Cats that are truly emotionally dysfunctional might benefit from
amytriptyline (Elavil) or fluoxetine (Prozac).
I have not put enough cats on these medications to give you first
hand experience with these drugs.
...........................Nothing seems to be helping ? Consider a home cooked diet