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There are many different reasons why cats can be aggressive towards their owner or other people. To be able to successfully treat the problem, it's essential to work out what the underlying cause, or trigger, is. To do this, we highly recommend that you consult with a qualified veterinary behaviourist (your local vet can refer you). They will ask you lots of questions and may also visit you in your house so they can observe the cat in its own environment and its interactions with you and any other members of the household.
Medical conditions can cause aggression so it is important to rule out any underlying medical causes prior to addressing behavioural causes for aggression. Neurological disease, liver disease, pain-inducing disease e.g. arthritis and hormone imbalances can cause aggression.
This article provides some basic advice about seven common types of aggression in cats and how to deal with them:
1. Patting aggression
In patting-induced aggression, the cat will not approach the victim to attack, and does not generally actively avoid people, as the 'fear aggressive' cat does. Instead, it becomes aggressive at some point after it has been patted for a while. Typically, aggression occurs sooner and is more intense if the person has initiated the patting, e.g. by picking the cat up and putting them in their lap, than if the cat initiated the petting. However, petting-induced aggression can occur in both situations.
Some cats do not tolerate being patted for a long period. In these cases the cat tends to be very content while being patted initially, then suddenly it attacks the person, jumps down, runs a short distance, sits, grooms, with pupils dilated.
2. Fear aggression
Cats usually display fear aggression when they feel threatened, especially when cornered. Initially the cat tends to show defensive body language and will attempt to avoid the person they are afraid of, but when cornered they may become quite aggressive. Ears will generally be turned back, and the tail and body lowered, but the teeth will be displayed and hissing or growling may occur. Cats with fear aggression generally do not approach the victim. This problem can occur at any age.
Causes of fear aggression include a lack of socialisation, genetic predisposition and a cat’s general personality. Inappropriate human-cat interactions, such as a history of punishment, can also influence the development of fear aggression.
3. Redirected aggression
Redirected aggression occurs when a human attempts to handle a cat that is aroused by something unrelated to the person, e.g., the dog has been chasing the cat or the cat is fighting with another cat. Typically, redirected aggression starts when a cat sees another cat outside or smells another cat and becomes aggressive (territorial aggression), but can't directly interact with the outside cat. She will then redirect the aggression to another cat in the household or a person.
If the aggression is directed to another cat in the household, this can result in inter-cat aggression whenever the cats meet again, and will not resolve without specific treatment. In either case (when directed towards cats or towards humans), redirected aggression is likely to occur repeatedly unless the trigger can be removed.
4. Pain-induced aggression
This form of aggression may be shown in response to a painful procedure, or the anticipation of a painful procedure. Chronic pain may also increase irritability and make the cat more aggressive (e.g. arthritis).
5. Play aggression
One of the most common types of aggression is play aggression. Vigorous play in cats is part of normal cat behaviour. These cats are usually young, energetic cats living as single cats in a household and sometimes have a history of being taken early from their mother and siblings. Often, owners contribute to the problem by playing roughly with the cat when it is a little kitten, rewarding it for biting and clawing by continuing the play.
Play aggression typically involves the cat approaching the target (stalking) and then leaping onto the target. There is usually no warning growl or hiss. The attacker may hide in wait behind a barrier, intensely focused, and with their tail twitching. The cat does not exhibit dominance posturing toward the victim, and does not retreat from or avoid the victim with characteristic signs of fear. In fact, the cat often hides behind some furniture and waits until a person walks by, and then dashes out and attacks the person's ankles. Hands dangling over the armrest of a chair are also favourite targets.
6. Noise-induced aggression
Cats may respond to certain sound frequencies with aggression. Examples include a baby crying, another cat crying, high-frequency whistling or squeaking sounds. A possible explanation might be the elicitation of predatory behaviour by high-frequency sounds.
7. Sexual aggression
Only male cats exhibit sexual aggression. The cat will mount a person's arm or ankle, grab the skin with its teeth, and initiate pelvic thrusting. Attempts to dislodge the cat at this point will result in increased aggression. While a female cat's thick scruff generally protects her from actual harm due to the males nape-bite (back of neck), human skin is not so well protected and can result in injury. This may occur as a result of incorrect sexual imprinting.