Cat aggression
Cat Aggression towards humans
copyright (c) 2021 Frania Shelley-Grielen.  All rights reserved.

The top three behavioral reasons for owner surrender of cats to animal shelters are
house soiling, problems with other pets and aggression towards people according to
a 2000 study in
The Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science.  Shelter statistics
supplied by the ASPCA reports that of the 3.4 million cats that enter the shelter
system each year 37% of these cats will be adopted and 41% of them will be

Cats are officially the most popular companion animal in United States households.  
According to  The American Veterinary Medical Association as of 2102, over 30%
of American households had cats compared to over 36% of American households
owning dogs.  There are more cats living in a home than dogs, the average cat
owning household has 2.1 cats while the average dog owning household has 1.6.   
Cats appeal to humans for multiple reasons, their remarkable beauty and form,
their grace, their individual personalities and “catness.”  Their perceived
independent nature offers greater compatibility with our life styles.  Cats, we
think, are basically low maintenance compared with dogs that require a greater
degree of interaction and much more attention and time for training and potty
breaks.  But would our cats agree? Cats and dogs are in fact both social animals.  
Cat behavior and dog behavior do differ –think tail movement for starters.  Both
animals require social interaction to thrive.  Indoor cats are fiercely dependent
on an enriched environment for maximum welfare.  Problems with house soiling
and aggression are evidence that the cat’s basic perceived needs are not being met.  
This affects both the cat’s welfare and can impact negatively on their relationship
with their humans.

Helping cat owning families to have more information on behavior problems, and
how to apply solutions is one of the most important remedies in keeping cats in
families and out of shelters.  This article focuses on how to work with aggression
towards people.  (Articles on
house soiling and aggression/problems with other
pets can be found under he
cats or dogs or cats and dogs tabs on the website.)

The most widely accepted definition of “aggression” is action with intent to cause
harm with “violence” being a form of aggression where the intended harm is severe
or fatal.  When it comes to human beings, we can further define aggressive
behavior into “physical aggression” or “verbal aggression.”  For all animals,
threats and warnings are not aggression as they actually serve to prevent action
intended to cause harm from happening if they are communicated effectively,
that is “heard” and responded to.  Several types of aggression exist with cats;
aggression caused by lack of socialization, pain aggression, play aggression and
fear aggression.  (Anxiety is thought to be the cause for abnormal or problematic

It is vitally important to realize that we tend to overuse “aggression,” especially
when talking about animals, to the point where the word has become a catchall
for every behavior we may think is negative or are not comfortable with.  This
sort of thinking can lead owners to over react as a result.  We need to be able to
tell the difference between warnings, threats and aggression along with accepting
that aggression is a necessary and normal response when a cat is threatened or in
a dangerous situations.

The aggressive cat communicates clearly through body language discomfort with
the circumstances and readiness to defend themselves if flight is not possible or if
the threat does not stop. They employ highly ritualized threat displays and have
a wide range of warning vocalizations.  Konrad Lorenz captured the unique
expression of aggression in cats and the fair warning given in the following

    “The threatening attitudes of a cat are extraordinarily expressive, and are
    entirely different in their manifestation according to whom they are directed
    against,whether they apply to a human friend who has “gone too far,” or to a
    feared enemy, perhaps a dog or another cat.  They are different too, according
    to whether they are made purely in self defense or whether they imply
    self-assurance in the animal and predict a forthcoming attack.  Cats always
    announce their intention of attacking…they never bite or scratch without
    giving previous unmistakable warning to the offender. Usually, indeed, the
    gradually increasing threatening gestures are suddenly exaggerated just
    before action is taken.  This is evidently an ultimatum, “If you don’t leave
    me alone at once, I shall unfortunately be obliged to take reprisals.”'

What do these “threatening attitudes” look like?  The fearful cat has the head pulled
close to the body, the eyes are open and pupils fully dilated, the ears are pulled back
and flattened, the whiskers are pulled back. The cat may shaking, still or crawling,
lying on the abdomen or crouched over all paws.  The tail will be close to the body.  
Sounds the fearful cat may be making are none, mournful meowing, growling or
yowling.  The defensive cat appears similar to the fearful cat with the head
positioned lower on the body, the hair is usually raised on end and the cat is
crouched on top of all four paws, the defensive cat may also hiss in addition to
plaintive meows, growling or yowling.  The offensively aggressive cat will have
constricted pupils and may swat, scratch, bite.  Serious fights are launched when
the cat rolls on to the back or side in order to be able to use all sets of claws and
fangs.  Remember, cats only fight when a standoff is unsuccessful, they are
attacked or cornered and when all other options to avert fighting have been

Cats that have not been socialized around people or have been improperly handled
by people will utilize aggression for self defense.  How to work with this type of
aggression with feral cats is discussed
here.  Biting and scratching in play is

A cat that is in pain needs to be handled appropriately.  Understanding what a
painful cat looks like and how to approach and handle these cats will lessen the
stress.  Veterinary terminology labels a cat "fractious" that reacts aggressively
to handling as if the cat came into the practice in a bad mood as opposed to an
appropriate response to being manipulated so she is immobile against her will,
injected with sharp objects, subject to the insertion of foreign objects in her rectum,
etc.  The fractious cat is not a personality type rather a reaction to a history or
intense fear of over restraint and aggressive handling on the part of veterinary
workers. The late Sophia Yin pioneered low stress restraint and handling practices
for animal care workers and The American Association of Feline Practitioners
launched “Cat Friendly Practices” to address the need for humane handling of
stressed and painful cats.  When working with veterinarians make sure to
patronize those veterinarians who institute either of these practices.  And do
know more on cat body language and handling as a cat owner.

Another source of pain for cats may result from de-clawing.  A  study published
in May of 2017 by the
Journal of Feline Medical Surgery compared the behaviors,
including inappropriate elimination, excessive grooming and aggression, of cats
that had been de-clawed compared to cats that not been de-clawed. The de-clawed
cats significantly demonstrated more of these behaviors.  63% of the de-clawed cats
were found to have bone fragments left in their digits, these cats were more likely
to have back pain, inappropriate elimination, biting and aggression.  De-clawed cats
without retained bone fragments, were found to have increased biting and
inappropriate elimination.

More common types of aggression towards people are then play aggression and
fear aggression.  A more in depth discussion of play aggression and fear aggression
follows along with strategies to work with them.

With cats we see play aggression when normal cat play behavior such as chasing,
pouncing, the use of feet, etc., happens out of context or inappropriately.  In genuine
play, when one cat lets another cat they do not like what is happening by shrieking
or freezing, the other cat stops what they are doing.   With play aggression the stop
signals are ignored and can sometimes trigger even rougher play.  In true play
aggression, the play behaviors are not typical, welcome or appropriate.  When
looking at this it is very important to rule out any rough play that the cat may
have learned from other cats or from humans.  Similarly, if the cat has been taught
to play with a human hand or foot or to chase than this is then how the cat has been
taught to play and it is not fair to call it play aggression just because the cat may
initiate it and not the human.  

It is also important to rule out attention seeking behavior as being play aggression.  
Attention seeking behavior like grabbing, swatting or biting usually works for cats
because the human whose attention the cat wants pays attention.  The difference
between attention seeking behavior and play aggression is that it is possible to
redirect the cat from the behaviors.

Fear aggression in cats can be identified by behavioral signs such as withdrawal
and passive and active avoidance.  Fearfully aggressive cats hiss, yowl, arch
their backs, raise their hair on end.  If the cat can hide or take flight they will.  
If the cat is pursued with no escape possible, the cat will stop moving, pull his head
over the body, crouch, growl and roll over with the feet over the belly.  This posture
is a posture of true defense where the cat has exhausted all efforts at escape from
the threat, in this position the attacked cat can use all set of claws and teeth to
defend herself.  Fear aggression is in response to trauma.  It can be a direct threat
or a response to a person, environment or situation that is threatening.  Fear
aggression can also be in response to people, situations or environments that
have been threatening in the past.

When dealing with any form of aggression it is essential to first and foremost to
steer clear of situations or circumstances that trigger aggressive behavior and
fear responses.   All behavior has an antecedent, what the animal is responding to.  
It is important when identifying what the trigger is to view from a perspective
that is significant to the cat given the history of the cat and the context of the
environment.  For instance, if a cat reacts to having his body stroked by
scratching, stop stroking the cat’s abdomen.  If the cat hisses at the dog when
the dog chases the cat, control the dog’s behavior so she does not chase the cat.  
If the cat sees feral cat colonies out of a window and is stressed by them, lower
the window shade so the cat cannot see the cats.  If the cat does not like when
children pull on her tail stop the children from pulling on the tail.  And if the
cat does not like children because in the past they have pulled on or her tail
–whether you are aware of it or not- keep children away from the cat.  And
so on.

Never fight with an aggressive cat.  Humans can severely damage if not kill cats
and hurting a cat will only increase fear and aggression in a cat.  If the cat is
displaying threatening behaviors such as growling, hissing or yowling and it is
possible to distract the cat use a high level distraction like a laser pointer to
redirect the cat (avoid any contact with the cat’s eyes).  This can work
remarkably well if employed correctly and in time.  If a situation has
already escalated to contact the best response is to get up lowly and calmly
and walk away.  If possible leave the cat in the room where the situation
occurred to settle.  Do not yell.  If necessary place an object as an extension
of the body such as a pillow between the person and the cat.  Never pull on
a cat that is physically engaged as it will exacerbate the situation.  In extreme
cases, an application of seltzer water will cause the cat to disengage.  Highly
aroused cats can also be contained in a towel.  Exercise caution and remain
calm (your excitement will add to the reactivity) when applying these

The second tenet to remedy aggression is to remove all punishment
anything the cat finds punishing such as spraying with water bottles, shaking
cans full of rocks, scolding, abusive tones or language or physical force of any
kind).  Punishment is highly stressful, causes intense discomfort and fear, creates
negative associations with humans, destroys relationships and interferes with
learning.  Punishment often, if not always makes things worse and not better.   
This is not saying to remove all negative reinforcement-negative reinforcement
introduces something that rewards the cessation of a behavior-using double sided
tape on a couch to deter cat scratching is an example.  The cat does not like the
sticky tape and is rewarded by not scratching it.  (Placing a scratching post next
to the couch rewards the behavior of scratching that along with the intrinsic
satisfaction of scratching a great scratching surface.)   This kind of association is
with the environment, the tape on the couch and not a human.  With
punishment there is no reward system.  The end of punishment is not a
reward it is an associative learning process that signals it has stopped for now.

The third principle is modifying the behavior by working with directly with the cat
and the environment to enable the cat to learn different responses and to benefit
from an enriched environment that offsets the need for those responses.  Changing
the physical environment can often be the first and easiest step we can take in
lowering anxiety, arousal and aggression.  Our interactions with the cat are part
of their environment as well as a valuable social component of their world.

The following recommendations are effective when working with play aggression
and fear aggression:

  • Manage the environment: avoid situations and circumstances that trigger fear,
    anxiety and aggression.

  • Cease all punishment. Cats have a unique biology and are highly reactive
    when stressed.  They remain in a reactive and stressed state longer when
    stress hormones are activated.  Punishment is highly stressful and floods the
    body with stress hormones such as cortisol and epinephrine.  Stress is greatly
    taxing on the body and an animal in a highly stressed state cannot learn or
    benefit from new associations.

  • Modify behavior through learning, interaction and environment:

    Interacting with a cat through play, appropriate petting or grooming when
    it is not in an aroused or stressed state allows the production and flow of
    neurochemicals such as dopamine, opiods and neurotensin.  Opening and
    developing new neural pathways associated with play and pleasurable
    activities are highly beneficial for welfare and quality of life.  This also
    allows the cat to develop the experience of being in a more contented state
    on a regular basis which offsets anxiety.  To accomplish this, the single
    most important exercise to do is interactive play with a person.  This is
    beneficial when dealing with all types of anxiety and aggression.

    Begin to allow for interactive play with all its attendant benefits with the
    use of a fishing wand toy every day in the morning and the evening for
    at least three  minutes initially and up to five minutes after a week.  Any
    form of rough play or chasing humans and body parts going forward should
    be discontinued immediately.

    There are a variety of fishing wand toys on the market.  Try them all.  
    Identify which toy the cat likes best by offering them for play and
    gauging the response, make sure to drag the toy away from or across
    the cat’s line of  vision so the cat can follow it.  Adjust your speed so it
    is not too slow or too fast, with faster being better than slower- studies
    suggest cats are less able to focus on objects that move very slowly.  
    The best feedback for knowing the right speed is whether or not it solicits
    a response from the cat.  With cats that do not respond at all and who
    have not “learned” to play, work up to engaging the cat by presenting
    the opportunities for play on a consistent basis.  When even a preparatory
    reaction is displayed –the cat monitors the movement of the toy, follows
    the human when they take the toy out to play, etc., it is important for the
    human not to overact by speaking loudly or getting excited and scare the
    cat.  Keep offering the opportunities to play regularly.  Even with thinking
    about play and watching the human there is benefit from stimulating
    mirror neurons in the cat’s brain.  This exercise intensifies bonding,
    repairs relationships and is fun and satisfying for both human and cat.

  • Praise and reward all good behaviors all the time even if they are accidental
    (you didn't ask for them) or normal like sleeping or grooming.  Cats like dogs
    will benefit from positive reinforcement of behaviors that are expected of
    them.  This builds in a structured reward system, positive association with
    humans and intensifies the intrinsic reward of performing these behaviors.  
    Remember verbal praise with the use of a cat’s name and petting counts as
    a reward too.

  • Know how to pet and brush your cat and incorporate time for both.  Continue
    to  nourish new and existing neural pathways with pleasure hormones like
    oxytocin that are associated with love and friendship.  Cats groom each other
    (allogrooming) to strengthen bonds between affiliates and to provide maternal
    care.  Petting our cats to approximate cat greeting behavior –touching nose to
    nose and bunting –confines our touch to the face of the cat; primarily the sides
    of the head, along the muzzle, behind the ears and between the ears.  Brushing
    is a wonderful stand-in for allogrooming and strengthens the human animal
    bond and is pleasurable for cats.

  • Breath and relax.  We may not be aware of our first human inclination in a
    stressful situation is to tense and hold our breath.  Be physically aware of your
    body language and breathing and take a moment to inhale and exhale to
    release your own body tension.  Remember that our cats are supreme masters
    at reading our body language so the more comfortable we are the more
    comfortable they are and vice versa.

  • Enrich the environment by providing for things for cats to do without you.  
    Domestic cats living indoors are subject to when and what their owner decides
    they should eat, where they sleep, when they get to interact and with what,
    where on what they eliminate and what they are able to do or not do to fulfill
    their natural behaviors. Look to a cat’s natural behavior to fulfill their needs.

    Provide for object play with “fur” mice that rattle, tennis balls and other toys
    the cat displays a preference for.  Remember to place toys in every room.

    Cats need to scratch both to stretch muscles and to strip nails as they grow.  
    Scratching posts and boards are something fun to do and allow for necessary
    stretching, encourage the right places to scratch and are satisfying.  Place
    one in more than one location.  The corrugated cardboard scratchers that
    offer an incline are particularly attractive when rubbed with catnip.

    Use puzzle food feeder eggs or puzzle trays with either a morning or evening
    meal if the cat is a kibble eater or supply with cat treats.  This is another re-
    warding activity for the cat to combat boredom and to satisfy necessary,
    natural and enjoyable hunting behavior.

    Cats need vertical resting spaces as well as places to hide.  Experiment with
    cardboard shipping boxes placed on the floor.  Cat trees and cat shelves are
    ideal ways to add vertical resting spaces.  Consider placement when adding
    spaces from a cat point of view.  Towers and shelves should be ideally be
    placed next to a window, be accessible and not being overly exposed.  Adding
    a cat house to the top of a dresser or a credenza is another great way to
    integrate a hiding space onto a vertical space which is very attractive and
    necessary for cats.

    Classical music has been shown to have positive benefits for both cats
    and dogs.  Leaving a classic al radio station on with the attendant soothing
    voices of the  human announcers has an added benefit of counter

    Add a window ledge or a surface next to an interesting window so the cat
    can benefit from the visual stimulation of outdoors.  Make sure windows
    are screened and the view is not on neighboring cats which may cause

    Consider catnip to add value to toys and beds.  Cat nip is a member of the
    mint family and enriches interaction and heightens attraction with toys,
    beds, etc.  You can purchase it in dried form; remember to crush it between
    your fingers when using it to release the oils.  Cats ingest it and it is perfectly
    safe.  You can also purchase it in liquid form.  Apply it to scratching posts and
    beds and even toys (especially the chew toys).

Lastly, allow for time and consistency of applying solutions to remedy behavior

Martell-Moran, N.K., Solan M., Townshend H.G.G. (2017). Pain and adverse behavior in dewclawed
Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, (published online May 2017)

Salman, M.D.,  Hutchison, J., Ruch-Gallie, R., Kogan, L. New, Jr.College , J.C., Kass, P.H., Scarlett ,
J.M. (2000) Behavioral Reasons for Relinquishment of Dogs and Cats to 12 Shelters.
Journal of
Applied Animal Welfare Science
, 3(2), 93–10

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Cat aggression towards humans is the third biggest reason for owner surrender to shelters.  How to help.
Kevin Dooley
" if a cat reacts to having his
body stroked by scratching, stop
stroking the cat’s abdomen.  If
the cat hisses at the dog when
the dog chases the cat, control
the dog’s behavior so she does
not chase the cat.  If the cat sees
feral cat colonies out of a
window and is stressed by them,
cannot see the cats.  If the cat
does not like when children pull
on her tail stop the children
from pulling on the tail.  And if
the cat does not like children
because in the past they have
pulled on or her tail –whether
you are aware of it or not- keep
children away from the cat.  
And so on."
The vigilant cat is aware of her surroundings
copyright Frania Shelley-Grielen
Cats love being in their home with us and out of shelters
copyright Frania Shelley-Grielen
Veterinary terminology labels a cat
copyright Frania Shelley-Grielen
"When dealing with any form of
aggression it is essential to first
and foremost to steer clear of
situations or circumstances
that trigger aggressive
behavior and fear responses.  
All behavior has an antecedent,
what the animal is responding
to.  It is important when
identifying what the trigger is
to view from a perspective that
is significant to the cat given
the history of  the cat and the
context of the environment."
Never punish or fight with a cat.
copyright Frania Shelley-Grielen
Schedule a consultation
Get the book your pet wants you to read
"Changing the physical environ-
ment can often be the first and
easiest step we can take in
lowering anxiety, arousal and
aggression.  Our interactions
with the cat are part of their
environment as well as a
valuable social component
of their world."
212-722-2509 / 646-228-7813

Website copyright Frania Shelley-Grielen
Provide raised resting spaces for cats to feel safe and secure in
copyright Frania Shelley-Grielen
Know how to brush and pet your cat and make time to do both
copyright Frania Shelley-Grielen
Cat towers and shelves placed in a corner and next to a window, like this one, are ideal
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