Cat Aggression towards humans copyright 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 euthanized.
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
the cats or dogs or cats and dogs tabs on the AnimalBehaviorist.us 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 aggression.)
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 passage:
“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 exhausted.
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.
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
slowly 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 techniques.
The second tenet to remedy aggression is to remove all punishment. 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
- Manage the environment: avoid situations and circumstances that trigger fear,
- 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
- 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 neuro-
chemicals 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 theLastly, allow for time and consistency of applying solutions to remedy behavior
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
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).
Martell-Moran, N.K., Solan M., Townshend H.G.G. (2017). Pain and adverse behavior in dewclawed cats.
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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" 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."
copyright Frania Shelley-Grielen
copyright Frania Shelley-Grielen
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."
copyright Frania Shelley-Grielen
"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."
copyright Frania Shelley-Grielen
copyright Frania Shelley-Grielen
copyright Frania Shelley-Grielen
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