How to deal with aggression in cats

Cats become aggressive in order to catch prey or deal with conflict with other cats. Cats also play fight, so it’s important to understand when your cat is being serious with their aggression, or when they’re just playing.

Cats aren’t born aggressive, and it’s not a personality trait. In most cases it’s simply an expression of something they’re feeling and there will be a cause and a solution. No matter the situation, when a cat’s aggression is turned towards us as owners it can be very distressing. Sometimes just understanding why it happened and how to prevent it happening again in the future can help.

Why is my cat being aggressive towards me?

Generally, aggressive cat behaviour occurs for four main reasons:

1. The cat is behaving defensively for self-protection. A cat’s first strategy whenever faced with danger is to run away, but sometimes this isn’t possible. When this happens, your cat might resort to aggressive behaviour instead. When a cat behaves defensively in this way it is because they are frightened. This may be due to a previous negative experience with people or a lack of socialisation as a young kitten, which is the time when positive lessons are learned.

2. The cat is playing, albeit roughly. Kittens often play fight with our hands which seems cute when they are young. As they get older and stronger the hand biting and scratching is no longer fun for us so we don’t respond in the same way as before. This can be very confusing for the grown-up cat, who still wants to play in this way. The cat will likely feel conflicted as they don’t want to experience the negative consequences that they now face when we try and deter the behaviour.

3. The cat is frustrated. This is often referred to as “redirected aggression”. A typical example is when a cat sees a strange cat outside through a window and then attacks the owner, or sometimes another cat who is nearby.

4. The cat is unwell or in pain. When a cat is unwell, they can often experience anxiety and frustration and are quicker to become aggressive when they are handled. Common conditions that can be associated with aggressive behaviour include hyperthyroidism and osteoarthritis in older cats, but there can be many other possible conditions involved.

Your cat's aggression may have been triggered by them seeing strange cat through the window

What should I do when my cat has been aggressive towards me?

This depends on how severe your aggressive cat’s behaviour is. If your cat has bitten or scratched you and the injuries require medical attention, this would be considered serious. In this situation you need to ensure that your cat is safely secured in a room away from you, other people and animals and then treat any wounds. Keep the cat to one room with everything they would normally have access to i.e. food, water, a bed, a litter tray, a scratching post and somewhere to hide.

Once you are safe it’s a good idea to contact your vet to explain what has happened. Never punish your cat for biting or scratching you as this will only make your cat more frightened and more likely to bite harder. This can be a very dangerous strategy and should always be avoided.

If your cat has left superficial marks that don’t require immediate medical attention, then you should:

  • Make a note of what led up to the incident and any unusual behaviour you observed in your cat so you can tell your vet should the aggressive behaviour happen again.
  • If this isn’t the first time that your cat has behaved aggressively, contact your vet and explain in as much detail as you can what has happened and how the behaviour has developed.
    Sometimes the aggressive behaviour might also be shown in your cat’s posture (flattened ears, lowered body, dilated pupils, staring) or with their voice (hissing, growling, yowling etc).
  • Do not approach your cat or make eye contact. Keep feeding them and cleaning out litter trays, but otherwise leave your cat alone.
  • Try not to block your cat’s escape route. Always give your cat the opportunity to move away or escape if you are nearby.
  • Cover your arms and legs. If your cat ambushes you and pounces on your feet or hands then you may feel safer walking around the house if your arms and legs are protected. You might feel better wearing jeans and a thick sweater but don’t worry if you feel like you need to wear boots and gloves too. If you are scared, this will come across in your behaviour and your cat may actually see this as a threat, so try to stay calm and act normally, and your cat will be less likely to see you as a target.

Cats can look very intimidating and you may have found yourself unable to leave a room or go past your cat in a narrow space because of aggressive behaviour. In these cases, it is a good idea to contact your vet as there is clearly an issue that needs to be resolved. In these cases it is a good idea to contact your vet for a referral to a behaviourist as there is clearly an issue that needs to be resolved.

Dealing with a cat bite

If you’ve been bitten by a cat, you should wash the bite marks through with clean, warm water and keep an eye on them. The wounds from cat bites tend to be punctures from the long canine teeth at the front. The holes close over quickly and can potentially trap bacteria deep in the tissue under the skin. If you have been bitten by a cat, and it isn’t obviously a minor injury that hasn’t broken the skin, we would recommend you see a doctor who will be able to clean the wound properly and recommend any further treatment if necessary. If the bite marks swell or become red and hot, this can be the sign of an infection, but ideally you shouldn’t wait for signs of infection to appear. If this does happen, you should seek urgent medical attention.

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