Cat Aggression and Understanding Cat Behavior

What is Considered Aggressive Cat Behavior?

Managing Cat Aggression

Bad cat behavior will require cat aggression training for your cat behaviour. Usually cats aren’t intentionally acting bad and out to get you – they just tend to be misunderstood.

To understand why our cats are ‘misbehaving’ and exhibiting cat aggression, and to attempt decoding the problem, it is important to understand the type of cat aggression that your cat is exhibiting – most of the time. Correctly identifying the type of cat aggression that is at hand will lead to the most effective way to address the problem cat aggression.

There are several types of cat aggression, each with a different underlying cause. We highlight their differences in the explanations below.

cat behaviour

Play Aggression

Play cat aggression is defined as ‘the act of cat playing in a predatory manner, typically through stalking and pouncing on the target prey’ and is considered normal cat behavior. In a household environment, the target would ideally be toys and objects that you have bought for your cat, but usually becomes a problem when your ankles, knees, fingers or other body parts are identified as targeted ‘prey’.

Although during kitten-hood, it may seem cute and adorable to have your kitten nibble on your fingers and have a bit of rough play with them for fun, it quickly becomes much less like ‘playing’ to you when they become adults and plays with you with their set of grown teeth and claws.

On the other hand, we must keep in mind that although cats are domesticated, their ancestors are wild animals, and have passed down a wild side to their pet behaviour underneath the surface – they need to stalk and hunt prey just like they would in the natural wildlife habitat (or as close to it as possible).

So as you walk across to the coffee table, to your lovely cat, your feet and ankles look like unsuspecting prey – and that’s why, suddenly you become the victim of her sneak attack, painfully get gnawed on, and your cat quickly runs away after her success. As much as it doesn’t feel like it – your cat is playing with you!

But if your ankles are the target for play, then that is an indication that you may not be playing enough with your cat, and may need to spend some more time playing and simulating a hunting scenario that’s fun and exciting for your purring friend! Cats that like to hide under furniture and other objects, and suddenly come pouncing out at you are most confident when they are hunting down low.

They find their raw hunting instincts under such circumstances – where they have places to hide underneath to stalk the movements of prey and launch an attack at a moment’s notice. Understanding this is important – because this is the ideal scenario that you should be creating when playing with your cat.

These cats are ‘bush dwellers’, and love having their toys fluttering about in the air, where they can watch in a hidden place while they wait for a perfect timing. You should also drag the toy around the corners of the room where they disappear from sight, which will perk your cat’s interest and tempt her to chase the prey.

The goal of playtime is to both wear your cat out from play and exercise, and also to deepen the bond between the cat and cat owner. Meanwhile, there are also cats that feel most comfortable when hunting in high places, scooping prey that appear from below with their paws – imagine cats going through motions when trying to catch fishes in a pond.

In such cases, again you can also create environments where your cat can hunt and play in a scenario that they are most confident in. Cat trees and cat perches make great household additions that cats will love to play and lounge on – some of which also look quite nice and will fit well with your set of furniture.

Be sure to observe your cat for ideas as to what kinds of environment to create for playtime, spend more time playing, and keep both you and your cat happy with no observable cat aggression.

What if my cat doesn’t play?

Usually, that may mean that you have yet to find that magic toy or the action combination – that’s all there is to it! Once you have found the right mix, your cat will be ecstatic and get right into action, and will love every minute of playtime. We highlight a few pointers to keep in mind in lowering cat aggression:

  • Be sure to enrich the environment for your bush dwelling cats, making sure there are plenty of place to hide while watching her prey.
  • Be proactive (rather than reactive) about playtime – make sure you rotate and vary the toys that you use to play with your cat so that she doesn’t become bored (that is the spice of your cat’s life – having a variety of prey to kill everyday), and always try to take the initiative to start a play session throughout the day.
  • Be patient – some cats will start changing their attacking behaviours right away or within a few weeks, while other cats may need more time to learn and get used to directing their attention away from your body parts and focus on the toys. Remember to always be loving to your cat, as she is only playing with you – patience is key!

Territorial Aggression

At times, even the most laid-back and gentle cats can become aggressive to protect what they have identified as their territory, and there are several cases that can trigger this.

The most common scenario is when a new pet is introduced into the household – your existing cat may instantly feel like her territory has been intruded upon, and feels the need to use aggression to fend the newcomer off her space and assert dominance.

We note that although territorial aggression is most commonly directed toward other cats, it can be displayed toward anyone – whether it be dogs, people, or other animals.

It can also happen when a companion cat returns from a veterinary clinic and has an unfamiliar scent (of other cats or animals that were also present at the clinic), as cats mainly use scent for recognition, hence the foreign scent can momentarily confuse your cat at home and trigger territory-related aggression.

cat behavior, cat aggression

How to introduce a new pet to your house and handle territorial aggression

In the case of bringing on a new family member to your home in Vancouver, BC – whether it be a cat, dog or another small animal – the classic ‘let them work it out’ approach is not advisable, as it increases the risk of territorial aggression, which is completely preventable. Instead, we recommend taking a slow-and-steady approach, firstly by setting up a separate space for your new pet – perhaps have your guest room be used for this purpose in the meantime.

You can then encourage the cats to make positive associations toward each other by having them do positive activities near each other. For example, have food placed for both the resident cat and the new companion on their respective sides of the dedicated room’s door (while having the door closed or a fence to separate the space).

Also try to have a family member on each side praising them on each side, so that they are associating the rewards of being praised and having food with the unfamiliar scents of the pet on the other side of the door.

Once your resident cat has gotten used to the routine (which typically takes a few days to a week), proceed to open a small crack from the door, allowing your resident cat and the pet limited visual access of each other.

Be sure to take this step slowly, and watch your cat’s body language carefully to gauge whether she is comfortable for the next step – moving too quickly may lead things backfiring and forcing you to go back several weeks in terms of progress! Gradually repeat and crack the door wider until both pets can have their paws interact with one another.

Be sure to have your play sessions nearby each other (and have separate play sessions at the beginning). Another neat trick that you can use during this introductory phase to help them become familiar with each other is through ‘scent swapping’.

This involves rubbing each cat down with a separate washcloth – particularly their heads, cheeks, and the base of their tails – and then presenting each washcloth near your other pet’s frequently visited spots (such as food area or favorite sleeping area), so that they start getting used to having the other pet’s smell in areas where they conduct their daily activities.

When you believe they are ready to be in the same space together peacefully, be sure to have a couple of large towels or blankets ready during their first real meeting. It is not a good idea to try breaking up a fight by trying to grab them with your hands, as they will be in the heat of the moment and not be able to distinguish your hands your other pet, and will leave you with bites and scratches.

Simply scoop them up with the towel and relocate them to another room for a timeout, and try again tomorrow. Also, don’t scold them for fighting, as that will elevate your cat’s frustration, which is what you don’t want to do.

Be sure to oversee all interactions between your cat and the new pet during the first 1-2 weeks, and not to let them have access to each other when you are not at home, as accidents can happen and unexpected events can trigger aggression initially, at least until they become used to having each other around.

On another note, be sure to have separate food bowls and litter boxes (or other toiletry equipment for other animals) for each pet even after they can get along with each other – every pet deserves their own privacy in your Vancouver home!

Petting-Induced Aggression

cat behavior traning Vancouver BC

We at Vancouver Pet Hospital hear a lot of pet owners say ‘we were petting our cat and she was purring happily, then all of a sudden she turns around and bites me out of the blue!’. This is very dangerous cat aggression. In fact, the cat has likely given lots of warning signs, which we tend to overlook and don’t pay enough attention to until the cat strikes.

Cats typically have a level of tolerance for petting and enjoy the experience, but after a while they become over-stimulated and will show cat aggression in response to get you to stop. They may also do this when you stroke areas that they don’t like or feel comfortable with. When you are petting your cat, be observant and watch her body language.

If she stops purring, starts twitching or switching body positions, or aggressively lashes her tail, then those are signs of over-stimulation and is a good indication to cease the petting session and the bad cat behavior that ensues.

The information and suggestions provided serve as a general guideline for our readers, and are not replacements for professional veterinarian advice. Should you have any inquiries, feel free to call us at +1 604-670-7370 and schedule a behavioural counseling session with one of our veterinary staff today.


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