Behavior - Aggression in Cats


Behavior - Aggression in Cats

Aggressive kitten

Q: Dear Dr. Mike-

I would appreciate your advice regarding how to best handle aggressive behavior in kittens. I adopted a female kitten five weeks ago who alternates between being a very sweet, purring, affectionate lap cat and being an aggressive, biting, wild cat. The aggressive behavior is unpredictable which makes it more difficult to manage. This morning she bit me twice. First, she bit my hand as I was gently wiping something from her foot. The second was a surprise lunge attack on my leg. Both bites broke my skin. In between these events, she crawled up on my lap for affection and petting. FYI, she has been to the vet several times since the adoption, and having recovered from three weeks of diarrhea (repeatedly negative fecal, undetermined cause), she now has a clean bill of health.

I adopted the kitten as a companion for myself and my six year old female cat who lost her litter mate to a bladder disease a few months ago. The litter mates had a gentle, affectionate relationship so my cat becomes anxious and annoyed by the sudden attacks of the kitten. The kitten shows no fear of the alpha cat and provokes her at almost any opportunity. There are times, however, when they co-exist somewhat peacefully -- usually, when the kitten is tired or in her more affectionate mode.

The kitten (now 13 weeks old) receives loads of affection and enjoys plenty of play time with many toys. I want to encourage the purring, sweet behavior. In your experience, what is the most effective way to discourage the aggressive behavior? If the split personality is permanent part of her core personality, we could have a problem here. I understand that some breeds are more prone to aggressive behavior. She is a medium hair, dilute torti who is mostly grey and white with caramel markings. I adopted her from a shelter who knew little about her background.

Thank you, Mimi

A: Mimi-

It is difficult to be sure what type of aggression your kitten is displaying but at this age the most likely problem is play aggression.

Play behavior starts early in kittens and is normally directed towards their littermates and/or parents. Both their littermates and parents are not adverse to responding to overly aggressive behavior by equally aggressive behavior -- if bitten too hard then may bite back. In addition, they often suspend play activities with the overly aggressive playmate, which is another form of punishment that works. After all, the whole object for the over-enthusiastic kitten is to play.

Play behavior often involves hunting and pouncing type behavior, so "surprise attacks" are common. The kitten is exhibiting a natural tendency to learn to hunt, since hunting success has a lot to do with survival.

Play attacks are often sudden and most commonly involve both scratching and biting behavior that is quick and then broken off just as quickly. Kittens that get excited quickly may react to something as simple as an attempt to pet them with an aggressive attack on the hand that is approaching them. Most kittens find a few places in the house that are good for ambushing and use them over and over -- but some vary their routine quite a bit.

Learning to anticipate an attack is very helpful. The kitten learns best it the play behavior can be stopped while it is in the "thought" process rather than the "action" process. Something that will reliably distract the kitten from the attack works best to stop them. A whistle, clap of the hands or stomping of the foot may be sufficient to stop the attack if it is recognized in the formulative stage. It may be necessary to use an air horn or to shake a can with a few pennies in it to produce enough stimulus to stop an attack that is in progress. If you use an air horn, sound it as quickly as you can during the attack -- the idea is to avert it, if possible and to punish the behavior while it is in progress if you can't avert it. For some kittens a water gun will work as well as an air horn but some just look at this as more intense play.

Once you have averted an attack, move to another room and avoid playing with the kitten until it calms down, if necessary. Remember that it wants to play and will learn to play more appropriately if you encourage good behaviors and discourage inappropriate ones.

Don't give the kitten mixed messages ---- avoid playing rough, especially with your hands. Don't encourage the kitten to attack the drawstring of your sweatshirt or your shoelaces. When you do play with the kitten try to play with a toy that gives the kitten exercise. A toy tied to a wand or on a line you can throw out and retrieve can be helpful. Don't reel the kitten right to you with the toy -- stop the action at a safe distance to prevent the kitten from getting the idea of continuing the play by attacking you. If it is possible to use a lot of the kitten's energy in activities like this, the frequency and intensity of play attacks almost always lessens.

I don't know how to advise you to protect your older cat. I think that she will probably put an end to overly aggressive behavior herself but not all cats do that. If she gets really upset, it is OK to give her a "time out" from the kitten, too.

In some areas of the country it is possible to seek the help of a veterinary behaviorist. In many instances they can help in just a few office visits and that help can make a lifelong difference in the kitten's behavior. You might want to ask your vet if there is a good behaviorist in your area.

Hope this helps.

Mike Richards, DVM 8/25/99

Extreme aggression toward owner - cat

Q: I've read your web page on cat attacks and aggression, but I think my situation is a little different. Let me explain. I've had my cat, Jessie, for 4 years now. The first 3 have been absolutely wonderful with her. She seemed happy. We played all the time and she slept with me every night. One day, she totally turned on me. She hissed and spit, lunged at my legs with her claws while letting out this horrible scream. She slashed me up pretty good. I thought it was a phase and talked quietly to her to try to calm her down. A couple of days passed, and she seemed ok, until it happened again. This has been going on for a year now. Now I can't walk freely in my apartment without her wanting to attack me. It seems her favorite place to go is under my bed. She's under there most of the time. But if I dare walk in my bedroom, she comes flying out with that scream and slashes at my legs. I love my cat. I don't want to get rid of her, and I don't favor the idea of having her declawed. (I personally think it's cruel.) Is there any advice or suggestions you can give me on this situation. Thank you for listening. Marybeth

A: MaryBeth- If you live in area in which a veterinary behaviorist practices (usually big metropolitan areas or near veterinary colleges) it would be worthwhile to consult with a behaviorist. Extreme aggression directed towards people is best treated by someone who can evaluate the possible physical causes and who is familiar with the possible psychological problems as well. Physical causes include problems such as chronic pain, ischemic damage in the brain and some neurologic defects. Psychological problems include extreme anxiety, redirected aggression, fear and several other potential problems. If a cause can be identified, either physical or psychological it is easier to predict whether or not treatment will be beneficial and obviously easier to choose the treatment plan most likely to work.

Good luck with this. I wish I could give you a more specific answer but this is another one of those problems that requires an examination and detailed history taking.

Mike Richards, DVM

Cat Attacks (Ankle Biting)

Ankle biting and sudden attacks are most often associated with predatory aggression. Cats have a strong natural desire to hunt. Inside the house, there isn't much to satisfy this desire. Mice, grasshoppers and other attractive prey are scarce indoors, so they have to make do with what they have --- ankles and other moving body parts of their human companions.

In some cases it is possible to provide a more appropriate toy to satisfy the predatory urge. Toys that work are furry balls on a string, wand, or attached to a small fishing rod for efficient "casting" and interesting motion as it is reeled in. .A radio controlled car may work to exercise cats who are not afraid of them. Some people just tie a toy on a string to their belt to provide a better target then their ankles. This also provides a lot of exercise which is a good release of the pent up energy in many kittens.

Most cats will outgrow this behavior by the time they are a couple of years old and are much better if given alternatives objects to attack and sufficient exercise. . If your cat doesn't respond to this, it might be a good idea to consult with a certified animal behaviorist to make sure that predatory behavior is the problem.

Mike Richards, DVM

Last edited 01/12/05


Michael Richards, D.V.M. co-owns a small animal general veterinary practice in rural tidewater Virginia. Dr. Richards graduated from Iowa State University's College of Veterinary Medicine in 1979, and has been in private practice ever since. Dr. Richards has been the director of the PetCare Forum...