Play and Predatory Aggression
Cats are predators. It is in their instinct to hunt down and kill. Even though you provide a gourmet diet for kitty, he still needs to practice his hunting skills whether you like it or not. Predatory behavior is often characterized by long periods of lying in wait and stalking followed by an explosion of activity - the attack. It's common for a cat to creep up to a sleeping owner and playfully attack them in bed. Some cats sit quietly, staring at a wiggling toe then with lightening speed, they pounce and attack. Other cats lie in wait under furniture until a foot passes by, then their claw reaches out and grabs. Cat play is an extension of their predatory nature. It provides the cat with the opportunity to develop and sharpen its hunting skills, even if it never needs to go out and catch its own dinner. Although your cat may be playing, playful bites can still hurt and cause injury.
Fear and Anger Aggression
Cats that have not been adequately gentled and socialized during kitten hood are generally suspicious and fearful of people. If they don't like being approached, touched, handled or picked up, they often tell you so by biting and scratching.
Even cats that are socialized can become angry or frightened in certain situations. Maybe they don't like being picked up by a stranger (the vet) and getting jabbed with a needle (routine vaccination). Some cats are fine until its bath time. Every cat has its limits. The more gentling and socialization kitty receives during kitten hood, the less likely a situation will come up that will frighten or anger the cat.
Once a cat learns that its aggressive display is successful at warding off the perceived threat, the more likely the cat will act aggressive again. In other words, the cat is rewarded for acting aggressive because the threat or annoyance goes away. In this case, we have unintentionally trained the cat to be aggressive. If I reached out to pet a cat and it aggressively struck out at me, I most certainly would obediently withdraw. I don't want to get scratched or bitten. Now the behavior becomes even more difficult to cure and the cat more dangerous to handle. This almost sounds like a no-win situation, but never fear, remedies for this type of behavior will be covered, so read on!
Territorial and Protective Aggression
This type of aggression is usually very specific and the result of lack of socialization. If a cat had been socialized with people coming and going into his space - but never had another animal trespass onto his territory in his presence, he will fight ferociously and furiously for their territory. A mother cat may also fight or attack to protect her kittens
Over Stimulation and Excitement Aggression
An often perplexing case history involves a cat that one moment lies peacefully purring on the owner's lap, happily accepting affection; and the next moment, erupts into a rage of claws and teeth. The owner is shocked by the sudden attack. It's actually normal behavior for cats to have quick reversals of mood and behavior. There's a fine line between enjoyable petting and irritating handling. Once the petting reaches a certain threshold, the cat will reject any further touching. The cat says, "Stop it!" by biting or scratching. Perhaps a sensitive or painful area was unknowingly touched. Continuous pleasurable stimulation can overexcite the cat causing aggressive behavior. The cat becomes sexually excited and the resulting aggression is a part of normal sexual behavior.
Sometimes a cat will suddenly act aggressive for medical reasons. Any abnormal behavior or sudden change in behavior should be checked out by your veterinarian as soon as possible. If you spend time with your cat and get to know him, you will notice any changes in his behavior and habits right away. If there is a sudden change, don't assume your cat is misbehaving. Check with your veterinarian first. If kitty gets a clean bill of health, then look at it from the behavioral viewpoint.
Remedies for Aggression and Cat Biting
When trying to solve any problem, especially with cats, it is important to be realistic and patient. Don't push your cat beyond his limits then get frustrated because he isn't living up to your expectations. Give him some considerations and don't expect him to necessarily change to suit you.
If your cat often becomes over-stimulated with 5 minutes of petting and stroking, then stop at 3 minutes. Don't push him over the edge and then wonder why he bit you! In this type of situation, cats usually give other warning signs that they are going to bite. Watch your cat and notice his body language when he gets over stimulated or irritated. Usually the ears will flatten, he will turn and stare at you, or his tail will start to flick. If your cat has lived all his life in a quiet, private home and you suddenly bring in a bus load of noisy, rambunctious children, don't expect your cat to accept this.
Training a cat to stop play biting is relatively easy with both adult cats and kittens. However, training a cat not to bite in fear and anger is best and most easily accomplished in kitten hood. If you have an older cat who has been biting for many years, it is going to take much more time and energy to cure it. But this doesn't mean you shouldn't start. Many older cats can be taught to accept situations without reacting aggressively. It just takes longer and requires more of your patience. However, the payoff is tremendously gratifying.
No Biting Allowed
Play sessions provide the best opportunity to teach your cat not to bite, scratch or play- attack you. Playtime is the best time to teach your cat that he must be careful and gentle. The cat is only allowed to play using his paws, not his claws. He should learn never to bite you.
Start by enticing kitty into a gentle game of play fighting. Continuously praise the cat all the time he remains gentle. Gradually increase the excitement and intensity of the game, keeping your eyes glued to kitty. As soon as you see that the cat is getting too excited or he begins to expose his claws or teeth, immediately freeze and "play dead." This usually causes a cat to calm down and retract its claws. If kitty complies, then resume playing. If not, the play must not resume until kitty calms down and retracts his claws. If kitty bites hard or scratches you, sharply scream "OUCH," immediately stop playing, walk away and ignore him.
Cats, especially kittens, love to play. Abruptly ending a play session is an extremely powerful reprimand. With a few repetitions, kitty will learn that it is his own overly rambunctious or aggressive behavior that brings an end to all the fun. While your cat is learning not to bite and claw you, it is equally as important that you provide kitty with something he can pounce on, attack, grab with his claws and sink his teeth into.
Unless your cat has real prey to hunt, you are going to have to provide the play prey. If you simply toss a few toys on the floor, your cat may give them a few swats then quickly lose interest. It is up to you to make the toys fun. Play should be an interactive game between you and your cat. Tie a toy to the end of a length of string. Drag it around your house with kitty in pouncing pursuit. Pet stores are full of both inexpensive and exotic toys for your cat. Use your imagination and create your own toys. The idea is to stimulate your cat's interest and participation. Two 15 minute play sessions a day will work wonders in venting your cat’s excess energy as well as fulfilling his predatory instincts.
If you do not want your cat to be fearful of or aggressive towards people (including children), other cats or even dogs, it is best to socialize them as kittens. Socialization in kitten hood has a pronounced and long lasting effect on the cat's personality. If a kitten is raised in a large active home with several children, other pets and frequent visitors coming and going, then as an adult, it will readily accept strangers. If the cat grows up in a quiet home with a single owner, then as an adult, it will most likely react adversely when approached and touched by strangers.
If you want your cat to socialize freely and happily, you must give it plenty of opportunity as a kitten to socialize and play with different people, friendly cats and dogs. Most kittens are not threatened by strangers, so socializing them is easy. It is essential that these early experiences are fun and rewarding. If your cat has a terrifying experience as a kitten, then it will most likely remain fearful of these events into adulthood. Don't wait until your cat is in emergency need of veterinary attention before getting it used to a veterinary exam. Don't wait until your cat's hair is matted before getting it used to being groomed. Start socializing and getting your cat used to being touched and handled before your cat has any unpleasant experiences. To assure that your cat doesn't become permanently frightened of strangers, vet exams, grooming procedures, etc., make sure that it learns to enjoy these experiences early in life.
Take time to acquaint kitty with being touched and handled everywhere. Teach your cat to enjoy being picked up and hugged. First these exercises need to be done by the adult owners of the cat. Then the exercises need to be done by other friendly adults. When the cat is comfortable with being touched, examined and hugged by strangers, it is now time to teach children how to touch and handle the cat under your supervision. For adult cats that already feel threatened by the presence of strangers, the socialization process is much more time consuming. Adult cats must be given more time to familiarize themselves with strangers. If your cat is nervous around people, don't let these people approach your cat. They will just further frighten him. You should also not force your cat to meet strangers. Instead, give your cat the opportunity to approach the stranger on his own. It may take hours, it may take weeks. But until your cat approaches on his own terms, and finds that nothing bad happens, he will not develop his own confidence to trust people. You can speed up the process by starting with a hungry cat and a trail of extremely tasty treats leading up to the stranger. Each step the cat takes toward the person is rewarded with a treat. With this set up, you and the other person should sit quietly and let the cat approach. The hungrier the cat and the better the treat, the quicker the cat will approach and overcome its fear.
However, if the cat is so fearful that it is inhibited from eating in front of the stranger, then the person should be several rooms away while the cat is eating its treats. Food treats should only be available when a visitor is in the house. As the cat becomes used to eating with someone else in the house, then the cat and person can slowly be brought closer and closer together. The first week they are 3 rooms away from each other, the second week they are 2 rooms away, and so on until they can both be present in the same room. Then you can start to trail the treats up to the visitor.
Once your cat is comfortable with the presence of strangers, the next step will be to accustom your cat to being touched. The ultimate goal is to ensure that your cat will never react badly when handled or restrained. Begin the exercises when your cat is relaxed and content. Start off by handling the cat in ways that it already finds pleasurable, such as scratching the top of the head or on its back at the base of the tail. As the exercise proceeds, the stroking, touching and petting should become more vigorous and include more of the cat's body. All the time the cat remains relaxed, praise him profusely. Work slowly and gradually increase the area of the cat's body that is touched. You can continue the handling exercises whenever your cat is hungry. Offer a special treat in exchange for the cat allowing you to give his teeth a quick examination. Offer another treat in exchange for the cat allowing you to peek inside his ear. Examine between kitty's toes then immediately reward him with another of his special food treats. When your cat is in a playful mood, incorporate handling and touching with a play session. Convince kitty that being touched is all part of the fun and games. He should not be able to distinguish between play and grooming or between affection and restraint (hugging).
If at anytime kitty objects to these exercises, you simply deny the treat or stop the play session. Eventually your cat will learn to enjoy being touched and handled. This will happen extremely quickly with a kitten. It will take more time with an adult cat and even more time and patience with an already fearful cat. Again, first work on developing your cat's trust and confidence in yourself. Then introduce adult strangers, then children under your supervision. When introducing your cat to another pet, make sure the other cat or dog is one that is already friendly and well socialized with cats.
copyright 1995-2004 Gwen Bohnenkamp, Perfect Paws