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Aggressive Cats? Here’s How To Keep the Peace

Considering their size, domestic cats can make formidable adversaries. Unlike dogs, cats have not one, but five attack weapons, including a widely opening mouth, well-appointed with penetrating teeth, and four dexterous paws bearing needle-sharp claws. The combination of these weapons, explosive speed, and the exquisite suppleness of a contortionist can make restraining aggressive cats more difficult than herding these independent creatures.

Every veterinarian knows that it is far better to avoid a cat’s ire than it is to contend with it once the cat’s enraged. Thus, the soft-shoe approach of gentle handling and minimal physical restraint is the best one to adopt when handling aggressive cats. Once a cat’s anger has boiled over, it is best to give the cat a time out to calm down before proceeding with any necessary intervention. Or, if it’s absolutely necessary to proceed immediately, it’s best to resort to sedatives or full physical restraint.

As with other species, there are several different ways of classifying aggression. One describes aggression as either instrumental (as a vehicle to achieve some desired goal), fear-induced, territorial, sexual, irritable, maternal, or predatory. This classification is commonly employed when discussing the different types of aggression in animals and is descriptive of purpose, as opposed to function. Furthermore, it has been added to over the years to include other terms such as petting-induced aggression, pain-induced aggression, and idiopathic aggression (of unknown cause).

Alpha Cat Aggression

Cats are supposed to be warm and friendly creatures, seeking owner approval, petting and cuddles and purring their way through peaceful evenings at home. But not all cats are this amiable or this compliant. Some have an agenda of their own and seemingly refuse to take no for an answer.

These are “alpha cats.” They are natural leaders; they refuse to be led and attempt to take charge of practically every situation. These cats like their food when they want it and the way that they like it … or else. They may only let you touch them for short periods of time and then again, only on their terms. They rebel when admonished and demand attention, access, and assets — when the mood so takes them. You don’t own an alpha cat — he owns you, or at least, he thinks he does.

When alphas don’t get their own way, they bully and pressure you into immediate action. They may bite your nose or toes to get you out of bed in the morning. They may shriek their demands for food until you are forced to give in. They may growl if approached while eating and some are protective of their toys and nap times. And watch out if you try to pick up your alpha cat or pet him when he’s not in the mood. He may bite or claw his negative message to you in no uncertain terms.

Territorial Aggressive Cats

Problems with territorial aggression are most common when a new cat is added to the household. If sudden introductions lead to aggression, this can set the stage for future battles and may not bode well for the future. The way to circumvent this problem is to gradually introduce unfamiliar cats to each other across a closed door. A gradual introduction of a new cat to the household may take two to three weeks. This said, if initial animosities are mild, they often resolve spontaneously over a period of four months, even without such precautionary measures.

Territorial aggression between cats in the same household tends to develop gradually. The more confident cat may begin to guard various resources and threaten its feline housemate over the slightest infraction. Gradually the threats may progress to attacks and the victim may become progressively more frightened. Depending on the victim’s temperament, he may choose to retaliate or hide, only making an appearance when the territorial cat is not around. Occasionally litter box problems may arise because the fearful cat is too afraid to leave his hiding place. Additional problems of spraying and other forms of marking may occur if both cats are of close to equal status.

Aggressive Maternal Cats

What self-respecting mother would not do all within her power to protect and defend her offspring? Not too many. But sometimes these feelings of protectiveness turn into something called “maternal aggression” that can make a once-friendly pet unapproachable.

Some of this protectiveness arises out of affection and concern of a mother for her young. However, nature and alterations in brain chemistry both catalyze this response. The sight, sound, and smell of the newborn, as well as tactile signals received during nursing, cause the release of a “bonding hormone,” oxytocin, which seals the mother-infant bond (and has other mechanical effects on the uterus and other smooth muscle tissues). In addition to this change, blood levels of progesterone, the hormone of pregnancy, fall rapidly as estrogen levels climb. The calming effect of progesterone is lost and the activating effect of estrogen replaces it. Also, and perhaps most significantly, the rise and fall of the milk releasing hormone prolactin exactly parallels that of maternal aggression.

Aggressive Predatory Cats

Predation is the way in which cats obtain their food in the wild. It is debatable whether this behavior classifies as aggression in the true sense, but because it involves the destruction of a third party, it is usually included. There are two situations relating to predatory behavior that cause owners concern. One is during kittenhood when predatory behaviors are being rehearsed and honed, sometimes at the owner’s expense, and the other occurs in adulthood when true predatory behavior is directed toward small varmints.

Predatory play is one of several categories of play behavior exhibited by young kittens. Although the evolutionary function of predatory play is to rehearse and sharpen predatory skills for use in later life, it is often interpreted by owners as blatant aggression. When a kitten has playmates (normally litter mates) for company, predatory play aggression is rarely a problem, but when feline company is lacking, kittens may direct their playfulness towards their owners. Typically cats in this mode hide behind walls stalking and pouncing on approaching feet and ankles, inflicting scratches and minor bite wounds.

Can Aggressive Cats Eventually Be Friends?

As you may have guessed, it is not always possible to get two cats to live together without hostilities occurring. Cats are more like humans than most of us would have ever imagined! When two aggressive cats are apparently incompatible, it may be possible — by working with a behaviorist — to defuse overt aggression and allow the pair to live together in mutual indifference, if not harmony. In many instances, even mutual indifference would be an acceptable conclusion to the owners.

Barring occasional oil and water personality mixes, owners often find that problems between cats often do settle eventually and sometimes relationships between cats positively blossom. As mentioned, there is no absolute way to tell which cat is going to react in which way and which ones will reconcile their differences in due course. It’s mainly a matter of trial and error … and luck. Cat personality-wise, good omens for a successful blend include a history of proper socialization, no prior history of inter-cat aggression (either as aggressor or recipient), curiosity, and a calm, even-tempered personality. With all these factors present in the cats to be brought together, the mix should be just purr-fect.

Resources for Aggressive Cats

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