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.