When you first brought your cat home, she was probably a shy, playful little kitten. Play time with your pet was enjoyable and downright adorable. Your tiny kitty was infatuated with you and fascinated by the fluttering movements of your fingers and toes. Her pouncing was cute and playful.
So small and innocent, you never thought your kitten would turn into anything other than a big sweetie pie.
But you were wrong.
Gradually, your cat has become a quick-tempered little feline. Every time she feels the least bit threatened or just a little flustered by a sudden movement or action, she (over)reacts.
Signs of Aggression
Let’s define the signs of aggressive behavior in cats. There are many and the most common are:
- showing teeth
- ears pulled back
- dilated eyes
- tail sticking up
- hair raised
- urinating on objects (marking territory)
You walk by innocently or attempt to pet your cat the same way you did yesterday, but she’s not having it this time. Her response is not only ill-mannered, but potentially unsafe and aggressive. Band-Aids, anyone?
So, how could your sweet little kitten turn out so angry and annoyed?
A Combination of Nature and Nurture
It can be viewed as a classic nature vs. nurture debate. Some say that it is a result of the genetic code ingrained into your cat’s DNA; the situations that ancient felines had once encountered cause your cat to be testy and wary of potential danger. On the other hand, others say that it is a result of the way cat owners rear their pets from the very beginning; they accept and justify the aggressive behavior as kittens, so when the cat grows to be an adult, this cute, playful behavior turns into a dangerous one.
As most traits are, aggressive play is a combination of both natural predisposition and learned behavior.
Because cats once had to survive in the wild, they have a natural instinct to be cautious and wary of potential dangers. They have not been domesticated nearly as long as dogs have, so their genetic code has not had much time to shift in a way that is completely comfortable with humans and accepting of being subordinate to an owner. Also, because cats are much smaller and have many larger predators in the wild, they think that they need to be on guard to survive.
In combination with this predisposition, there is also a learned component to aggressive cat behaviors. Similar to babies, kittens pick up on cues and reassurance for how they are supposed to act.
In their early years, if kittens are allowed to get away with “playful” biting, clawing, and oh-so-cute pouncing, they think that this behavior is acceptable—maybe even preferred—inside your home. At the time, it can be hard to begin disciplining your adorable, tiny kitty. In the wild, when cats play-fight with other cats, they learn the limits of biting and scratching very quickly. But with you, they may not have learned the limits.
Later, if your growing/grown-up cat tends to go too far with the pouncing, scratching, and biting during play, odds are you didn’t steer her away from this behavior as a kitten. It may be adorable when they are young and don’t cause much damage, but once they grow, this aggression can cause harm and conflict for your family. So, remember: your tiny little ball of fluff just needs to learn your limits, which will create a calmer, safer relationship for both of you.
There are a few reasons for certain aggressive tendencies in your cat. If your cat is found ready to pounce on any human close in proximity to her, possibly with her ears pulled back and tail perched straight up, she may have not been properly socialized in her early weeks of life. She may have accumulated general trust issues with humans and expects any person passing by her to be a threat.
If your cat shows territorial behavior and hisses or pounces on anything that crosses her, she is exhibiting her instinctual tendencies as a hunter. Cats in the wild are solitary hunters with their own territory and have learned that sharing is not helpful for their fitness (their ability to successfully survive and reproduce). Some cats learn to cooperatively live with other animals and share resources, but some have this natural instinct to show aggression towards anything that threatens their base.
From Hostile to Wholesome
You should not just settle for your cat being aggressive and think there is no hope to change their behavior. Although it may be difficult to steer her away from these sassy acts, there are definitely steps you can take to change your cat from hostile to wholesome.
First, it is important to remember that cats do not handle punishment well. Because it is ingrained in them to believe that all larger animals are out to get them, any sort of harsh learning tactics used on them will not only teach them nothing, but they will most likely be scared of you and their trust issues will be amplified.
Cats do much better with positive reinforcement. Instead of punishing them when they do something wrong, praise them when they do something right. If they approach you calmly, lick your hand, sit on your lap, or play with you without being overly aggressive, give them a treat. In addition, if they show aggressive behavior and act hasty towards your family, ignore them and hold back from showing affection. They will soon learn that nice behavior will be rewarded while aggressive behavior will be ignored—and that life is better when they act appropriately.
It is important that each member of your family or household discourages rough play with your cat and understands that it will only make matters worse. Whether she is a newborn kitten or approaching her 9th life, biting and clawing should ever be encouraged; you do not want your cat to think that this behavior is appropriate, because the next time she actually feels threatened, she could seriously injure a member of your family.
Lastly and perhaps obviously, never approach your cat when she is tense. She may interpret your approach as an aggressive act—an invitation to fight or a direct attack. Instead, avoid giving her attention altogether while she is acting hostile. It is better to separate yourself from the situation, avoid creating “an incident” between you two, and connect with her once she has calmed down.
Rearing your pet to act in a certain way is never an easy feat. It takes patience, willpower, and most importantly, a lot of love. For the safety of your family and feline, try to squash the aggressive behavior as soon as it starts.