Cat Aggression towards humans

By Frania Shelley-Grielen. All rights reserved.

The top three behavioral reasons for owner surrender of cats to animal shelters are house soiling, problems with other pets and aggression towards people according to a 2000 study in The Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science. Shelter statistics supplied by the ASPCA reports that of the 3.4 million cats that enter the shelter system each year 37% of these cats will be adopted and 41% of them will be euthanized.

Cats are officially the most popular companion animal in United States households. According to The American Veterinary Medical Association as of 2102, over 30% of American households had cats compared to over 36% of American households owning dogs. There are more cats living in a home than dogs, the average cat owning household has 2.1 cats while the average dog owning household has 1.6. Cats appeal to humans for multiple reasons, their remarkable beauty and form, their grace, their individual personalities and “catness.” Their perceived independent nature offers greater compatibility with our life styles. Cats, we think, are basically low maintenance compared with dogs that require a greater degree of interaction and much more attention and time for training and potty breaks. But would our cats agree? Cats and dogs are in fact both social animals. Cat behavior and dog behavior do differ –think tail movement for starters. Both animals require social interaction to thrive. Indoor cats are fiercely dependent on an enriched environment for maximum welfare. Problems with house soiling and aggression are evidence that the cat’s basic perceived needs are not being met. This affects both the cat’s welfare and can impact negatively on their relationship with their humans.

Helping cat owning families to have more information on behavior problems, and how to apply solutions is one of the most important remedies in keeping cats in families and out of shelters. This article focuses on how to work with aggression towards people. (Articles on house soiling and aggression/problems with other pets can be found under the cats or dogs or cats and dogs tabs on the website.)

The most widely accepted definition of “aggression” is action with intent to cause harm with “violence” being a form of aggression where the intended harm is severe or fatal. When it comes to human beings, we can further define aggressive behavior into “physical aggression” or “verbal aggression.” For all animals, threats and warnings are not aggression as they actually serve to prevent action intended to cause harm from happening if they are communicated effectively, that is “heard” and responded to. Several types of aggression exist with cats aggression caused by lack of socialization, pain aggression, play aggression and fear aggression. (Anxiety is thought to be the cause for abnormal or problematic aggression.)

It is vitally important to realize that we tend to overuse “aggression,” especially when talking about animals, to the point where the word has become a catchall for every behavior we may think is negative or are not comfortable with. This sort of thinking can lead owners to over react as a result. We need to be able to tell the difference between warnings, threats and aggression along with accepting that aggression is a necessary and normal response when a cat is threatened or in a dangerous situations.

The aggressive cat communicates clearly through body language discomfort with the circumstances and readiness to defend themselves if flight is not possible or if the threat does not stop. They employ highly ritualized threat displays and have a wide range of warning vocalizations. Konrad Lorenz captured the unique expression of aggression in cats and the fair warning given in the following passage:

“The threatening attitudes of a cat are extraordinarily expressive, and are entirely different in their manifestation according to whom they are directed against, whether they apply to a human friend who has “gone too far,” or to a feared enemy, perhaps a dog or another cat. They are different too, according to whether they are made purely in self defense or whether they imply self-assurance in the animal and predict a forthcoming attack. Cats always announce their intention of attacking…they never bite or scratch without giving previous unmistakable warning to the offender. Usually, indeed, the gradually increasing threatening gestures are suddenly exaggerated just before action is taken. This is evidently an ultimatum, “If you don’t leave me alone at once, I shall unfortunately be obliged to take reprisals.”' (Continue Reading Below.)