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Q&A: Is Your Cat Aggressive?

Play aggression is kittens is normal.

Cats are complex, amazing creatures. When they act out, anxiety is almost always the cause. Cats never get angry or mean; they get fearful and stressed.

Often pet parents unknowingly reinforce their animal’s aggressive behavior. It is important to stay calm and approach the issue of aggression rationally. If you get upset or mad at kitty, you will only make the situation worse.

We can help! This helpful look at feline aggressive behavior details exactly what you can do about it. An engaged, healthy kitty is a happy kitty.

Why is my kitten biting my ankles?
Young cats in the wild learn to hunt and to protect themselves by pouncing on each other—and anything else that moves, such as insects and falling leaves! Wrestling, bunny-kicking, batting their paws at each other: This is all normal kitten behavior called “play aggression.”

Play aggression usually only occurs in kittens. While it is a natural part of feline development, it can be distressing when your kitten attacks your ankles. The key to well-adjusted kittens is environmental enrichment.

How do I create an enriched environment?
Cats, especially young ones, needs stimulation and fun! Environmental enrichment is one of the best things you can do for your fur baby.

For cats, an enriched home includes vertical climbing surfaces, a variety of pet parent-approved scratching options, and daily play-time with string toys, jingle balls, or laser pointers. Read our blog post to learn all about environmental enrichment for cats.

Play aggression is also the only case in which adding another pet to your household often actually helps! Kittens almost always love to grow up with other kittens, as long as they are close in age and enjoy feline company.

What about aggression in my older cat?
Aggression in adult cats is almost never play aggression but most likely related to one of three things: 1) inadequate environmental enrichment, 2) an underlying medical condition, or 3) stressful changes in environment.

Follow the great tips on our blog post about environmental enrichment. Call us to schedule a visit or a behavior consultation to rule out or diagnose any underlying illness or condition. Pets are strongly conditioned to hide problems. Animals who become aggressive are often suffering from something medical and uncomfortable. We can treat the issue once we know what it is!

Changes in the home often cause cats stress. In the wild, the environment changes slowly. Animals stay in one place, with the same conditions and company. Cats are not magically transported from one place to another, such as when we move, and are not constrained in a new space with new things, such as when we have a baby or get a dog.

How can I decrease stress for my cat during times of change?
Changes at home are easiest on your cat when you accomplish them slowly, over weeks or months.  

We usually can’t move from one house to another as gradually as this. But we can simulate gradual changes. In your new house, confine your cat for a few weeks to one quiet room or area. Then gradually let your cat see, sniff out, and get to know his new home.

Use a calming pheromone plug-in, called Feliway, to ease your cat’s anxiety. Make sure your home has plenty of quiet hiding spaces so your cat can escape and be alone. We know you want to snuggle and comfort your cat, but it is best to let him or her hide and adjust to the change. Provide a safe, loving, enriched environment—then let your cat grow to love it without forcing the issue.

In times of change, extra water and food bowls, litter boxes, toys, beds, scratching posts, cardboard boxes, and other items that enrich the environment often help.

What is redirected aggression?
In the wild, a cat will attack, chase off, or run away from something threatening. House cats who get scared cannot do this—they feel trapped and terrified by such stressors as neighborhood dogs, thunderstorms, fireworks, construction, or even loud cars.

If your cat is sufficiently scared and full of nervous energy with no outlet, he or she may freak out and simply attack whatever is closest: hence redirected aggression.

How can you help? The first thing is eliminate the stressor as best you can. Drown out noise with calming music or TV. Cover the windows. Feliway pheromone plug-ins and a calming diet or calming supplements can also help. As always, environment enrichment is essential!

One scary incident of redirected aggression between two cats can affect them both for life; they may forever avoid or attack each other unless you intervene. Consider gradually re-introducing them to each other, as you would with a new cat.

How should I introduce a new cat?
Research shows the majority of U.S. households with a cat have more than one cat.  This usually means at some point two cats were introduced.

Kittens adopted at the same time, even from different litters, rarely have issues. But introducing an adult cat and a kitten or two adult cats can spell trouble. Follow the rule of gradual change. Going slow is key: slow meaning weeks or even months.

Put the new cat in a separate room closed off from the rest of the house and the established cat. Swap their blankets or beds every few days so they get used each other’s scent but do not interact. Clean and swap litter boxes every few days. Let them sniff each other under the door; it’s okay if they hiss. After you hold or pet one cat, pet the other to transfer the scent.

Begin introducing cats only when they are relaxed and quiet. Forcing stressed cats to meet is inviting disaster. Give each cat a handful of treats, about 6 feet from the door; then open the door for a few seconds.

This means the cats can see each other but are not stressed, not even a little, because they are focusing on treats. Do this for several days in a row. Gradually leave the door open a little longer or decrease the distance—but not both. After each session, play with and pet each cat for a few minutes; if two humans do this simultaneously, even better!

If either cat shows any stress, stop right away. Patience and calm supervision are key. After several weeks, or perhaps months, you will be able to leave the door open and let the cats sniff and greet and meet each other. It’s okay to keep them separated for hours at a time, and overnight, even after they’ve met.

We are committed to helping our pet parents create happy cats and happy homes. Call us at (919) 544-2226 if you have any questions or concerns.