Not long ago, Motor and I were cuddled together; his gentle kneading and rhythmic purring locked me in a trance of relaxation and contentment. What a perfectly sweet, affectionate cat, I thought. The picture of a savage, wild animal never entered my mind. Motor is a neutered, male domestic house cat with nothing especially unique or different about him. He is just a normal, everyday real cat. He belongs to a long-time friend of mine and I see him every now and then.
Several weeks after our little cuddling session, I entered his yard (as I have on many occasions) but this time it was different. I had at the end of a leash a large terrier. I expected Motor to take one look at us and flee for his life. After all, didn't Motor notice that this was no ordinary dog? Whenever Motor was spooked, he did what all good cats do. He ran for safety. The owner also assured me that her cat would either hide under the shed or dash up the tree to watch us from a safe distance.
But not this time. Before my very eyes, Motor transformed into an enraged, furious, wild animal. I knew then that we were in big trouble. I instructed the dog to sit-stay and she obediently froze like a statue. Within seconds, Motor hurled himself at us - biting, clawing and yowling. He backed off, circled us and flew in for a second attack, then a third. This happened about five times before the owner came out and rescued us. The entire time I kept moving around to keep myself between Motor and the dog who obediently remained motionless and quiet the entire time while I was screaming hysterically. We must have been a hilarious sight to see. I could envision the headlines: "Mild mannered kitty transforms into devil - attacks pitbull and animal behaviorist!"
It's easy to forget that under the warm, furry, adorable exterior of cat is an animal. When cats are upset, they don't call their lawyer. When they are in a playful mood, they don't pull out the monopoly board. They bite and scratch. They pounce and attack. A domestic cat is not domesticated until it has been adequately gentled and socialized. There are a variety of reasons why a cat may act or appear aggressive. Let's take a look at them.
Cats are predators. They are not farmers. It is in their instinct to hunt down and kill. Even though you provide a gourmet diet for kitty, he still needs to practice his hunting skills whether you like it or not. Predatory behavior is often characterized by long periods of lying in wait and stalking followed by an explosion of activity - the attack. It's common for a cat to creep up to a sleeping owner and playfully attack them in bed. Some cats sit quietly, staring at a wiggling toe, then with lightening speed, they pounce and attack. Other cats lie in wait under furniture until a foot passes by, then their claw reaches out and grabs. Cat play is an extension of their predatory nature. It provides the cat with the opportunity to develop and sharpen its hunting skills, even if it never needs to go out and catch its own dinner. Although your cat may be playing, playful bites can still hurt and cause injury.
Cats that have not been adequately gentled and socialized during kittenhood are generally suspicious and fearful of people. If they don't like being approached, touched, handled or picked up, they often tell you so by biting and scratching. Even cats that are socialized can become angry or frightened in certain situations. Maybe they don't like being picked up by a stranger (the vet) and getting jabbed with a needle (routine vaccination). Some cats are fine until its bath time. Every cat has its limits. The more gentling and socialization kitty receives during kittenhood, the less likely a situation will come up that will frighten or anger the cat. Read more on your cats social behavior.
Once a cat learns that its aggressive display is successful at warding off the perceived threat, the more likely the cat will act aggressive again. In other words, the cat is rewarded for acting aggressive because the threat or annoyance goes away. In this case, we have unintentionally trained the cat to be aggressive. If I reached out to pet a cat and it aggressively struck out at me, I most certainly would obediently withdraw. I don't want to get scratched or bitten. Now the behavior becomes even more difficult to cure and the cat more dangerous to handle. This almost sounds like a no-win situation, but never fear, remedies for this type of behavior is covered in related reading.
This type of aggression is usually very specific and the result of lack of socialization. This was the type of aggression Motor displayed when I entered his territory with a dog. Motor had been socialized with people coming and going into his space - but never in his 9 years had another animal trespassed onto his territory in his presence. Cats will fight ferociously and furiously for their territory, as did Motor. A mother cat may also fight or attack to protect her kittens. See the article on a cat's territorial behavior.
An often perplexing case history involves a cat that one moment lies peacefully purring on the owner's lap, happily accepting affection; and the next moment, erupts into a rage of claws and teeth. The owner is shocked by the sudden attack. It's actually normal behavior for cats to have quick reversals of mood and behavior. There's a fine line between enjoyable petting and irritating handling. Once the petting reaches a certain threshold, the cat will reject any further touching. The cat says, "Stop it!" by biting or scratching. Perhaps a sensitive or painful area was unknowingly touched. Continuous pleasurable stimulation can overexcite the cat causing aggressive behavior. The cat becomes sexually excited and the resulting aggression is a part of normal sexual behavior.
Sometimes a cat will suddenly act aggressive for medical reasons. Any abnormal behavior or sudden change in behavior should be checked out by your veterinarian as soon as possible. If you spend time with your cat and get to know him, you will notice any changes in his behavior and habits right away. If there is a sudden change, don't assume your cat is misbehaving. Check with your veterinarian first. If kitty gets a clean bill of health, then look at it from the behavioral viewpoint.