Q: Why do pet cats sometimes viciously attack their owners for no apparent reason? —R.G., Florida
A: No “apparent” reason is how you put the question. However, there is always a reason, even if we are not perceptive enough to understand what it may be.
And most of the time, our cats will warn us, even if we aren’t noticing the warning signs. Depending on the cat and the circumstances, an individual cat will usually offer any combination of the of the following warning indicators before physically aggressing (biting or scratching):
- Tail flashing
- Hissing, growling, and/or snarling
- Dilated pupils
- Ears pointing to the sides or being held flat down
- Whiskers pointing straight out, directly down, or held flat
- Piloerection (hair is literally standing up on the back of the cat’s neck), and sometimes the cat’s skin actually appears to crawl
- Backing into a corner
- Looking as large and intimidating as possible (“Halloween cat”) or as small as possible (crouched position)
Cat aggression is defined and categorized by experts in specific ways depending on the expert. Here’s a common delineation:
- Medical explanation — There are many possibilities, including:
- A cat in pain may aggress.
- Hyperthyroid disease may possibly coincide with aggression.
- Feline cognitive dysfunction syndrome (like “kitty Alzheimer’s) will cause some cats to aggress.
- Dermatological conditions
- Just as in people, medications can cause surprising behavior changes.
- And more…
- Territorial aggression — Cats are territorial and may guard and defend something perceived as belonging to them. They may be particularly wary of a visitor or new member of the household.
- Cat returned home from veterinary visit (or longer trip) — The already anxious cat is distressed. Once a cat reaches a certain degree of fear, it takes quite a while (even days) to calm down and again feel safe.
- Resource aggression — This is most common between cats, or between a cat and a dog, but it can also occur between cats and people. A resource may be a food dish, scratching post, toy, or even a person. An individual cat may guard and defend a perceived resource.
- Social status aggression — A type of aggression reserved for inter-cat relationships and is not applicable to cats aggressing to people.
- Redirected aggression — An agitated cat is unable to vent frustration or aggress one thing, so it directs the aggression to another. One common example is indoor only cats who may see an outdoor cat and perceive that cat as a threat. Unable to get to the cat outside, the indoor cat may aggress to whomever is closest, another cat, a person, or even the family dog. This reactive aggression may offer little warning and can be quite violent.
- Petting aggression — Some cats love to be petted for hours on end, others have personal limitations. Usually cats offer subtle—or even not-so-subtle—warning signals to suggest when they’ve had enough. When these warnings are ignored, a cat may feel the only remaining choice is to aggress. Some cats appear to learn that their best bet is to take a shortcut and forget warning signals that dull humans won’t pick up on and more quickly aggress when they feel the need.
- Fearful aggression — Sometimes when a cat is very afraid, even terrified, it may feel that the best defense is a strong offense. Or, it might feel cornered and have no choice but to aggress.
- Play related/predatory aggression — This is most common among individuals weaned early, like cats brought up as bottle-babies by loving human fosters or as single kittens without littermates. As kitties, they never learned bite inhibition. Also, without appropriate play outlets, or never learning appropriate play outlets, some kittens and cats decide that a moving person is worthy of sneak attack. It may be play from the kitten or cat’s perspective, but we’re not playing.
Hyperesthesia syndrome — This is a category unto itself, as cats being petted will respond with an attack to the person or even attack themselves, like a cat attacking its own tail. Hyperesthesia syndrome remains a little-understood behavior disorder or neurological condition (or both) and typically requires medication.
I assume your cat falls into one or more of these categories.
So, what do you do about it? Absolutely, it’s imperative to rule out the medical possibilities. Show your veterinarian a video of the cat aggressing.
Even if there is no medical component, and this is solely a behavioral issue, the solution depends on the type of aggression identified and what’s going on in your home.
If your veterinarian can’t assist, depending on what the problem is, I suggest a veterinary technician with expertise in animal behavior, a veterinary behaviorist, or certified cat behavior consultant.