There’s nothing quite like the sound and sight of feline aggression: the growling, yowling, hissing and spitting, while claws and teeth flash. A cat in full aggressive display is something to behold, and for good reason. Despite being a predator, a cat is a surprisingly vulnerable animal and when you pair that with highly sensitive sensory capabilities, you have an animal who will be quick to react.
The reasons for this are manifold, including various parts of the brain, nervous system and endocrine system. The two most relevant are the sympathetic nervous system and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal system. The former activates the fight-or-flight response and the latter regulates the stress response; both play fundamental roles in aggressive behaviour.
When a cat displays aggression, and these two physiological systems are triggered, she is said to have gone over her threshold. An over-threshold cat is in reactive mode, and the thinking part of the brain is no longer quite as active. On a side note, this is why punishing aggression in a cat is a terrible idea: punishment is a stressor and may cause fear or anger, simply serving to push the cat further over her threshold; secondly, a cat is not in a learning state at this time, and is unlikely to grasp the object of the lesson.
Common to most types of aggression are a twitching or lashing tail, dilated pupils and direct staring, bodily tension, and flattened or backward-turned ears. This signifies that the body is getting into a state of readiness in preparation for defence or offense. A cat in this state is on the very edge of her threshold, and it could take the tiniest trigger to push her over that precipice. This is a time to leave a cat well alone!
Types of aggression
There are many circumstances that can push a cat closer to her threshold, keeping in mind that thresholds will be unique to each cat and will vary depending on context and stimulus. So while one cat may swipe at the first sign of an outstretched hand, another will only release her claws if that hand is holding a brush. No cat will be aggressive for no reason, and aggression is not a true diagnosis but rather a symptom or result of an underlying emotional state. Fear and anxiety are frequent culprits but anger, excitement and frustration can also be implicated. Common types of aggression include:
- Redirected aggression This is frustration and anger in full force. When a cat becomes aware of something that causes an intense emotional response – perhaps she’s spied the neighbour’s cat coming into her garden – but she’s denied access, frustration builds and needs to go somewhere. The nearest person or cat may unexpectedly be clawed as a result.
- Play aggression Play is stimulating, and excessive excitement can push some cats towards that threshold. This is especially the case if the human or feline playmate is engaging in rough play, or the cat happens to have a lowered threshold for other reasons. Cats deprived of sufficient time with their mom and siblings as kittens are more likely to display aggression during play because they were unable to learn appropriate play skills.
- Affection aggression When we think we’re displaying love, cats may perceive the situation differently. While cats may enjoy human affection, sometimes it can lead to being scratched or bitten. Overstimulation may be one reason; discomfort with particular body parts another. As mentioned before, cats are vulnerable animals and too much close contact could initiate a fear response.
- Inter-cat aggression Hostilities between cats may arise over territory, access to resources, social or spatial pressure (too many cats for the available space), frustration, fear… the list goes on. Every conflict situation is unique and will entail various factors that are detracting from a healthy relationship.
- Pain-induced aggression Any time a cat displays aggressive behaviour, ruling out a health-related cause is the first consideration. Pain will always lower an animal’s threshold, and the same applies to any chronic or acute conditions that cause discomfort to the cat or noticeable symptoms. Cats should always be handled gently, and physical punishment should never be an option.
- Fear aggression Here we come to the most common cause of aggression. Fear can lurk behind different types of aggression, but can also affect a cat’s coping ability. A cat experiencing fear acutely or chronically (anxiety) is more likely to display aggression under circumstances completely unrelated to the object of her fear. This is why understanding thresholds is more important than understanding aggression. Aggression can appear to be unexpected, but when you consider thresholds it suddenly becomes much less surprising.
Help is needed
The bottom line is that if your cat is displaying aggressive behaviour, she’s struggling in some way. Something, or a combination of many things, is pushing your cat far too close to her emotional threshold. These cats need understanding and help, and it is best to consult with your vet in conjunction with a qualified cat behaviourist to work out a treatment plan that will address your cat’s specific needs.