NERVOUS AND AGGRESSIVE CATS
When you adopt a cat or kitten it is quite likely to be quiet and wary for the first few days or weeks in your home. It may even spend its first few days hiding. This is because it is getting used to its new environment and owner and needs to assess things from a safe place. A few cats become defensive, hissing or even swiping at members of the household who press their attentions on the newcomer before the newcomer is comfortable enough to accept such attention. Although early wariness is not a hard-and-fast rule, since some confident cats walk in and take over, it is normal and usually temporary. A few cats, in spite of a quiet, patient introduction and plenty of time to settle in, remain very fearful of their new surroundings and of household members. This is upsetting for most owners because they are expecting a friendly lap cat and, instead of seeking attention, the cat appears to be unhappy and stressed. Owners may be less worried if the cats are ferals being tamed (a specialist topic dealt with at Taming Feral Kittens and Cats) or ferals being made accustomed to their new surroundings before being released as working cats.
This article looks at domestic cats that remain anxious, nervous and aggressive in the long term. Persistent problems of nervousness or aggression, especially aggression towards people, should first be discussed with a vet in case the cat is unwell. If there is no easily identifiable cause then you need to seek referral to a feline behaviourist.
We generally expect our cats to be confident, outgoing and friendly with family members and to be curious about visitors. A nervous cat may run and hide from visitors, at sudden noises or even from common everyday sounds such as the television or vacuum cleaner. Whereas most cats are initially wary of unfamiliar noises, people or events, this is soon replaced by curiosity as immortalised in the old adage about curiosity and the cat. Nervous cats remain fearful; this prevents them from investigating the disturbance and discovering it to be harmless.
While any cat can be frightened by sudden noises, nervous cats spend a great deal of their time hiding in what they perceive to be a safe place: under a bed, on top of a wardrobe or in an open cupboard (where they risk getting shut in). They seem to spend most of their time hiding from the world. Normal households, especially those that are bustling or have children, find nervous or frightened cats to be disappointing and unrewarding pets. The cat may stay hidden for most of the day until the noise has died down and the children are asleep. Once the household is quiet, it may venture out. This is often called "invisible cat syndrome". Such cats live up to the epithet "scaredy cat" or "fraidy cat". Because they may strike out if attention is pressed on them (particularly by young children frustrated at kitty's apparent unfriendliness), they may end up in shelters and labelled "temperamental".
Nervous cats fit better into some household situations than into others and what might be a problem in a bustling household might not be an issue in a quiet home. Cindy is an invisible cat. After the upheaval of her previous home and possible ill-treatment at the feet of the owner's new husband, she is understandably wary of people. In the cat shelter, she greeted feeders by hissing at them, though her body language remained passive. Her first few weeks with me were spent mainly under a bed. Although she is always underfoot and seemingly confident in my quiet household, should friends visit, Cindy retreats to the security of underneath a bed. She also dislikes thunder and vacuum cleaners and will hide from these. Her fear of thunderstorms is diminishing as she has learnt that my lap provides an even greater feeling of security. My parents call her the "invisible cat". A few quiet, regular visitors have been rewarded by a visit from Cindy, though she retreats if they shift position. Since Cindy's nervousness is limited to specific objects and situations, she is not stressed or unhappy. If she had been adopted by a family with children, it would be a very different matter and probably a very unhappy cat.
Causes of Nervousness
Like people, some cats are more naturally more fearful or "flighty" than others. Caution is a valuable trait if you want to survive in the wild. Over the centuries, we have selected and bred from friendlier cats, however the genes for caution are still there (and can be seen in feral descendants of domestic cats). The genetic make-up of some cats predisposes them to caution rather than to confidence. It is believed that a small percentage of cats simply do not inherit the genes that allow them to be comfortable in a domestic situation; even if handled from a young age they remain wild or nearly so.
Squeak was so nervous of strangers that she sometimes wet herself rather than venture out to a litter tray even if she and the tray were upstairs and the stranger was downstairs. Yet with her owners she was confident and playful. Her littermate was friendly and outgoing. Both cats had shared the same upbringing and early experiences, but different genetics meant one was timid and the other was bold. A complicating factor in random-bred cats is that a female can mate multiple times and each kitten in her litter could have a different father. Research suggests that temperament is influenced by the father more than by the mother so this can result in littermates having very different personalities (Influence of the Father on Kittens' Temperaments).
A special case is that of early generation hybrids i.e. those who have a wild cat as a parent or grandparent and who are described as "queer-tempered". These have inherited non-domestic genes from the wild ancestor. In general, they are more nervous than domestic cats descended from generations of wholly domestic cats. However, each is an individual and the degree of nervousness/tameness varies from one individual to another depending on the mix of genes they have inherited; some seem perfectly tame while others are as wild as their wild parent or grandparent. This is why they should homed to experienced owners who understand feline body language and can cope with their mix of tame and wild ancestry and a possibly unpredictable temperament due to conflicts between their domestic heritage and their wild heritage.
Bad Experiences Or "Once Bitten Twice Shy".
If the cat has previously had a frightening experience, it tries to avoid it happening again. This is a natural survival mechanism. In most cases the mechanism works properly - a cat that has been chased by a large dog will avoid large dogs, usually by avoiding certain gardens. A fearful cat may over-react and avoid going out of doors again in order to avoid large dogs. Some take this to greater extremes and retreat to a safe "den". Scrapper, my ex-feral, had a very specific fear - dustmen and loud men in heavy boots. This probably resulted from bad experiences when he was surviving by raiding rubbish bags.
Bad experiences can be overcome by exposing the cat to increasing amounts of the frightening stimulus as detailed in the "Treatment" section below. This is similar to the desensitisation used when treating phobias in humans. The other alternative is to avoid a repeat of the frightening event, but this is only feasible if the nervousness is limited to one situation.
Lack Of Early Socialisation.
Kittens which meet people and other animals (and TVs, vacuum cleaners etc) before the age of 8 weeks will learn that these are normal parts of life and will usually deal with them confidently. Those exposed to the general hubbub of life in their early weeks ("raised underfoot") will take most things in their stride. Kittens raised in animal shelters usually meet different feeders and carers and get used to visitors. However kittens raised with minimal contact with people do not become accustomed to the sights and sounds of a normal household. Feral kittens tamed before 8 weeks usually grow into normal pet cats; those tamed later on take longer and may remain timid with strangers.
If you know your cat's background, this makes it easier to decide how to tackle its nervousness and how effective treatment will be. For example, its fearfulness may relate to a particular stimulus and treatment can be geared to desensitising it. However, many owners know little of their cat's early background - it may have been adopted as an adult or taken in as a stray - and though nervousness can be tackled, it will take time and patience.
What is going through a cat's mind when a noise, stranger or activity sends it into hiding under a bed? As far as the cat is concerned, it has removed itself from what it sees as a dangerous, possibly life-threatening, situation. In its safe "den" it feels safe and relieved. This feeling of relief reinforces the fleeing and hiding behaviour. Getting under the bed with the cat or removing it from a cupboard will stress it even more as its safe den has been invaded. Unlike dogs, cats are not pack animals and cannot call on pack-mates to help it out if threatened. To survive, its reaction to danger is to find a safe place to hide until the danger has gone. While this makes sense when a cat is confronted by a predator, it is upsetting to family members who only want to pet the cat.
To overcome the hiding behaviour, you need to offer it something even more rewarding than the feeling of safety and relief that it gets from instinctively running and hiding. This can be difficult because you are trying to overcome a hard-wired survival instinct. First, it needs to learn that the situation it is fleeing from is not actually a threat to it. In other words, it needs to be desensitised to the stimulus that makes it hide. To do this you have to expose it to the scary situation, but in such a way that it feels safe and cannot run.
An indoor crate or kittening pen is almost essential. A dog's travel crate (large enough to contain a blanket, water bowl and a litter tray) is a possibility (Argos and larger pet supplies stores stock these). Place the cat in the pen and place this in a corner of the room. Cover the top of the pen and three sides with a blanket so that the cat can only see out of the front. This gives it a feeling of protection. To begin with, put the cat in the pen during a quiet period so that it can get used to the confinement and can relax. Make its times in the pen positive experiences by feeding it treats. From the safety of this pen, the cat can see and hear all the normal household goings-on. As days progress, you can expose it to more things: the TV, vacuum cleaning in the next room (not right up to the pen!), members of the household walking past etc. Make sure that you do not terrorise the cat within its pen - keep the fear item at a safe distance.
The things you expose the cat to may depend on its particular fears or may be general. The following is aimed at a cat that is specifically fearful of visitors as well as to cats that are generally nervous.
When the cat seems relaxed, get a friend to visit or get a family member to ring the door bell. The cat cannot run away from the door bell and must now listen and watch from the safety of its pen. It must realise that the anticipated threats are not going to materialise. Ask your visitor to feed the cat a favourite treat through the cage and to talk quietly to the cat (this may be the first time they have actually seen your "invisible cat"!). After several sessions - the number varies according to the cat's nervousness - your cat will anticipate good things happening and should start to view events with interest rather than with trepidation.
Once your cat is showing interest from the safety of its pen, you can graduate to having it loose in the closed room while people watch TV or move around tidying up. Again, invite visitors into the room (they must be briefed to behave calmly and quietly so the don't startle the cat and undo previous hard work) and get them to give your cat favourite titbits. The cat is learning that it is worth staying around in the hope of titbits and petting rather than running away from visitors as soon as the doorbell rings.
Time and Patience
Overcoming nervousness or particular fears takes time and patience. The cat has to unlearn its previous fear and overcome its instinctive reaction. Compensating for early lack of socialisation is also a slow process. Never lose your temper or try to hurry the process. Forcing the issue will merely reinforce the cat's previous fears and undo any progress you have already made. Cats instinctively feel safe in high places so when you progress to letting it loose in the room with you, provide it with a high perch (e.g. a shelf it can easily reach) so that it can sit and watch the world from its safe vantage point. Cats respond well to food rewards. Cats that are bonded to you but fearful of other things will also respond to rewards of affection. Some owners have had good results with Bach Flower Remedies "Rescue Remedy" and remedies indicated for fear, stress or nervousness. If you want to try any homeopathic or herbal remedies, check their safety with your vet first. For alternative remedies that don't involve tablets or liquids, it is courteous to let your vet know.
There are many different types of aggression in animals. We accept, or even encourage, some forms of aggression e.g. territorial aggression where our cat(s) chase strange cats out of the garden or the aggression of a female protective of her kittens. We accept occasional aggressive behaviour such as a scratch or bite from a cat if we feel we have somehow provoked it e.g. it is retaliating when the owner tries to medicate it. Unprovoked aggression towards humans, who are after all much larger than cats, is less common in cats than in dogs.
You may have heard tales of cats that terrorise postmen. This is not a simple unprovoked attack on a human. The cat is viewing the postman as an intruder into its territory and as a possible threat to it. While some cats run from perceived threats, others take the view that attack is the best form of defence and will launch a pre-emptive strike against the intruder. The poor postman invariable retreats to avoid being bitten or scratched. This reinforces the cat's behaviour because it believes it has successfully driven off a threatening intruder.
Types of Aggression
Pain is a frequent cause of aggressive behaviour in cats. If a cat that normally accepts stroking suddenly becomes aggressive, it may be due to illness or pain. Like humans, cats usually don't want to be physically fussed over when they feel unwell. He may have a wound or abscess that is painful when touched. This type of aggression necessitates a visit to the vet. Many cats have no-go areas due to underlying conditions such as rheumaticky hips. They will tolerate being stroked anywhere but in the no-go area.
Also called "Petting and Biting Syndrome" this is the most common aggressive behaviour in cats. You are stroking your cat and it seems to be enjoying the attention, but suddenly it turns round and attacks your hand, sometimes grabbing your wrist with its front claws and kicking you with its back feet. Sometimes this is a play behaviour, but the cat has not learnt to keep its claws sheathed or to bite gently enough that it doesn't damage our fragile human skin.
When a cat is sitting on your lap being stroked it is feeling relaxed and trusting. Then the cat realises that it is being handled by a much larger predator, not by its mother or another cat, and it feels vulnerable. Conflicting feelings of security and fear results in defensive aggression and the confused cat grabs the hand which is stroking it. It may then jump down from your lap and sit grooming itself to calm itself. Often a cycle develops: you pet the cat for a while, it reacts defensively and you stop petting it but it does not jump down so you resume petting it and after a while it reacts defensively.
Most owners realise that cats' bellies should be petted with caution if they are petted at all. Although many cats seem to solicit belly-rubbing (it reminds them of their kittens days when their mother cleaned their bellies), many will lash out if the owner takes the liberty of rubbing the displayed belly. The adult feeling of vulnerability suddenly wins out over the kittenish feeling of being groomed. The result is a sudden mood change. Once you've learnt your cat's no-go areas, respect them - even if it is displaying its belly. If your cat does love a belly rub you are highly honoured.
Accepting being stroked has to be learned. Adult cats are naturally wary and some never learn to enjoy being petted by humans. Younger cats are more excitably, but luckily, many calm down as they get older. Some may have missed out on human attention during the socialisation period and find human attention threatening. They may enjoy being stroked (and may indulge in mutual grooming sessions with another cat), but have to learn to accept this attention from a much larger creature.
First of all, you must learn to read your cat's body language so that you can stop petting it as soon as it shows signs of unease. This way you can build up its tolerance of being handled. Sit quietly and calmly with the cat and make sure there will be no interruptions. Keep petting sessions short and always stop before the cat reacts. Common signs of imminent reaction are twitching (especially the tail), backwards-facing ears, dilated pupils, sudden tensing of the body (especially if it pulls away from you in a sideways posture). As soon as you see signs of reaction, stop petting. If possible, reward the cat with food (it helps to keep a packet of treats nearby) and gentle verbal praise. The cat has been rewarded for accepting petting and, all going well, it will learn to accept longer and longer stroking sessions over time. Never punish the cat for its defensive aggression as this reinforces its view that you are a threat or are unpredictable.
At 8 weeks old, Nutmeg had been shut in a shed, fed intermittently and expected to catch mice. She spent her first year this way. Once rescued, she had no concept of play, craved companionship and laps, but wouldn't allow herself to be touched. She was "de-socialised". She was rehomed 4 times, but her aggression problems always led to her being returned to the shelter. Her fifth (and last chance) adopter learnt Nutmeg's body language and learnt when to stop before she bit him. "After the first stroke, she glared. After the second stroke she rolled away. After the third stroke she bit and scratched." Even so, Nutmeg bit him often. Instead of pulling away, he did not move in spite of having her teeth fastened in his hand. Nutmeg's learned that biting did not get a reaction. It took 3 months of lacerations to teach Nutmeg that biting did not get a reaction and she learned not to bite quite so quickly. She now (usually) licks to as a warning that she has had enough petting. Though she craves fuss, her early experiences will never be completely overcome.
Pent-up Energy and Re-Directed Aggression
Most forms of aggression are reactive aggression - the cat reacts to a perceived threat. Occasionally, cats display proactive aggression i.e. attacking the owner for no apparent reason. The usual form is for the cat to attack the owner as the owner walks past or to prevent the owner from reaching certain parts of the house.
A lovely male Birman was taken to a cat shelter due to attacking its owner's legs. This indoor-only cat had become such a problem that his owner was forced to wear wellington boots in the house to protect her ankles from the cat's teeth and claws. The owner took to carrying a water pistol and squirting the cat whenever he attacked, but this did not reduce the behaviour. The cat was rehomed to someone who threw balls of crumpled paper to distract the cat each time it attacked. It was also given access to an enclosed garden where it proved an adept hunter. Although the behaviour did not completely go away, redirecting the aggression reduced it to a manageable level.
Re-directed aggression is more often found in indoor-only cats (and contributes to them being declawed in some countries). They can see birds, animals and other cats through the windows and become excited and fidgetty, but they cannot get to the things that excite them. They need to get rid of the pent up energy or frustration. If the owner happens to he walking past, the movement can trigger the hunting instinct or trigger defensive aggression resulting in an attack. Making cats "hunt" or "work" for their food can provide an outlet for this natural behaviour and is used to good effect in zoos. You can make a cat work for its food by hiding food treats around the house or in puzzle toys that have to be rolled around in order to release pieces of kibble (dry cat food). This is much more stimulating than simply presenting the food in a bowl. Environmental enrichment is essential for indoor cats: climbing posts, high ledges to rest on, dens and varying the toys that are available (to prevent boredom). Interactive play with fishing toys is also recommended.
In the cases of Pedro and Silver, their owner-oriented aggression vanished once the cats were able to vent their hunting instinct on the local rabbit and rodent populations. Pedro became a farm cat and Silver was homed to an adults-only household with ample access to fields. These energetic and intelligent cats were not psychologically equipped to cope with an indoor-only lifestyle and no amount of interactive play or fancy climbing posts could resolve that. Cats evolved as outdoor predators and some cats inherit genes that programme them for this sort of lifestyle. Owners used to indoor-only cats have a hard time understanding that not all cats cope well with confinement, however luxurious the surroundings.
Ambush behaviour and "leg-hugging" is also found in play. Affy, a large domestic longhair had the habit of attacking my legs when I went to or from the bathroom. With plenty of other outlets for her energy, these "attacks" did not involve teeth or claws, but ended up with Affy hugging my lower leg in a behaviour nicknamed "wildebeesting" (because it was much the same as a lion jumping on and "hugging" a wildebeest to bring it down). Plenty of toys and access to a garden ensured that the ambush remained a play behaviour restricted to a single location and was considered harmless, albeit slightly inconvenient during a midnight bathroom visit.
Kittens and young cats often get overexcited while playing. Used to the protective fur of their siblings, they have to learn that human skin is more easily damaged and to restrain the teeth and claws. Unfortunately, many owner inadvertently encourage rough play by letting kittens attack hands and feet. While kittens are small, owners find their attacks on hands and feet amusing. As the kitten grows up, it becomes stronger and its teeth and claws are more effective. Such play then becomes painful, but as far as the cat is concerned the owner likes this sort of play. Chastising the cat doesn't help as this can be seen as part of the game you have trained it to enjoy! Luckily, most kittens and their owners instinctively grow out of rough cat-on-human play and switch to playing with toys instead.
Oscar was a young cat used to playing with toys and wrestling very gently with hands (no teeth or claws, just clasping and licking). When his owner went on holiday, she left her brother in charge of Oscar. The brother (also a cat lover) discovered that Oscar liked wrestling with hands so he put on a leather glove and encouraged Oscar to let rip. Of course, Oscar loved the game as he no longer had to control his teeth and claws. Unfortunately, by the time his owner returned, Oscar had learnt to play very rough. It took several weeks to undo the change and to return Oscar to being a cat that only let rip with toys, but remained calm and controlled with hands. Hand-wrestling is no longer allowed because Oscar tends to revert to rough play mode. The owner's brother has also been re-trained.
The more you play rough, the more hyped up the cat gets. Once established, it can be a hard cycle to break. If rough play becomes a problem, you have to stop rewarding the behaviour. As soon as the kitten bites or scratches, stop providing attention. Either sit quietly, ignoring it, or walk away and leave it alone to calm down. Give plenty of calm attention when the kitten is behaving in a more gentle manner. Energetic interactive play should be switched to fishing-rod type toys that let you keep your hands and feet clear of teeth and claws. This way, your kitten learns to play rough with toys and to come to you for fuss.
Aggression between cats can be common problem when new cats are introduced in a household. You need to manage introductions carefully. Suggestions are given in First Impressions - Introducing a New Cat. Sometimes the relationship between previously companionable cats can break down. This may occur if one of the cats has been away for a period of time and has strange smells on it (e.g. after a prolonged vet visit). Reintroductions need to be managed in much the same way. Sometimes an external factor has upset the status quo and caused the cats to direct their aggression or frustration at each other. You need to identify the trigger and try to remedy it. For example, you may have taken in an additional cat and in spite of careful introductions there is fighting. This is not fair on any of the cats and you should consider rehoming the newcomer for the safety and wellbeing of all concerned. Cats pick up on human moods and marital stress can cause upset among the cats.
Aggression in Hand-Reared Kittens
In the normal run of things, kittens learn a great deal from their mothers including how to behave towards people and other cats. Although hand-rearing may be necessary, humans are less well equipped to teach kittens how to grow up in terms of behaviour. It is beneficial to hand-rear several kittens together or to let them interact with an adult cat so that they learn the social rules of being cats. In kittens, weaning is not just about learning to eat solid food, it is also about behavioural change. The kittens become frustrated at not being allowed to nurse as much or as often (they need more food, but mother's milk is starting to dry up). Their mother redirects their frustration (and their potential aggression) into predatory behaviour by bringing back prey, some of which is still alive.
While kittens brought up by their mother learn to adapt to change, many hand-reared kittens are indulged by their carers and get their own way. If frustrated at not getting what they want, they can react aggressively towards the carer or owner. The solution is to reward good behaviour and to ignore or prevent aggressive behaviour (i.e. do not reward the aggressive behaviours). Like a mother cat, you need to redirect their aggression by providing something for them to play with. Hand-reared kittens are noted for being extremely clingy towards their owners and you need to encourage them, through toys, to rely less on you.
Some owners have had good results with Bach Flower Remedies and complementary medicine. If you want to try any homeopathic or herbal remedies, check their safety with your vet first. For alternative remedies that don't involve tablets or liquids, it is courteous to let your vet know. A currently popular method for calming cats is TTouch.