Cat Aggression – Is She Really a ‘Bad Mother’? Or is she just a “scaredy cat”
Cat Aggression – Is She Really a ‘Bad Mother’? Or is she just a “scaredy cat”
Wikipedia describes aggression as follows:
“In psychology, as in other social and behavioral sciences, aggression refers to behavior between members of the same species that is intended to cause pain or harm.”
So, we can immediately remove the term “aggression” when we encounter a cat that shows a ferocious hiss if approached. Apparently one of us isn’t a cat. But what does it mean when we’re quietly petting our cat and she suddenly turns around, grabs the hand that’s petting her, and sinks her teeth into it? Of course, this is a form of aggression; even if we are not members of the same species. Moving away from definitions and such, what we really want to know is why the cat is exhibiting what is definitely a behavior that says “get away and don’t touch me!!”, or what many call a cat aggression.
Above all, it is helpful not to confuse cat aggression with aggression that occurs in humans. Humans are complex creatures driven by many things, such as emotions, belief systems, family ties, the seven deadly sins, the mood of the boss or the NFL on Sunday. People are able to transmit their aggressive nature like a common cold infecting those around them, especially when they are inspired by a call to action for a cause (think halftime in the locker room). We can even turn it on and off if and when we want. The same Wikipedia definition continues, stating that some psychologists make a direct link between low IQ and aggressive behavior; those toward the higher end of the IQ spectrum are more likely to be defined as assertive. But our goal here is not to split hairs between aggressive and assertive human personalities.
In animals, the aggressive side of their personality is usually associated with certain and specific situations. Here it is useful to note the difference between feline aggression and the predatory nature of cats. Of course, when cats demonstrate stalking, chasing, catching and killing prey, they are displaying a very distinctive quality of aggression. This type of aggression is called purposeful aggression. Cats hunt to provide food for themselves and in some cases for their kittens. Even when your cat brings home a field mouse and introduces it to you, it is acting on a centuries-old instinct, even though it may not know what to do with its catch. Cats will hunt, quite often throughout their lives, while at the same time being well fed and cared for by their owner. Maybe it’s just cats showing they can be assertive too.
Most other forms of cat aggression are known as defensive aggression. These types of cat aggression characteristics can be directly attributed to three aspects of cats’ nature:
The territorial nature of cats
The maternal instincts of cats
The degree of socialization of kittens
Cats mark (define) their territory with scent marks that tell everyone else that this is her land. She will defend this territory against all other cats. Notice I say “all other cats”. She will stand up and vigorously chase away any uninvited cats. With other animals, including humans, she may or may not stand up, depending on whether she feels threatened. Predators can get a free pass as she bows her head with wide eyes and becomes as unobtrusive as possible. But other cats will get a lot of unwanted confrontation and will generally respect what she tells them, including avoiding her territory in the future. Or at least, if they have to, they’ll cross her territory very carefully (isn’t it amazing how fast a cat can be, but when called upon, they can move in slow motion that TV sports pundits would marvel at ?).
The only invited guests she will entertain are all the men who respond to her roar when she gets fired up. “Invited” guests can be a bit misleading. Complete strangers can show up and the result is a ritual to determine who is the best partner. It will involve fighting and snarling in single elimination entries until a winner is determined. Even then, a female cat can mate with the runner-up or third-place finisher in addition to the winner. It’s all very uncivilized and unfeminine. But when she’s mating, all these guys have to watch out. They will all be banished so she can give birth to her kittens in well-deserved peace and solitude.
After the kittens are born, she has even more reason to show off her territorial feline aggression. Not only must she defend her territory and the food it supplies, but she must offer protection to her young offspring. Cats have very strong maternal instincts and she will face the most cruel threat to her kittens. And if the predatory threat is too strong for her, she will distract him and chase after him so she can lead him away from the kittens’ den.
Feline aggression is also related to the experiences cats had when they were kittens. Everything your cat knows, she learned when she was a kitten. When kittens have positive experiences while they are young, they are more likely to accept these encounters when they grow up. If kittens have a bad encounter with unfriendly people or other pets, or their hood is overly protective and they don’t get a chance to have many experiences, they can grow into shy, withdrawn adult cats. This socialization of kittens is the process that allows them to become well acquainted with the things that make up her world. Cats are smart enough to know what is and isn’t a threat. A kitten that has been introduced to a friendly dog will grow up unthreatened by dogs in general. But she’ll know when a dog isn’t friendly, she doesn’t have to look around to find out why.
This type of cat aggression is based on fear. Cats feel most comfortable in familiar surroundings and familiar faces. These things and images that she has not been positively socialized with will cause her to close down and even fear them. This is why kitten socialization is so important. One can understand why feral cats in particular will display aggressive growls and hisses at anyone or anything outside of their colony brethren. However, a person probably won’t get close enough to cause such a reaction unless they sense imminent danger.
When it comes to “biting the hand that’s petting you,” a different kind of feline aggression must be defined. Let’s call it aggression in personal space. In addition to the territory your cat calls her own, there is an area that surrounds her physical body that she considers her personal space. Just like humans, she will only allow certain people to intrude on this personal space. Also, this space can expand or contract depending on her mood. Kind of like people. As her provider, she will allow you closer than others. If strangers were allowed to handle her when she was a kitten, she will be friendly to them as an adult. The puppy she grew up with will enjoy the same freedoms. Few others will have the same degree of closeness. Even then, it comes with a set of unwritten rules. Generally speaking, she will be the one to determine if and when anyone is allowed into her personal space. Including the puppy she grew up with.
If she’s quietly lying on your lap and you’re gently petting her, there are a few things that can make her want you to stop. You may be irritating a sore spot with your stroking. She might be sexually aroused and really not interested at that particular moment. Or she might just get tired of being petted. In any case, she will show signs of irritation when she is done with the session and you should take them into account. Her ears will lay back on her head, her eyes will widen, and she will stare at the source of her irritation, namely your hand. That’s when it’s time to pull over and go treat yourself, just to stay on her good side.
All of these forms of feline aggression: goal-directed, defensive, or personal space can flow through each other and merge into the being you know as your cat. Broken down, they help to understand why a cat exhibits aggressive behavior, but they all work together in the real world and define part of a cat’s personality. One thing to remember is not to take cat aggression personally. Feline aggression is closely related to a specific reaction of the cat’s interpretation of a negative element in its environment. I imagine if he was in the dressing room at half time he would be hiding in the corner wondering “what the hell is going on with these guys?”.
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