Chomp. Can’t you just feel that cat’s teeth on your skin? Yes, “chomp” is a very descriptive word, almost musical. Now what can you do to avoid getting chomped by the cat again?

Aggression in cats is a complicated behaviour problem. Of course it is. Nothing’s ever simple with cats is it?

There are several common reasons that otherwise friendly kitties might bite the hand that feeds them: play, misdirected hunting activities, overstimulation and redirected aggression. The reason that Dr. Gilchrist hasn’t mentioned here is that sometimes cats just plain feel like biting someone! (ed.). The first three are generally mild attacks, whereas redirected aggression has put people in the hospital.

First, let’s look at play aggression. This is simple – don’t play with kittens (or adult cats for that matter) with your hands or feet. It’s cute to watch baby Garfield pounce on your toes under the covers. Think about how that changes when 15 lbs of adult kitty double-chomps your feet at 2 a.m. It’s the same game to Garfield. There are lots of cat play toys that are not part of your anatomy. Buy a toy mouse, save a limb!

Misdirected hunting is often wound up with play aggression because cats will “hunt” hands and feet, especially when they’ve been taught to play that way. But they can also pounce on small children, attacking them when they round a corner or attaching themselves to larger people’s legs, then bounding away. There’s often some pattern to this behaviour. If it always occurs around the same time — for example, bedtime for the kids — it’s possible to anticipate the problem and intervene. Maybe you just have to put kitty in a timeout room until after bedtime. Otherwise, try a loud noisemaker such as a tin can holding some coins, to startle the cat as she bounds towards her victim.

Overstimulation is something most cat lovers have experienced. Kitty is happily purring and rubbing against your hand, then suddenly you get chomped. See! This is the one I was talking about!!! (ed.). Although it might seem like there was no warning, there are almost always subtle changes in body language to tip you off before the teeth sink in. Cats just seem to have a threshold for getting stimulated by petting. When you’re getting close to the trigger point, the cat’s tail will start to twitch and jerk a little, even while she’s butting her head up against you. Learn to stop and walk away when the twitching starts.

Walking away won’t help if your cat’s in the throes of an attack due to redirected aggression. This can be a viscious and dangerous attack and I’ve seen clients about this issue after they’ve been released from hospital. It is usually prompted by feelings of aggression toward another cat, generally one that’s appearing at the window or meowing outside the house. Your kitty gets all riled up about the intruder, but she can’t get at her, so she releases all her fury on the nearest substitute victim – you. This is a tough problem to resolve and can be accompanied by house-soiling, excessive grooming and other signs of stress.

With severe cases of anxiety, medications may be needed for a period of time. Consult your veterinarian and have kitty examined for possible health problems which might be contributing to the behaviour issues.
Of course, sometimes all you need to do is stop the “intruder” cat from coming around the house. Water sprayers, duct tape on window ledges, and booby traps of tin cans can all be useful. Maybe it’s finally time to fence off the yard for the dog?

For further information about feline aggression, contact the clinic or check out Veterinarypartner and type “feline aggression” into the search bar .

Formerly a newspaper journalist, Dr. Fiona Gilchrist is a veterinarian at Hillcrest Animal Hospital. She is past-president of the Quinte District Veterinary Association and a member of the editorial committee for the Ontario Veterinary Medical Association’s publication Focus. Editorial points were added by Dr. Steen, who just can’t resist poking fun at cats!