May is Mental Health Awareness Month and, as someone who works in human mental health in addition to being a cat behavior consultant, this is a big month for me! In honor of mental health month, I am going to share a few posts throughout the month about anxiety, aggression, and other mental health related topics in cats. Check back throughout the month and sign up for my mews letter to learn more about helping your feline companion be anxiety free!
For those of who haven't been the target of a cat who has bitten then, you are lucky. What originally started me getting into cat behavior was my own cat following me around and biting me repeatedly over the course of many weeks. It was terrifying to say the least, but the worst part was the feelings of fear I had of a cat I also love so deeply. There was a lot of mental conflict and it only made the fear I had that much worse.
At times, I wondered why my normally sweet cat was being so mean. Why was he suddenly being such a little jerk?
Knowing what I know about cat behavior and cognition, the good news is that he wasn't being mean or a little jerk. At the time, I didn't take into account the most important perspective of all: my cat!
While there are a variety of reasons a cat may bite or scratch, being "mean" is never one of them. If you look at the biting from the cat's perspective rather than your own, you can usually start picking out what the real cause of the "aggressive" behavior is. Reframing the behavior in this way also helps you preserve your relationship with your cat and allows you to start addressing the real cause of it.
In particular, I want you to think of one often missed possibility about why your cat may be being aggressive: anxiety.
In nature, it really doesn't benefit cats to get into fights. Cats risk injury or even death if they get into a spat and don't emerge victorious. Because of this, it benefits the cat to take steps to prevent an actual altercation.
House cats are still animals and they still maintain a lot of their ancestral tendencies, including an aversion toward fighting. This means if a cat is biting, scratching, or otherwise exhibiting aggressive behavior, something big is going on. In many cases, your cat is actually really afraid.
Cats may act aggressively due to anxiety for a variety of reasons. The cat may feel cornered and see no other way to get out of the situation. They may have learned based on past experiences that acting a certain way ultimately results in a reduction in anxiety. They may have attempted to send warning signals and those were ignored so they feel they need to escalate the situation. There may even be something else going on that is causing them to feel threatened and a relatively small event sends them over the edge.
Regardless of the underlying cause, the best thing you can do in these situations is to work to reduce your cat's anxiety and fear. This could involve removing the source of fear if possible. In situations where it may not be possible to remove the source entirely, you can work with your cat to get them gradually used to the source of anxiety. In some cases, you may even be able to create a positive association!
Of course, anxiety isn't the only source of aggression in cats. If your cat is biting, checking in with your veterinarian or a feline behavior consultant is always a good first step. They can help you figure out what is happening and what to do about it!
About the author: Joey Lusvardi is a feline behavior consultant and cat trainer based out of Minneapolis, Minnesota. He runs a behavior consultation service, Class Act Cats, where he helps cat parents address a variety of unwanted behaviors. He is available for consultation in the Twin Cities or virtually wherever you are located.