you take on a cat or kitten it may be quiet and wary for
the first few days or even the first few weeks until it
gets used to you and its new environment. However, some
cats remain very fearful despite a gentle welcome and time
to settle in. This can cause their owners great anxiety
because they feel the cat is not happy. The cat may run
and hide as soon as someone comes into the house or if there
is a sudden noise or from common everyday sounds such as
the television. Many such cats spend a great deal of their
time under the bed or on top of the wardrobe, hiding from
the world. A nervous or frightened cat can make a very disappointing
pet, especially if the household which has adopted it is
a busy and noisy one. They will probably see little of the
cat until the children have gone to bed and the adults have
settled down quietly in front of the TV in the evening.
can be several causes of nervousness in cats:
Genetics: like people, some cats seem to be naturally more
fearful than others.
Bad experiences: the cat may have previously had a frightening
experience. Its natural survival mechanisms make it generally
fearful in anticipation of it happening again.
Lack of experience at a crucial time in its development:
Kittens which meet people and other animals and which are
exposed to the general hubbub of life by the time they are
eight weeks old will take almost anything in their stride
and deal with it as a normal part of life. This is the making
of a confident cat. Eight weeks seems to be a very crucial
cut-off point for the kitten. If it has not had these very
early experiences it will find life with humans very difficult
to cope with. Take for example the feral kitten (one born
to a cat living wild) which does not have contact with people
in these early weeks. It will behave like a wild animal
and handling or confinement will cause acute fear. Although
some people persevere with older feral kittens, it requires
a great deal of time and patience to get them to respond
and this lack of early experience is usually very difficult,
if not sometimes impossible, to get over.
knowing a cat's background can make a difference in determining
whether you can help it or not. However, for many cat owners
this is an unknown as they have no idea what happened to
their cat before they took it on. They have to try to tackle
the problem anyway. It is not something which can be solved
overnight, if at all. It takes patience and time.
the cat which hides under the bed at the slightest noise
or activity within the house. It has removed itself from
what it sees as a life-threatening situation and feels a
flood of relief. This feeling is very strong and reinforces
the fleeing behaviour - after all, the cat has saved its
life. As a solitary species the cat has no pack to back
it up if things go wrong - if threatened its best chance
of survival is to run away and hide, staying very quiet
until the danger has passed. Owners must be able to offer
something even more rewarding than this feeling of safety
and relief that the cat feels on following its instincts
if they want to stop it running. This can be very difficult.
cat needs to learn that there is nothing threatening in
the situation it is running from. It can be very useful
to obtain an indoor crate or kittening pen for the cat's
re-education. Place it in the corner of the room and cover
with a blanket so that the cat can see out of the front
but the sides are covered and the cat feels somewhat protected.
Put the cat in the pen first of all during a quiet period
so that it can get used to it and relax. It will probably
like the feeling of protection the pen provides. Feed favourite
treats in the pen and provide a litter tray. Let the cat
view all the normal household goings-on from its safe haven
and gradually add more 'action' to its repertoire.
the cat seems relaxed, ask a friend to visit. Normally the
cat would run away when the door bell rings, but now it
has to watch and listen, albeit from the safety of its pen.
You want the cat to realise that the threats it perceived
are not going to materialise. Ask your guest to feed the
cat through the cage with a special tidbit and offer lots
of praise and soothing talk. You can then graduate to having
the cat in the room without the pen and inviting visitors
in (again pre-briefed so they to behave quietly and prevent
startling the cat). As the cat learns that everything is
not a threat and that the rewards of staying around are
indeed worth overcoming its fear for, you are gaining success.
lose your temper or try to force it too quickly - this will
just reinforce the cat's previous fears. If the cat progresses,
even slowly, you are likely to be dealing with an animal
which is overcoming a fear rather than one which has missed
out during its socialising period as a kitten. Build on
your successes gradually. Remember that cats feel safe in
high places so when you progress to letting the cat out
in the room with you, provide it with a high perch where
it can sit in safety and watch the world go by beneath.
Use warmth, affection and food as rewards for being with
are many different types of aggression exhibited by animals,
and cats are no exception. We are happy to accept many forms
of aggression as normal behaviour - such as our own cat
chasing a strange cat out of the garden or a female cat
with kittens pushing away intruders. We even accept cats
which scratch or bite us, provided we feel that they have
been provoked enough to retaliate! Aggression towards people
is not a common problem in cats and even when it does occur
it seldom causes serious injury.
your cat suddenly becomes aggressive when stroked and he
has never exhibited such behaviour before, it may be that
he is in pain or feeling unwell and doesn't want to be touched.
If you think this is the case then an immediate visit to
the vet is called for.
the hand which strokes
of the most common 'aggression' problems is known as 'petting
and biting syndrome' and indeed it is as it says - when
you start to stroke your cat it turns around and bites you
or attacks your hand, grabbing your wrist with its front
feet and kicking you with its back feet. Some cats only
attack in this way if their tummy is being tickled, others
only need to be stroked on the head before they retaliate.
of the cat sitting on your lap and being stroked - it has
to be very relaxed and trusting to put itself in this position
- like a kitten being groomed by its mother. For some cats
this is just a little too dangerous - they relax and then
suddenly feel vulnerable. With conflicting feelings of security
and fear, they react with defensive aggression and grab
the hand which is stroking them. They then usually jump
off our laps and sit and groom to calm themselves.
stroking is a learned response rather than a natural adult
behaviour and some cats may just be more naturally reactive
than others. They may calm down as they get older, as young
cats (like children) may be easily excited. Others may have
missed out on human attention at that vital time in their
social development before eight weeks old and find it impossible
to accept physical attention.
need to try and help your cat to feel more secure with physical
attention. Sit quietly with the cat when you won't be interrupted
and keep everything very calm. Keep interactions very short
and stop before the cat reacts. Try not to provoke a reaction
- stop stroking when you notice twitching or backwards-facing
ears, dilated pupils or sudden tensing. Reward the cat with
food and praise for behaving in a relaxed way. Never punish
the cat - this will only reinforce the idea that you are
a threatening person.
occasionally cats go beyond reactive aggression and into
proactive aggression, attacking their owners as they walk
past or preventing them gaining access to certain parts
of the house. Quite often the problems occur in indoor cats
and may be a form of redirected aggression. Cats watch birds
or other cats through the window and become excited. However,
they have no way of getting rid of the pent up energy or
frustration. If their owner happens to be walking past,
the movement triggers them into the hunting or defensive
aggression mode and they attack. School teachers are aware
how noisy and fidgety children become if they are unable
to go out at lunchtime because of bad weather - they need
to let off steam before they can concentrate again. Likewise
scientists have noticed that captive tigers, which are made
to work for their food by putting it at the top of a pole
which they have to climb, will actually leave the food at
the base of the pole for some time before they eat it. They
think that this is because the tiger needs to settle down
before it eats - the surge of adrenalin and response to
the energy surge needed to reach the top of the pole 'charges'
the cat up. Perhaps these aggressive 'problems' in cats
have similar motivations. Owners of such cats may want to
try and help them use up some of that energy and allow them
to fulfil their hunting repertoire - especially if they
are indoor only cats. This can be done by providing new
toys and objects to climb in and play on, by playing hunting
games with toys on the end of string and by teaching the
cat that it has to find its food around the house rather
than just presenting it in a bowl.
kittens and young cats will get overexcited when they are
playing and attack hands and feet. When kittens are very
small owners may even encourage this because they find it
amusing. However, as the kitten grows stronger and its teeth
bigger, it can become very painful. If it becomes a problem
you need to remove any attention immediately from the kitten
when it bites so you are not rewarding the behaviour. Walk
away and leave it alone. Give attention when the kitten
is behaving as you want it to. If you want to play games
use one of the fishing-rod type toys which allow you to
keep hands and feet at a safe distance from those flashing
teeth and claws. Give the kitten lots to play with so that
it uses up its energy where you want it, not on you!
in hand-reared kittens
can also be a problem in some hand-reared animals (not just
cats either) if their behaviours are interrupted or frustrated.
It is thought that this is because although we can feed
and then wean the kittens nutritionally, we do not know
how to wean the kittens behaviourally. Just as our children
must learn to do as they are told, to be able to cope when
they cannot get their own way and to fit in with our social
rules, queens will teach their kittens the feline equivalent.
Much of this learning is to do with dealing with forced
change - as the mother's milk dries up and the kittens
demand more, she diverts their attention onto prey. In making
the switch successfully they learn to be adaptable and to
deal with the frustration. Many hand-reared kittens do not
learn this vital lesson in life and react aggressively to
frustration. Again the solution is to reward the behaviour
you want with attention and food and to ignore or prevent
situations when aggression comes into play.
between cats can be a common problem when new cats are introduced
in a household - this can be tackled by careful introductions
(see Introducing your cat to
other cats and dogs) and time. Sometimes even cats
which have lived alongside each other for years will have
a breakdown in their relationship and begin to fight. If
there is an external factor such as a new cat in the household
which has upset the balance, then this may be remediable.
However, sometimes it can be virtually impossible to get
cats back together and rehoming one may need to be considered.
you are having persistent problems of aggression of any
type with your cat, especially if targeted towards people
or children, you may wish to talk to your vet about referral
to a feline behaviourist.
Updated November 2008