Human-Directed Cat Aggression: An Interview with Beth Adelman

Since the fall, I have taken on five cases involving cat aggression. For that reason, I subscribed to The Pet Professional Guild’s 2019 Summit on Aggression and Bite Prevention. “Human-Directed Feline Aggression” was one of the presentations. Following is my interview with its presenter, Beth Adelman.

ALLISON: What got you interested in cat behavior?

BETH: I grew up with dogs, fish, gerbils, and parakeets, so of course I wanted the one pet my mother did not like—cats. I had to wait until I was an adult, and I adopted a spectacular adult Siamese cat. After he died, I was catless for awhile, then adopted a pair of kittens a friend had picked up from a feral colony. Their behavior baffled me; they alternated between wild and destructive and terrified and defensive.
At the time I was a book editor, working in a company that published books about companion animals, and so I had access to many professional behaviorists and cat experts. Then I took over as editor of CATS magazine, and met even more experts who taught me how to calm and tame my crazy kittens and give them what they needed. I was so fascinated by what I learned that I started taking animal behavior classes on my own.

Photo provided by Beth Adelman
Photo provided by Beth Adelman

ALLISON: Why did you pursue it as a profession?

BETH: When I was first seeking help, very, very few people were working with cats—and even fewer were starting from a base of scientific knowledge about cats and behavior. I was lucky to meet a few people who were. The people who had helped me pushed me to start helping others, because there was such a shortage of people doing positive, science-based behavior work with cats.

ALLISON: How are cats different than dogs when it comes to aggression?

BETH: Similar to dogs, aggression is often fear-based, and their first choice is to run away. I have clients who tell me their cat is trying to dominate them, but I remind them that they weigh 100 pounds more than their cat!

Unlike dogs, though, a lot of the aggression we see in cats is play and attention-seeking. A cat may hide in wait or stalk a human and pounce on them, very similar to the way they’d play with another cat. My dog trainer colleagues tell me this would be a very dangerous situation with a dog. With a cat, while it certainly needs to be addressed, it’s really just a sign of boredom.

ALLISON: How important are early experiences when it comes to cat behavior?

BETH: I’m going focus on aggressive behavior in my answer, to keep this short. There are several studies that tell us cats need to be with friendly adult cats and kittens until they are at least 12 weeks old. They learn very important social skills during that time, including inhibiting their biting play and transitioning to more social play. Cats are also naturally weaned over the course of several weeks, but rescued kittens are often separated from their mother in a moment. These kittens typically are very bitey because they continue to want to suckle.

ALLISON: What is one major reason cats sometimes attack their own kind?

BETH: Cats attack other cats either because they feel threatened or because they are competing for resources or access to resources.

ALLISON: What is one major reason cats sometimes attack their people?

BETH: Boredom and/or excess energy is a big reason. As I said earlier, one of the major causes of cat-to-human aggression is that the cat is playing in ways we find inappropriate.

Fear is another major cause. We forget that we’re giants in comparison to our cats, and giants can be pretty scary. Prolonged physical contact—too much petting, or a kind of petting they find uncomfortable—can also cause a cat to become overloaded and lash out. With both of these, overt aggression is almost always preceded by warning signs that we often miss.

ALLISON: How can a person tell the difference between cat play and a cat fight?

BETH: Cat play can be pretty rough and involves wrestling and chasing. In play though, the cats take turns chasing each other, there’s no growling or hissing, no one gets cornered, and no one’s ears are down or flat.

Photo provided by Beth Adelman
Photo provided by Beth Adelman

ALLISON: How should one react to a cat fight?

BETH: No yelling or drama, no spray bottles or throwing things, because that just adds fuel to the fire. If your cats are in a stare down, put something between them (a magazine, a towel, a coat) before it gets physical. If your cats are fighting (or attacking you), throw a blanket or towel or coat over them. If necessary, use one of those to scoop up a cat and put them in another room with the door closed.

Cats calm down very slowly, so give them an hour at least to calm down. Then open the door, sweetly say the cat’s name, and toss in a treat.

If you broke up a fight between two cats, keep them separated (the more cats fight, the more they decide “we’re cats who fight”) and get help from a behavior professional. If your cat attacked you, get a veterinary checkup and help from a behavior professional.

ALLISON: What is one way people can help an aggressive cat?

BETH: I will tell you two. Actively play with your cat every day, and give them things to do when you are not around, including eating their food from puzzle toys. And respect your cat’s physical boundaries—pet when the cat welcomes it and stop when the cat wants you to. All animals have the right to decide when, where, and how much they are going to be touched. Our pets should never be forced to surrender their physical integrity just to be with us.

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