Usually, kittens are adorable balls of fur who entertain their owners with their playful antics. But sometimes, these tiny felines can exhibit aggressive kitten behavior ranging from scratching and biting to outright attacks on their humans.
Kitten aggression is most often seen in kittens who were born to under socialized stray momma cats or were raised as a solo kitten without a momma cat or felines in their young lives. The aggression seen in kittens falls into three categories: fear based aggression, food aggression and playful aggression. A kitten may exhibit signs of one, two or all three types of aggression.
Fear based aggression
Fear based aggression is a defensive behavior towards unfamiliar things that represent a threat and it escalates when the kitten feels it cannot escape the threat. These threats include people, other animals, objects and sounds. When a kitten is born to an under socialized momma cat, their natural “fight or flight” instinct is amplified by their mother’s fear of the perceived danger and her reactions.
A kitten will hiss and spit, growl, bare its teeth, and crouch low with their tail and legs tucked under their body. Their ears lie flat against their head, their pupils are dilated and their fur stands on end. If cornered, they will also swat, scratch and attempt to bite.
The age of the kitten, how long it has been separated from mom and its present circumstances all influence how easy or difficult it is to help the kitten learn to trust and overcome its fear based aggression.
Interaction with humans, lots of TLC and patience and a consistent and safe environment can help the kitten overcome its fear. Although any kitten can be socialized to lose its aggression, the older the kitten the harder it is to imprint new trust based behavior over the instinct momma has instilled.
In addition to handling the kitten, the following can help them gain confidence and overcome their fears:
- Give them safe spots to retreat to when they get over whelmed. Crates or carriers, small boxes and cat trees with cubbies work well for this.
- You may also want to give them elevated perches such as shelf space or taller cat trees. However, do not go above 5 feet as studies have shown that cats allowed to “live” more than 5 feet off the floor become progressively more anti-social the higher they go.
- Flower essences and pheromone based products for calming cats work with many felines.
Kitten food aggression is usually seen in kittens that have been found as strays and did not have enough to eat in their young lives.
These kittens may often be heard growling while they eat. In their minds they are protecting their food. This can escalate into a cat fight if another resident cat tries to eat their food. Their fear of the food being taken can also cause them to eat too fast and immediately throw up their food after they finish eating.
Usually once the kitten gains confidence that the food will be there on a regular basis and that they will never go hungry again, they calm down and grow out of this behavior.
Helping your kitten overcome food aggression
If you have other felines in your family, you may want to feed the food aggressive kitten in a spot away from where the others are eating giving it a place to eat without interruption and in peace.
Over time, slowly move the kitten’s feeding station closer to where the others eat so that they understand that each cat has their own food and everyone gets enough to eat.
Kittens have a lot of energy and get excited during playtime. Biting and scratching during play are a natural part of cat play particularly when wrestling with another feline, a toy or a human.
Playful aggression involves typical predatory and play behaviors, including stalking, chasing, attacking, running, ambushing, pouncing, leaping, batting, swatting, grasping, fighting and biting.
Kittens raised with littermates learn how to bite and scratch with reduced intensity, because play that is too rough causes pain to a playmate, resulting in either retaliation or the cessation of play. These are both negative results that teach the kitten to play more gently.
If a kitten has not learned to play more gently and has not learned boundaries, as it gets older the biting and scratching can escalate.
Understandably, playful aggression is seen most often in kittens that have been raised without littermates or another feline playmate. In addition to not learning how to play nicely, being solo they are under-stimulated and lack necessary play outlets and so act out even more when play is available.
You can recognize playful aggression by watching the kitten's body language. If during an interactive play session your kitten’s tail lashes back and forth, its ears flatten against its head and the pupils dilate, your kitten is getting ready to attack.
Since play aggressive felines often stalk or hide, then jump out and attack as you pass, you may not see it coming. They may also stalk your moving hands and feet.
How to deal with playful aggression
Watch for a pattern to the attacks or for activities that ignite playful aggression. Armed with this knowledge you may be able to curb the behavior by side tracking the kitten before it gets started on the loop of aggression.
Noise deterrents such as an empty soda can filled with enough coins to make a strong sound, or a blast from a compressed air canister are helpful in stopping playful aggression. A light mist of water from a squirt bottle may also be useful. These must be used within the first few seconds of the onset of aggression to startle, rather than scare the cat, into ceasing his behavior.
Never physically punish your cat, even with a slight tap on the nose. The pain of being struck can lead to more aggressive behavior, and your kitten will learn to fear and avoid you. Also, any physical contact may be interpreted as play – something the kitten wants – and this may be seen as a reward to the kitten.
Another trick is to just walk away and ignore your kitten. This teaches them that the consequence of rough play is no play.
Another tip is to use the right cat toys to play with your kitten to keep your body parts out of harm’s way.
- Toss moving objects like ping-pong balls, walnuts, or aluminum foil balls for your cat to chase.
- Provide climbing perches, scratching posts, and ball toys that deliver food when batted about.
- Buy a fishing pole toy with feathers on the end to dangle in front of your cat.
Kittens in a home can and should be helped to learn that any type of aggression is not good. It is best if they are taught the boundaries at as young of an age as possible so that they do grow into wild and aggressive adult cats with serious behavior issues.