Animal Psychology Module 10

Cat On A Griddle

No matter how much we love our cats there are times when they can really challenge us. We help you to understand what may be going on during those difficult times so that you can understand them better, and try to restore harmony.

What you will learn in this module:

10.1 Fearful cats

10.1.1 Things that can be scary to a cat

10.1.2 Dealing with fear

10.1.3 Guidelines to help a fearful cat feel more secure

10.2 Anxiety

10.2.1 How to help your cat reduce anxiety

10.3 Aggression

10.3.1 Some general guidelines on aggression in cats

10.3.2 Types of aggression

10.1 Fearful Cats

There are a number of things that can strike fear into a cat either to a small or large degree. Probably the biggest factor in determining whether a cat is confident or fearful is the level of socialization they received as a kitten between 3 and 8 weeks of age. Socialization needs to happen both within their own species and with people. The more they learn that other cats and humans are safe and trustworthy, the more comfortable they will be in the world, and the better they will deal with unusual or scary situations.

10.1.1 Things That Can Be Scary To A Cat

  • Lack of socialization as a kitten
  • Stressful living conditions, like too many cats, a tense environment, dirty conditions, etc.
  • Being the target of aggression, bullying or threats by other animals
  • Being the target of abuse
  • Pain or illness
  • A recent change of circumstances like moving to a new home, to a rescue shelter, etc.
  • Excessive regular noise
  • Feeling trapped or claustrophobic
  • Being punished or shouted at

When a cat feels fearful, they are not always able to distinguish if it is a real threat or not. They could be fearful of an object, animal, person, situation, noise, or pain. Their body will respond to fear by an increased production of adrenalin, the fight or flight hormone, like us. This is a normal, instinctual, survival response. If it is in response to something you know they need not fear, you will probably be able to help them to reduce or eliminate their fear. A frightened cat can show these signs:

  • Hiding
  • Freezing
  • Curling into a ball
  • Pinning their ears back and flat
  • Fully dilated pupils
  • Arched back
  • Hissing
  • Lashing out

10.1.2 Dealing With Fear

If your cat is showing some of these signs, and you cannot explain why, have him checked by your vet to rule out any medical causes. The next thing is to try to identify the cause of fear if there is a particular one. Naturally, owners will do what they can to remove or reduce the source of fear.

If the fear is of another cat in your household, try this method to reduce it:

Start by feeding both cats in their separate cages, in the same room but at a distance from each other. Gradually, move the cages closer as they are eating at the same time. Next, take one at a time out of the cage at feeding time. Lastly, try feeding both outside of cages in the same room but at a distance. Reduce the distance over time. Eventually, they should adjust enough to enjoy each other’s company, and play.

Between a year and 18 months is a typical age for a cat to develop a phobia, such as fireworks. As there is not much you can do about reducing the feared noise, try to anticipate it. Once a cat has responded by fleeing, that response will be set up as the automatic one and will become ingrained. Each time the cat is exposed to the stimulus, and responds with fear this strengthens the phobia. Putting your cat in a cat carrier may help them to feel safe. If you prevent escape, they will not learn that automatic reaction.

Desensitization or counter conditioning can also be used to reduce fear to something in particular. This means to gradually expose your cat to the feared stimulus. For example, a particular person. This needs to be done very slowly. You must keep the exposure at a mild enough level or distance so that it does not evoke fear. Reward your cat with a tasty treat each time they show a calm and relaxed tolerance or acceptance at that safe distance. Very gradually narrow the distance, and each time give a reward. If the cat shows signs of fear, at any point, the level of exposure to the stimulus is too much. Back up and return to when the cat felt safe. This process could take several weeks.

10.1.3 Guidelines To Help A Fearful Cat Feel More Secure


Give the cat a secure place they can go to whenever they want, where they can be largely out of view but still keep in touch with their surroundings. Scared cats have a habit of hiding under beds. The A-frame type of cat bed might persuade them to choose it instead. It is like a tent with a small opening at the entrance side, providing a safe haven. The cat can peer out yet know that their back is covered. Cats also love the cosines, and secure feeling of a bed with sides that they can curl up in. You can easily set up more hideaways. For example, using a cardboard box on its side with one flap partly covering the opening. Put something soft on the bottom, preferably with your scent on it. Some cats like to escape up a cat tree, especially if there is a semi-enclosed perch. They can survey their territory, and feel more in control.


As much as your cat may trust you, the one they trust most of all is themselves. The cat wants to rely on their own wits, and instincts to decide when things are safe for them, and when they are not. You cannot force a fearful cat to not  feel scared by holding them forcibly, and trying to stroke away the fear. It could damage their trust in you. They could feel backed into a corner, and be waiting for an opportunity to run for cover. Worse yet, they might start to associate you with a fearful situation. Let the cat check things out, and make their own choices.


When the cat does show a little bit of bravery, reward this with a tasty treat. Clicker training works well in this situation. Click and reward each time the cat enters a place they were cautious of, or comes out from a hiding place. If they are too cautious to come and take the treat from you then gently toss it to them.


This can help an uptight cat to relax and move out of fear. If the cat wants to keep their distance, use a fishing pole toy that will allow them to keep that distance, and still have fun. Keep the play low key so that the cat does not get the feeling that they are fighting an opponent. Feathers can be a good choice.


If a fearful cat has to negotiate anything scary to get to the litter tray, food or scratching post, they might wait until everyone is in bed and the house is quiet before wandering around. Locate all the important things in places, and via routes that are safe and secure for the cat. Soft-sided fabric tunnels, available from pet stores, can be popular and discreet routes for cats to get around. Moreover, you could make your own with boxes or tubing.


If your cat’s body language is saying not to approach; heed! If you do not acknowledge their desire for space, they will probably run away.


In addition to the other suggestions, making your home a welcoming and interesting place really helps a fearful cat want to explore and interact. Put interesting toys in several locations and change them occasionally. Put puzzle feeders in places they willl find accidentally. This will help the cat to see their surroundings as inviting and supportive.

10.2 Anxiety

Separation anxiety is widely accepted in dogs. Cats are thought to be more independent and less prone to this, but they actually can suffer from anxiety too. They form very strong familial bonds with people and with other animals. They can miss them a lot when they are not around.

Kittens who were either abandoned, orphaned, or weaned too early can be more prone to separation anxiety. A kitten who has been raised by a human instead of their mother can form a very strong attachment to that particular person. They can become quite dependent on him or her. A noticeable change in routine or surroundings can also cause anxiety. Rewarding a cat when they are being clingy or needy can reinforce this, so choose when you give treats.

Signs of separation anxiety:

  • Inappropriate elimination. The cat can often choose their owners bed, like a marking to help you find your way back or to mix their scent with yours.
  • Weight loss.
  • Rapid eating, which is unusual in cats.
  • Excessive vocalization.
  • Excessive grooming.

If you are unsure whether your cat is feeling anxious on separation from you, your vet will be a good judge. They will be able to rule out any medical causes for the symptoms.

10.2.1 How To Help Your Cat Reduce Anxiety

1. Similar to the advice on helping a fearful cat feel more secure, enrich their surroundings. Save puzzle treats for when you will be away.

2. As long as your cat does not show signs of aggression, place a cat tree in view of a window where your cat might be entertained watching birds or other life. Put a bird feeder outside to encourage birds. The cat can nap, play, climb, scratch, and be amused there.

3. Be selective about when you give treats, praise, attention, and affection. Reward all the times they are being independent, playful, and behaving how you want them. Also, in a way they learn that depending on their own resources is actually good. This will reinforce independence and inspire confidence. When the cat is meowing insistently, ignore this.

4. When you are there with the cat, indulge them in lots of play sessions.

5. Do not advertise your departure. If you are feeling strong emotions then you will pass them on to the cat. If the cat associates certain actions and noises with your leaving, such as keys, picking up your bag or coat, then pick them up and put them down regularly when you are not going out to break this association. Also, read section 4.2.2 Addressing home alone anxiety in dogs. It elaborates more on this method.

6. Putting on a TV or radio can help. Soft music can drown out some scary noises and TV gives the feeling of company. There are even entertainment DVDs for cats available!

10.3 Aggression

Aggression in cats does not get the same public attention as aggression in dogs, but it can be a significant concern for owners and a complicated problem to resolve. An aggressive cat can be a danger to people that come into contact with it. Especially to children, the elderly, and vulnerable people who may not recognize the body language and contexts that are the warning signs of possible approaching aggression. Cat bites and scratches can be quite painful. Moreover, there is a possibility they will transmit disease, and lead to infection.

We will take you through the different categories of aggression that have been identified by animal psychologists. The level of seriousness will vary from cat to cat, and it is possible your cat could show more than one type.

10.3.1 Some General Guidelines On Aggression In Cats

First, we want to emphasize that aggression in cats must be taken seriously. Their sharp claws and teeth, coupled with the speed with which they can strike is a dangerous combination. If a cat shows signs of aggression then this poses too big a threat to take any risks with. At the very least, take a responsible view. Keep a cat with the potential to react, confined and away from vulnerable people and visitors.

If your cat shows any level of aggression that concerns you, we recommend that you consult an experienced animal behavioral psychologist.

  • At the first sign of any aggressive behavior, intervene before it becomes a habit.
  • Do not be tempted to deal with aggression using punishment. Even a small gesture like a light tap on the nose increases a cat’s fear and anxiety. Your cat could also see it as a challenge, and become more aggressive.
  • Reading the early warning signs and interrupting the intention with distraction, but not physical contact, can be effective in diverting most aggression problems.
  • Learn your cat’s triggers and do what you can to avoid them.
  • Separate cats who have issues with aggression, and control their reintroduction using the technique in 10.1.2.
  • Use treats and toys to reward calm, non-aggressive behavior.
  • Check with your vet to see if there are any medical reason your cat is being aggressive. There are a number of conditions that may cause it.
  • If these approaches have not resolved the aggression problems, rely on your vet and behavior modification experts. Medication may be recommended.

When trying to assess what is behind your cat’s aggression, ask the following questions:

  • When did it happen?
  • Where did it happen?
  • What or who was the object of the aggression?
  • What was happening leading up to the incident?
  • Who was present?
  • What body language did you notice?
  • What was the motivation?
  • Was there any rewarding or reinforcing reaction to the aggression?

10.3.2 Types Of Aggression


This is probably the most understandable and tolerable kind of aggression. All animal mothers have a natural instinct to protect their newborns. This aggression will be most intense during the first few days after birthing. It is directed towards any person or animal who approaches whom she believes might be a threat. Avoid handling kittens during this time. If necessary, be very cautious, reassuring, and gentle. Use food to distract or lure the mother away temporarily.


As it is a natural instinct for cats to be predatory, some experts prefer not to classify this as aggression. The motivation for their behavior is hunting for food; a survival necessity. They cannot differentiate that there is a difference between a wild bird or rodent, and the ones we keep as pets in cages. The cat may also target insects, rabbits or small reptiles. As soon as a cat is aware of a possible prey, they may show hunting signs. These may include a lowered head, a twitching tail, silent stalking, watching, and waiting. If they can make contact with the prey, if not protected by a cage, they will then pounce or sprint towards their victim, catch it with their claws, and kill with a bite to the neck.

Keep any other pets who are possible prey out of reach at all times. Putting a bell on a breakaway collar on your cat’s neck helps you keep track of where they are. If they ever show hunting signs towards a baby or toddler then seek help.


This type of aggression is a response to a situation, person, animal, and noise that feels threatening to your cat, and which they are unable to escape from. The bigger the perceived threat, the bigger the reaction. If the cat is just feeling defensive, they will turn away, pupils will dilate, ears will rotate backwards and be flat, tail will be tucked under, and they might lay flat on the floor.

If the cat turns to aggression, they will show a combination of these symptoms:

  • Hissing
  • Swiping
  • Growling
  • Spitting
  • Scratching
  • Raised fur
  • Biting

Do not reward or reinforce aggressive behavior even if you understand, and feel sorry for your cat.This includes consolation or kind words. Do not give the cat any attention. If the aggression is towards a visitor to your home, he or she should also ignore the behavior, and not show they left out of fear. This will prove to the cat that this behavior works. Avoid eye contact and keep a safe distance until it dissipates.

Avoid the stimuli that can cause this reaction as much as possible. If they are unavoidable, try a program of desensitization.


Kittens that spend enough time with their mother and litter usually learn the boundaries of safe and acceptable play. They are soon corrected if they push things too far, and inflict hurt or harm. Moreover, they learn the appropriate intensity level of friendly play. Orphaned or early weaned kittens may still need to learn these boundaries.

Biting, scratching, swiping, stalking, attacking, pouncing, chasing, and ambushing are typical of aggressive play; the same skills a cat uses to hunt prey. The cat’s posture can also show signs – ears flattened, tail swishing, and pupils dilated. Moving things like your hands and feet can be targets. Normal play can slip into more predatory behavior, therefore, it is important to recognize it and stop it before it becomes usual behavior.

Show your cat that rough play means you do not play – walk away when it starts. You can also use noise deterrents like hissing or a blast from a compressed air canister. Use just enough distraction to startle your cat.


Even a normally gentle cat can become aggressive if they are in pain. It can be directed towards people, animals or objects, especially if they are touched where it hurts, believes they are about to be hurt, or associates something with a previous hurt. A cat whose tail was caught in a door might always be sensitive to being touched on the tail, even if it no longer hurts.

Avoid contact with any painful areas as much as possible, and do not reward or reinforce any displays of aggression. Naturally, let a vet put the appropriate treatment in place when necessary.


Male cats tend to show more of a tendency for territorial aggression. Females can also react to any unwanted invasion of what they perceive as their territory. It is mostly directed towards other cats but can also be towards dogs, and people. Depending on the cat, territory could be a particular part of your home or a whole neighborhood.

Territorial aggression may be caused by:

  • Stray cats entering the territory
  • A kitten who reaches sexual maturity
  • A new cat
  • A drastic change in your cat’s environment

A territorial aggressive cat might start patrolling, chasing, urine marking, swatting, or attacking.

Some tips to deal with territorial aggression towards a new cat:

  • Do not rush introductions with new cats. Let cats smell each other through closed doors at first.
  • Switch cats positions to the other one’s side of the door. Let them get used to the other’s smells. Some hissing may occur. Confine one at a time to a single room with food, water, litter, and let the other explore the home.
  • Next, put them both in cat carriers at opposite sides of a room. Feed them like this. If they do not eat, increase the distance until they become more comfortable. Move them closer as they do.
  • When you think it is safe, feed them outside of the carriers but still at a distance. Look for any signs of aggression.
  • Continue gradually getting the cats accustomed to the presence of each other.


This is the most common type of aggression. It can happen among both sexes, though many owners report more incidents between male cats. If often erupts as a cat reaches social maturity, between two and four years of age, or due to the hormone-driven competition for mates among males. You will see the usual signs of aggression – ears back and flat, stiffened body, fur raised and hissing, growling, or howling. The more submissive cat may leave before a fight develops.

Often, aggression between cats in the same home can be subtle and not noticed by owners. Factors that contribute to aggression are the confidence of individual cats, their sizes, their agility, and personalities.

Neutering cats can take care of much of this aggressive tendency. If not, separating rival cats may be necessary, especially when you are not there to supervise. A bell on each collar helps to monitor movements. Use distraction methods if you see signs of aggression.


Again, this is more common among male cats but older cats can also react aggressively to too much attention. Some cats love any amount of stroking, cuddling, and holding. Others have a limited capacity for it or might just be tolerating it. They might nip or bite and then run away. Behaviorists believe that some cats find repeated attention unpleasant as it can cause pain, arousal, and even produce static shocks from stroking the cat’s coat. Get to know your cat’s pattern, limits, and look for any warning signs of a mood change or potential aggression. Do not hold this kind of cat too restrictively. Wait until the cat invites affection, and do not pick them up when they are eating.


This kind of aggression happens when a cat is aroused by a stimulus that they cannot get to. Their predatory aggression, agitation or annoyance is then directed to who or whatever next comes their way or intervenes. It can be a very dangerous type of aggression. What is also dangerous about it is that there can be a long delay between the arousal and the lashing out. You may not know why your cat has behaved this way. It is a reflex action.

There are a number of things that can lead to this type of aggression:

  • Incidents at an animal shelter
  • A frightening incident
  • Escaping a threatening situation
  • Watching a source of prey but not having access
  • Smelling another animal or a household member

Never approach an angry looking cat or try to break up a fight between cats. Use noise distractions to try to startle. Avoid a cat that is primed for aggression until they are calm. If necessary, use protection for yourself, and herd the cat into a confined space until the aggression passes. Test their calmness level by offering food. If the cat is calm then praise them. If not, take the food and leave.

If your cat shows these tendencies, use window blinds, and discourage other animals from approaching your home. You can do this by removing bird feeders, installing motion-activated sprinklers, and making sure that garbage bins are well sealed.


This is sometimes called idiopathic aggression, meaning it cannot be explained. Because of this, it is very difficult to address. If the aggression is enough to cause a serious threat to any person or other animals, you will need to carefully assess the whole situation of keeping the cat as a pet.

Well Done!