August 2019

Audience: Foster Caregivers, Public, Shelter/Rescue Staff & Volunteers

Aggression is a common behavioral issue in cats and is a symptom of an underlying problem. It always needs to be taken seriously. Aggressive behavior can be seen in cats of any breed, size, age, or gender. When cats display aggression when brushed or groomed, it can stem from many different motivations. The most common include:

Fear/defense: A fearful cat may exhibit dilated pupils, ears turning back, or a twitching tail. In this situation, your cat may growl, hiss or swat at the person brushing or grooming.

Pain/discomfort: A painful cat may be uncomfortable when brushing certain areas of their body and respond aggressively.

Overstimulation: Aggression can occur as a normal response to being groomed in areas or ways your cat finds uncomfortable. It could also happen when the grooming has gone on for too long. Some cats exhibit overstimulation which lead to aggression. Cats vary enormously as to the extent to which they like being brushed, and for how long they will tolerate it. They also vary greatly in the number and intensity of warning signals they will give before reacting aggressively toward their handler.

Even mild forms of aggression, when not properly addressed, can evolve into serious aggression. This is why it's important to assess and tackle any change in your cat's behavior right away and consult with a professional.

It is important to follow guidelines for a healthy way to groom your cats. Here are the key points:

  • Start early, when your cat is a kitten. This is especially important for long haired cats. They may require frequent grooming later in life. Reward good behavior when being handled.
  • Keep your sessions short. If you know your cat doesn't like to be brushed in a certain way or in a particular area, avoid doing so. The cat will tell you if they are enjoying it or are getting irritated. Even if you feel okay with the level of aggression, your cat is telling you that they are stressed. Ignoring their warnings may increase aggressive incidents and/or intensity in the future.
  • Only groom or brush your cat in the areas they truly enjoy. Most cats like to rub their faces or bodies on an offered brush, but do not appreciate long strokes over their bodies. It is important to know your cat. If they get aggressive when brushing the back or tail base, stay around the head.
  • Observe your cat for signs of impending aggression. Common signals to look for include tail swishing, skin twitching over the back, flattening of the ears, tenseness, dilated pupils, low growl, or walking away and lying down.
  • Stop brushing at the first sign of any of these early warning signals. If your cat is very agitated, walk away. If they are on your lap, stand up slowly and let your cat gently slide off.
  • Wait some time before attempting to brush again. Some cats only take a few minutes to settle down, while others can take several hours.
  • Do not punish your cat for this behavior problem. Never yell at or hit your cats as this will not help and will only make your cat fear you or become more aggressive. Seek professional help instead.

This document created by the San Francisco SPCA with a grant from Maddie's Fund®.