Here's a rule to remember when it comes to dealing with feline aggression: Never, ever hit your cat.
While it may make you feel better, at least in the short run, a smack won't help you change a cat who appears to delight in sinking teeth and claws into you at seemingly unpredictable moments.
Fear and pain can cause a cat to lash out. The best way to deal with a scared cat is to let him be. But most times what we see as ''meanness" in a cat is just part of being a cat. You can change this behavior, but only if you understand what's behind it and react properly. Here's what makes cats go crazy and how to correct the problems:
Overstimulation. You're petting your cat, and suddenly he grabs you with his claws and teeth. It's not a full-powered attack, but you still have those sharp tips around your hand. What to do? In the short run, freeze. Don't struggle or fight back, or you may trigger a real bite. Sometimes smacking your other hand against a hard surface -- a table top, for example -- may startle your cat into breaking off the attack. If you stay still, however, he will usually calm down and release you.
That's the solution if you've gotten to the attack stage. The better option is to be familiar with your cat and his body language and stop petting before he becomes overstimulated. Cat lovers often think such attacks come without warning, but they've missed the warning signs of a cat who has simply had enough. The tail is the key. If your cat starts twitching his tail in a jerky fashion, it's time to stop petting.
Play aggression. Sure, it hurts all the same, but the cat who pounces on your feet and then careens off the wall isn't trying to hurt you -- he's playing. Instead of punishing your cat, redirect his energy. Increase your play sessions with your cat with an appropriate toy, such as a cat fishing pole or toy on a string, to help your cat burn off his excess energy before you try for a quiet petting session.
No matter what, never let your cat view you as a plaything, not even when he's an adorable kitten. Wrestling bare-handed with your cat or kitten is a no-no, because you're setting a bad precedent. A stuffed sock is a great substitute for a human hand when it comes to playthings -- let your cat bite, claw, and bunny-kick to his heart's content.
What if he persists in seeing you as a plaything? As with an overstimulated cat, stop the behavior by freezing. Don't give him a reason to continue the attack. You can also inform him that attacks on you are not permitted by letting him have it with a shot of water from a spray bottle.
Redirected aggression. Your cat sees another cat, an intruder, outside your living-room window. He becomes enraged. You walk by, and he nails you. What gives? You were just the victim of redirected aggression.
This one's tough to fix. Try to discourage strange cats in your yard. Thump on the window, turn on the sprinklers, or put an air horn out the door and give them a blast. If you can't keep the intruders out, block your cat's access to the window through which he sees the other cats. And again, be aware of your cat's body language. A cat who's looking for trouble is one who's best avoided.
With all feline aggression, the trick is to eliminate the triggers and work on your cat's tolerance. If you're patient and consistent, your cat will improve over time.
Gina Spadafori is the author of several pet-care books and a consultant to the Veterinary Information Network. Her Web log and column archives can be found at spadafori.com.