Cats have natural instincts that can sometimes lead to aggressive behavior we don’t love. It’s not just about anger or territory. It’s a form of communication that can be offensive or defensive, voluntary or involuntary. An aggressive cat isn’t a “bad” cat. They aren’t prone to attack. It’s more likely that they’re scared or trying to protect themselves.
The most important thing to remember is that there is ALWAYS a reason. Your cat’s aggression is a symptom of something else that can be treated. The key to managing your cat’s aggression is to first identify what type of aggression they’re displaying and what might be triggering that behavior. Then you can work to help them through it.
Cat aggression is widely misunderstood or misinterpreted. We think of cats as predators, sometimes moody, sometimes cranky. But we forget that they’re also prey animals in the wild.
Thousands of years of evolution has instilled in them a need to survive and to fight for that survival when they think it is necessary. That instinct kicks in at times and in ways that we can’t always wrap our heads around. But it serves a purpose.
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These are a few of the most common reasons cats get aggressive:
To help your cat with their aggression, you must first understand what type it is and what’s triggering it.
Do this by observing their:
You also want to consider:
Let’s look at a few of the most common types of aggression seen in housecats.
Play aggression is a cat playing too aggressively with humans and/or other cats. This aggression can range from very mild to severe. Even if the cat is playing in a way that doesn’t cause pain or injury, it can still be considered play aggression if the other cat they’re playing with is trying to get away or giving cues they aren’t interested, but the aggressive cat persists.
Look for these signs:
You must avoid doing the following:
Learn how to help your cat with their play aggression.
Otherwise known as defensive aggression, fear aggression is an instinctual aggressive reaction when a cat feels they need to protect themselves. This tends to happen in response to threatening situations, when your cat feels they have no control, and no escape. It can be another pet cornering them, a person forcing them into a carrier, a veterinarian giving an injection, etc.
Redirected aggression is a bit different. But it’s often rooted in fear and can sometimes be handled in a similar way. Redirected aggression occurs when a cat is highly stimulated by something other than the focus of the aggression. They may be watching a stray cat outside who has them extremely stressed and upset. Or it could be as simple as the cat reacting when someone drops something in the kitchen, and the loud sound scares them. In those moments, their instincts take over. They think they’re in danger and often lash out with aggression toward whoever is nearby, whether it’s a person or pet. They’re not actually upset with the person or pet they attacked. They’re just living through a moment of feeling like they need to fight for their lives. It’s an extreme and scary situation, but it’s not a reflection of your cat’s personality. It’s all instinct. Your cat is still the lovable creature they’ve always been. They just had a moment of panic.
Signs of fear aggression:
Redirected aggression signs:
You must avoid doing the following:
Learn how to help your cat with fear or redirection aggression.
Cats can get easily overstimulated from petting. It’s very common to be petting your cat and, out of nowhere, get a bite or swat. But that’s not your cat being a jerk. It’s their way of yelling, “No!” Maybe they’ve been in situations in the past where their boundaries weren’t respected, and they had to get aggressive to get someone to back off.
Cats who are feeling pain or discomfort from things like arthritis or skin allergies can be more sensitive to touch. Or you may not realize that you started by petting in the location and way your cat likes. But over the course of a few minutes, your petting got much more firm and migrated to an area they didn’t like without you even realizing it. As much as we want to love our cats the way that we most enjoy, it’s only fair to respect them and give love in a way that they enjoy.
Signs of overstimulation:
You must avoid doing the following:
Learn how to help your cat with overstimulation and not wanting to be touched.
Why Are My Cats Suddenly Fighting?
Understanding Cat Body Language
What to Do if You’re Bitten by a Cat
What to Do if You’re Scratched by a Cat
If you see an attack coming:
If your cat is already being aggressive, distract them first. Then redirect:
If your cat isn’t responding to these basic tactics, don’t worry. There’s still much more that can be done. You just might need the help of a feline behavior expert.
Watch feline behavior expert, Marci Koski, explain why your cat may suddenly ambush you out of nowhere and what you can do.
If your cat is uncomfortable being petted or handled most of the time, there are desensitization techniques you can use to help them feel better about it. These feelings tend to come from a lack of socialization to handling, being handled in ways that didn’t respect their boundaries or a history of punishment or abuse. A certified feline behavior consultant or veterinary behaviorist can help get your cat past this hurdle and feel much better about attention from you and those in your family. And be understanding if your cat is still hesitant with strangers. Over time they'll hopefully feel more safe and secure with you handling them. But they may continue to be leery of people they don't know well. That's something else you can work on as they're ready.
Because many things can contribute to a cat's discomfort with being touched and handled, including past trauma or pain, it's a good idea to work with a behavior expert. They can help you identify triggers that may be causing your cat's reactions and teach you training techniques using positive methods that respect your cat's boundaries and avoid pushing past their comfort zone. This is vital to improving the situation.
Watch body language very closely for whispers of “please stop.” Don’t keep petting until your cat “yells” with a swat, bite, or hiss.
The second you see these cues stop petting your cat. Show them you respect their boundaries, and they may open up more to petting over time.
Here are few more tips:
Learn more from Marci Koski, a feline behavior expert, about why your cat might be biting you out of nowhere.
If the basic tactics above aren’t cutting back on your cat’s aggression, you’re seeing aggression that’s getting progressively worse, or you’ve had a specific incident or series of incidents your cat doesn’t seem to have recovered from, then you may need assistance from a professional to help to you and your cat through this together.
There’s so much that can be done to help manage cat aggression toward other cats and humans. Reach out to a certified feline behavior consultant or veterinary behaviorist for help.
Remember, pain or discomfort can be huge triggers for aggression. And cats are great at hiding pain. Sometimes it can take a couple of veterinary visits and multiple tests to diagnose a cat in pain. Even past pain that has been resolved can be an issue because the cat remembers that feeling of pain when they moved or were touched certain ways and are fearful of it happening again.
In certain cases, anti-anxiety medication may be helpful for aggressive cats. You're not looking to change your cat's personality or knock them out. It's just about taking the edge off so they can let their guard down a bit. It's important to work with your veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist to find the right medication and dosage, so your cat is still alert and enjoying life. And medication isn't generally the answer on its own. You'll still need to pair it with behavior work to help address the root of your cat's aggression.
Most aggressive cats can be rehabilitated if you're willing and able to do the work and get the professional help you need.
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