Pet InfoRx®
Cat Aggression

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.


Quick Links

Topic Highlights

  • Aggression itself is not a diagnosis. It’s a symptom.

  • A cat who suddenly becomes aggressive or attacks isn’t a cat with “aggression issues.” It doesn’t mean your cat is “bad” or has aggressive tendencies. It just means they reacted instinctively to a trigger.

  • Identifying the type of aggression is key to finding the trigger and working with your cat to resolve the aggression.

  • Most cat aggression is based in fear.

Cats Are Prey Animals

cat behaving aggressively

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.

Our mission is to help save dogs' and cats’ lives through our educational content. To support our efforts, this page may contain affiliate links. We earn a commission for qualifying purchases – at no cost to you.

Identifying Your Cat's Aggression

These are a few of the most common reasons cats get aggressive:

  • Prey/predatory reaction
  • Fear reaction
  • Petting overstimulation
  • Redirected aggression from outside stimuli
  • Pain/fear of pain
  • Social/territorial
  • Hormonal

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:

  • Facial expressions
  • Body language
  • Vocalizations
  • The context/situation in which they were aggressive
  • How they were acting just before and just after the aggressive incident

You also want to consider:

  • Was it a single incident, or is your cat often aggressive?
  • Do you know if a single event triggered the initial aggression, like seeing a cat outside or being startled by something?
  • Is your cat well socialized otherwise, with a history of positive behavior with whatever triggered the aggression?
  • Has the aggressive behavior been reinforced in the past? In other words, did your cat get what they wanted from the aggression (for example, the cat swats to get a child to leave them alone, and the child backs off)?
  • Was your cat being threatened, attacked, or forced to do something they weren’t comfortable with when it happened? Consider this from your cat’s perspective, not yours.

Let’s look at a few of the most common types of aggression seen in housecats.

Play Aggression

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:

  • Prey sequence – staring, stalking, backend wiggling, chasing, pouncing
  • Aggressor is usually silent – no vocalizing, hissing, growling, etc.
  • Aggressor has a quick and carefree retreat after the aggression. They aren’t visibly upset or stressed. They just move on to the next thing.
  • Facial expression – eyes may be big and fixed on the target, but ears are generally forward, and they’re not baring their teeth

You must avoid doing the following:

  • Punishing – there’s a very thin line between play aggression and defensive or offensive aggression, and it can easily shift.
  • Using your hands and feet for play
  • Jerking away, running, or yelling. That’s what prey would do. It can rev up your cat’s predatory instincts.

Learn how to help your cat with their play aggression.

Fear or Redirected 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:

  • Big eyes
  • Flat ears
  • Tucked tail
  • Low to the ground/trying to look smaller
  • Leaning away from the trigger
  • Piloerect (fur standing on end)
  • Hissing/growling
  • Swatting/biting
  • Rolling on their side

Redirected aggression signs:

  • Sudden, extreme aggression seemingly out of nowhere
  • You may or may not know what triggered the aggression
  • They tend to stay in that “fight for their lives” state even after the initial attack. It will take time for them to calm down.
  • Once calm, they may still react aggressively with the person or pet they attacked because they’ve associated them with that feeling of extreme fear.
  • It can take minutes, hours, days, or longer for them to return to normal behavior with the target of their aggression.
  • Sometimes a slow reintroduction is needed to help them understand they don’t need to be afraid of the target.

You must avoid doing the following:

  • Punishing
  • Trying to scare or startle your cat to get them to disengage
  • Continuing to expose them to whatever triggered the aggression while they’re still upset

Learn how to help your cat with fear or redirection aggression.

Overstimulation and/or Petting 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:

  • Your cat may seek attention and seem to be enjoying it, then suddenly bite or grab the hand of the petter.
  • Some cats will growl or hiss while being petted.
  • Your cat may swat at you as you reach for them.
  • They may immediately leave the area and seem unsettled afterward or want more attention.

You must avoid doing the following:

  • Smacking your cat or yelling at them. Punishment will not stop this behavior. It will make it worse.

Learn how to help your cat with overstimulation and not wanting to be touched.

Related resources:

Why Are My Cats Suddenly Fighting?

Understanding Cat Body Language

Why Does My Cat Bite Me?

What to Do if You’re Bitten by a Cat 

What to Do if You’re Scratched by a Cat


What You Should Do If Your Cat Has Play Aggression

Cat-to-Human Play Aggression Management

  • Stay as neutral as possible. Avoid making big movements, flailing your arms, running away, and vocalizing. These actions make you more prey-like or could be taken as engagement.

  • If you see an attack coming:
    • Watch body language – Look for swishing tail, big eyes, staring, getting ready to pounce.
    • Try to redirect to something fun BEFORE your cat does anything negative, like pouncing or biting. You need to provide an appropriate outlet for that play/hunting energy.

  • If your cat is already being aggressive:
    • Completely disengage. Do this neutrally. No big movements, no talking, looking at your cat – nothing they would see as engagement. Just get up and walk away. You’re showing your cat that when they get aggressive, all the fun stops
    • If your cat continues to chase you after you disengage, you may need more information than we have provided here, as it may be a complex issue. If you can, connect with a feline behavior consultant or veterinary behaviorist. If that's not feasible, look for books (like these: Cat vs Cat, The Cat Whisperer, and Think Like a Cat), videos and other content from behavior experts and try to educate yourself a bit more on feline aggression. But in the meantime, use a sight-blocker (piece of large cardboard, plastic storage bin lid) to protect your legs as you leave the area. This is a temporary measure that should be needed less and less as you work on other tactics like appropriate play and mental enrichment. If the behavior persists, a professional can help.
  • Wait a couple of minutes and then provide an appropriate outlet for that need to hunt. Have a play session, provide a food puzzle, etc. (As long as you wait a minute or two, your cat won’t connect the aggressive behavior with the positive activity you’re redirecting them to.) Learn how to make some fun DIY cat toys and puzzles.

  • Stuffed kicker toys can be a great option if your cat wants something to beat up on instead of your body parts. They’re also great if you want to play a bit rough because you get a similar hands-on experience by holding the kicker toy and letting your cat play attack it. But your hands are not seen as the toy.

Cat-to-Cat Play Aggression Management

  • Giving your cat an appropriate outlet for their need to hunt is the most effective way to limit play aggression. Daily hunting play with a wand toy is essential. Mental enrichment, like food puzzles and training sessions, are also highly effective. Catit Senses makes great interactive food puzzles, like their food tree and digger toy.

If you see an attack coming:

  • Watch body language – Look for a swishing tail, big eyes, staring, getting ready to pounce.

  • Try to redirect to something fun BEFORE your cat does anything negative, like chasing or pouncing. You need to provide an appropriate outlet for that play/hunting energy.

If your cat is already being aggressive, distract them first. Then redirect:

  • Use a neutral distraction to interrupt the aggression. Toss something lightly across the room (not at the cats) to pull their focus from each other without startling them. Shake a jar of dry beans behind your back. Do a silly dance and sing a song. You don’t want to scare them. You also don’t want to use a positive distraction like a toy that could be seen as a reward for the aggression. You want, “hey, what was that? Better go check it out.”

  • Or try blocking their sightlines with a piece of cardboard or pillow. This can often be enough to get them to disengage.

  • Or neutrally pick one of the cats up and remove them from the area if you feel you can do so safely.

  • With any of these, wait a couple of minutes, then redirect the aggressive cat to an appropriate outlet for that play/hunting energy, so they don’t go right back after the other cat.

  • Providing more play and enrichment in general while limiting negative interactions should help the negative interactions fade out over time.

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.

What You Should Do If Your Cat Has Fear or Redirected Aggression

Fear and Redirected Aggression Management

If there’s a clear trigger: (example: like a cat outside the window or the smell of another animal on someone's clothes.)
  • Remove the trigger or remove the cat from the area.

  • Provide protection from the trigger if it can’t be removed. The situation is not likely to improve if they continue to be exposed to the trigger at the same level.
  • Give your aggressive, scared cat time to calm down. Get them into a secure, dimly-lit, quiet room with a litter box, food, and water, and just let them regroup. Depending on how upset they are, as much as you want to help them, your presence may not have a positive effect. They need to come down from their fight-or-flight state first.

  • Once they’ve calmed down, try a very slow, controlled, low-intensity reintroduction with whatever triggered them or whomever they were aggressive with. Crack the door, put some distance between them and the target, and see how they react. If they seem back to normal, proceed slowly, letting your cat come out when they’re ready. And try to do something positive like provide a treat or have a little play or petting session to change the mood.

  • If you crack the door and they’re still reactive, give them a little more time, then test with the cracked door again. Still upset? In extreme cases, some cats have a hard time coming down from that fight-or-flight state. It can take hours or even days before they feel safe with the recipient of their aggression again. It might be time to reach out to a behavior professional. Sometimes, a more formal, controlled reintroduction is needed to show them they don’t need to be afraid of whatever triggered them or the target of the attack.
If the trigger is another pet bullying the scared pet into aggression:
  • Follow the steps above if they need to be separated.

  • Work with the bullying pet to reduce the behavior.

  • Use positive reinforcement to reward both positive and neutral interactions between the bully and fear-aggressive pets.

  • Build confidence in the bullied cat.
    • Hunting play sessions (mimic hunting with these techniques)
    • Brainwork/training (check out this article for some tips to engage your cat's brain)
    • Providing safe places (hiding spots and high perches)
    • Reducing stress wherever possible

What You Should Do If Your Cat Is Not Comfortable Being Touched

Management for Cats Who Aren’t Comfortable With Touch in General

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.

Management for Cats Who Want Attention but Get Overstimulated

Watch body language very closely for whispers of “please stop.” Don’t keep petting until your cat “yells” with a swat, bite, or hiss.

Look for:

  • Skin twitching
  • Tail swishing aggressively
  • Ears turning slightly or all the way to the side or back
  • Leaning away from you
  • Fidgeting

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:

  • Ask your cat for permission before petting by holding your hand out in front of them and letting them rub against you to say, “yes.”

  • If you get lost in petting your cat (meaning you're doing it without even realizing, like while watching TV), try this:
    • Ask for permission.
    • Pet 4 or 5 times, then take a break.
    • After a minute, ask again, pet a few times, and take a break. It helps keep your attention on what you’re doing, so you’re more likely to pet your cat in the way they prefer and catch their body language cues. It also gives them the opportunity to simply not give permission when they’re done with petting without having to get aggressive.

  • Try letting your cat come near you at times without petting them (unless they ask). Sometimes cats avoid lounging near us because they know we’re going to pet them more than they’re comfortable with. If you let them hang out without petting, they'll learn that’s an option and may actually end up being more cuddly as a result.

Learn more from Marci Koski, a feline behavior expert, about why your cat might be biting you out of nowhere.

When to Get Help

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.


The Pet InfoRx® is made possible, in part, through our partnership with AlignCare®.

Preventive Vet AlignCare

© Preventive Vet. All rights reserved.