how to resolve cat aggression

How To Resolve Aggression In Cats: Fear Based, Territorial, Unprovoked Or Just Play

I feel the best place to begin to resolve cat aggression is to rule out any medical reason for the aggressive behavior so consult a veterinarian before attempting to manage with behavioral/environmental modification.

Once a veterinarian has ruled out medical problems, identifying the type of aggression is key to understanding its cause and to developing a plan to intervene.

cat hissing and being aggressive

Generalities for managing all types of feline aggression: (curated from here)

  • Catching it as early as possible
  • Motions surrounding the cats environment that can cause it
  • Refrain from physical punishment (this can increase a cat’s fear/anxiety
  • Medications may help, but only in combination with behavioral/environmental modification.
  • Recognizing aggression and startling an aggressive cat without physical contact is usually effective.
  • Avoid situations that may make a cat aggressive
  • Separate cats into different spaces if they act aggressively toward each other and reintroduce slowly with positive reinforcement
  • Cat treats are a positive enforcement of non-aggressive behavior

Disclaimer Alert: Aggression that cannot be managed using the techniques outlined in this brochure may require consultation with a veterinary behaviorist. It is important to use the information presented here in close collaboration with your veterinarian.

The day when you realize that your cat has an aggression problem can be heartbreaking.

Even though you’ve seen signs along the way…

That one hiss, scratch, or growl that changes your view often means it’s too late for behavior modification.  

From the moment you consider adopting a cat or if you already own a cat, it’s very important to understand the signs of feline aggression, how it develops, and what to do about it.

Learn all you can now about feline aggression for the safety of your other pets, your family, and yourself.

aggressive cat standing on a log

How to Tell When Your Cat is Being Aggressive: Cat Body Language

Surprisingly enough, many people think they know what cat aggression looks like even though they’ve never dealt with an offensively aggressive (as opposed to defensively aggressive) cat.  

Here are some common body language signals that your cat will send that may or may not be a sign of either type aggression. 

As with anything else, you must also consider the context of these behaviors:

🐾 Cat Ear Positions

When cats are calm, relaxed, and happy, their ears should be sitting straight up.

They may twitch their ears from side to side, but they will quickly return to an upright position.  

A cat that is angry or entering an aggressive stage will put their ears back until they are flat against their skull.

If the cat is afraid, then they will also put their ears back, but more out to the side.  

Many people that give advice on curbing feline aggression will wrongly tell you that you should use a water bottle to spray the cat as a form of punishment, flick at its ears, or “punish” it in some other way.  

You must never forget that an aggressive cat simply isn’t the same as a normal cat.  

He or she will not learn through the same mechanisms that work for other cats, nor will they see things the same way.

Punishment for an aggressive cat is more likely to invoke either fear that will be shown in two ways:

  • The cat will flatten its ears sideways (an aggressive kitty’s way of saying “I’m pretty sure I did a boo-boo, but I’ll fight just the same”), or
  • The cat will outright attack with its ears in a fully aggressive position.  

Paying careful attention to a cat’s ears during attempts to tame aggression is one of the most important ways to see what is in the process of working in the right direction, or what will spell much bigger problems later on.

two cats squaring off and being aggressive
“Creative Commons Aggression” by Patrick Findeiss is licensed under CC BY 2.0

🐾 Cats Eyes

Once again…

There’s a difference between a cat that is having an aggressive episode based in fear versus being in pure offense mode.  

While most sources talk about changes in pupil size and eye shape, I have personally noted that my cat, Crypto, who has aggression problems (caused by being separated from his mother and siblings at 4 weeks of age) will blink and stare for a split second before his pupils become contracted.  

By contrast, an aggressive cat acting on fear will have his or her eyes wide open, with eyes fully or sometimes partially dilated.

black cat with eyes fully dilated out of fear
“Creative Commons f/1.0” by Anssi Koskinen is licensed under CC BY 2.0

🐾 Cats Whiskers

Noticing your cat’s whiskers is very important for helping your cat avoid tight spaces and detect the presence of threats.  

[You can read more about what are whiskers for on cats here.]

  • When they are pointed outward, it means your cat is content and not likely to think about attacking you or having to defend itself.  
  • If they are drawn in close to the face, your cat knows trouble is coming and is either thinking to strike or aggressively defend itself.
  • If your cat has aggressive problems related to overstimulation or territorial issues, watch the whiskers carefully. Often, your cat will pull them in at or around the same time as their eyes change.  

Therefore, if you can’t easily see their eyes because of your position in relation to them, observing their whiskers can give you some good clues.

🐾 Cat Tail Language

If there’s one part of your cat’s body that conveys its emotional status more than the eyes, it’s the tail. 

When your cat is relaxed and happy, their tail will be straight up.  

Some cats may also flop the tip of their tail over while the rest remains straight, especially if they want to play.  

orange angry kitten with fluffed tail and arched back hissing aggressively

Cats that are angry or feel threatened will have their tail down, arched or straight out and puffed up to make it look bigger.  

If the cat is getting angry or wants to be left alone, his or her tail will go down. They will then twitch it sharply or wag it insistently.  

This is distinctly different from the way their tail shivers at the tip when they are about to pounce on prey.

In a situation where cats are afraid and signaling their actions will be erratic because of panic, they will curl their tail and wrap it close to their body.

As with their whiskers, they pull their tail in close to protect it from damage.

Remember:

Your cat’s tail is essential for balance and moving around.

To them it is a very important organ.

🐾 Cat Arching Back: Like A Witch’s Black Cat!

When your cat arches its back sharply upward, it is trying to look bigger.  Mainly fear based, not so much aggression.

This is a sure sign the cat will attack if you try to move towards it.

Usually, a spinal arch is accompanied by hissing, growling, and a fluffed up fur and tail.  

grey and white feral cat hissing
“Creative Commons Hissing cat” by Consumerist Dot Com is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Never approach a cat that is expressing this body language or try to discipline it with a water bottle.

Just stand still and make sure it has room to escape from your presence.  

Give the cat about an hour or two to calm down before approaching.

🐾 Posture: Cat Body Language!

If your cat is crouching with bunched-up back leg muscles, it is a clear sign the cat is about to pounce.   

I’ve noticed that in a normal cat, this is simply play pouncing–similar to what it would do with prey or a toy.

This posture should never direct this type of behavior at a human, unless it is a very small kitten and still learning.  

Among other cats, you may see this body posture as a form of play.

Watch carefully to make sure the other cat is aware and simply taking it as play.

If nothing else, well socialized cats are mischievous and often whimsical creatures among themselves!

Nevertheless…

For an aggressive cat, like my Crypto, this is not normal play.

These cats can and will literally climb up your leg or scratch your feet if they succeed in reaching you.  

Even though cats can fight in any position, they prefer to lay on their back and use their formidable claws to keep attackers at bay.  

There is a big difference between a cat that is rolling and stretching for fun or pleasure, and one that is planning an attack.

The video below shows a super brief overview of some basic cat body language:

 

An aggressive cat will duck its head to one side as it rolls.  

If you do not close in on the cat at that time, it may roll around and appear to be calm or stretching.

Watch the cat’s tail for thumping and its eyes. Even if the cat is not staring at you, fixated eyes mean it is triggering and heading into an aggressive mode.

Never engage an aggressive cat when it first starts to roll.

If you must pick the cat up to isolate it, wait for it to stop staring and for a point where it’s muscles are relaxed.

You must act very quickly to catch this window.

🐾 Fur: Cats With a Ridge Down Their Back or a Mohawk!

Both aggressive and non-aggressive cats will bristle or fluff their fur out when they feel threatened or are about to attack.

As previously noted:

This is designed to make them look bigger.

In their minds, looking bigger is equated with being more threatening.  

It’s their hope that a potential attacker will think twice and back off.

An aggressive cat will also bristle as a means of intimidation and to instill fear in its victim.

If the cat moves forward on the victim instead of away, then you have another sign that indicates the cat is engaging in offensive aggression instead of defensive.

🐾 Muscles In Cats: Tension Before The Pounce…

One of the most subtle, but important signs of aggression is your cat’s muscle tension.  

For example, if your cat is feeling overstimulated, you may notice a wave of tension move from head to toe along the cat’s spine.  

If the cat is half asleep or dozing, you may or may not see this before the cat starts scratching or trying to get away.

In the video below you’ll learn the different body movements a cat has when they are stressed:

 

Tight muscles when a cat is crouching are a clear sign the cat is ready to pounce or attack.  

Their shoulder and leg muscles will also get very tight when their back is arched up and they are ready to run right at you.

🐾  Head Motions: Cat Head-Butting!

As with humans, a cat may tilt its head to one side as a reflection of curiosity or paying attention to something puzzling.  

If the cat bumps or “head butts” the top of its head into you, especially under the chin, it is a sign of affection.

Cats also mark their territory by rubbing the area around their whiskers on objects and people. Even an aggressive cat will greet you by marking you as its territory.

Unlike less problematic cats however, an aggressive cat may also turn its back on you and mark furniture as a means of warning using it’s facial scent glands.  

Even if the cat doesn’t go immediately into attack mode, you can expect to be stalked or pounced on if you get too close to the area it has marked.

If you have a tendency to pace a lot or you need to move around the area, it is best to remove the cat from the area and isolate it while it’s still calm.  

🐾 Why Do Cats Show Their Teeth? 

Cats are similar to other animals in the sense that bared teeth are a clear sign of aggression.  

For cats:

This will usually mean that their mouth will be open wide so you can see the front fangs clearly.

black cat smirking at camera showing teeth

When combined with growling and splayed claws, you can rest assured that you will be attacked if you get any closer.  

🐾 Sounds: Cat Language

Aside from the range of emotions expressed with meows, cats can also growl and hiss.  

Growling usually means an attack is about to occur.  

On the other hand…

Hisses don’t necessarily mean the cat will attack. For example, if the cat thinks you are about to bump into them, or something is around, they may hiss in your direction to give a warning.

Cats will also hiss if you touch an area on their body that is painful. 

If the hiss changes to a growl, it is likely to mean the cat will attack if you try to touch them again.

I can’t say if this holds true for all offensively aggressive cats; however, I noticed that Crypto doesn’t hiss, but he does growl.

My normal cats, including those that are more in the assertive range, will hiss as a means of warning, but not necessarily because they are going to attack. 

Sometimes it seems to me that cats with ingrained aggression problems will skip right over the intermediate of hissing and go straight for attack mode and growling.

 

Play Aggression In Kittens: Ninja Attack Mode!

Many people are surprised to find out that aggressive tendencies show up very early in young kittens.  

If you are trying to choose a kitten to adopt…

Here are some clear signs of aggression that mean this cat may not be the right one for you:

⭕ Cat Staring At Me…

Even though cats don’t necessarily shy away from eye contact, they won’t hold it for long periods of time like a dog will.  

If a kitten is staring at you, it may be a sign of developing aggression.

Watch for these 3 signs of aggression as the kitten stares:

  1. The kitten’s muscles are tense
  2. The kitten is planning to pounce
  3. The tip of his or her tail is shaking from intense mental focus

A kitten that contemplates pouncing on a human is one that is likely to cross that line much sooner than another cat.

⭕ Pulling Your Hand Towards Its Mouth

While you may think this is cute or a sign of being friendly, the kitten is actually in full offensive aggression mode and means to bite.  

As the cat grows to maturity, its claws will and teeth will get stronger and do a lot of damage.

If you roll a normal or more socially balanced kitten over during play, it may grasp your hand and wrist.

It may also kick its back paws into your arm, but it will not try to draw your hand to its mouth.  

Here is a quick 27 second video showing you the “kitty kicks”:

 

When you first pick up very young kittens, it is very normal for them to cry, put their claws out, and shiver.

As they get more accustomed to being handled, this behavior will subside.  

It should also subside in a young kitten almost as soon as all four paws are in contact with something that supports its weight.

Even if the kitten wants to get away, a non-aggressive animal will usually put its claws in and its ears will return to a more normal position.  

An aggressive kitten will attempt to roll on its back while your arms and try to scratch.

Never forget that cats fight on their back, so rolling this way with its claws out and muscles tense is never a good sign, even in young kittens.

Rule Out Medical Problems First For Cat Aggression

Not so long ago…

Cats were considered healthy, hearty pets that would live for years without much need for medical intervention.

Today…

Substandard food choices, environmental pollution, psychological stresses, and other factors are taking their toll on our feline companions, just as they are on every other living creature.

As such, never jump to the conclusion that your cat has an aggressive temperament before getting a medical exam.

The exam should include:

  • Blood work
  • Disease testing – hyperthyroidism, osteoarthritis, dental disease, and central nervous system
  • CT of the head
  • Allergy studies, and
  • Behavior profiling

If you are on a tight budget, do not forget that pet insurance will reimburse you for many medical care costs.

pet insurance

Insurance can save you money in the long run for this and other issues.  

Be sure to sign up as early as possible so that you don’t have to worry about exclusions related to pre-existing conditions.

Here are some common medical triggers for feline aggression:   

🌀 Cat Behavior After Declawing

Cats that no longer have their claws will feel very insecure.

Declawing isn’t just about the loss of a useful weapon; cats without their claws have a harder time balancing, walking, and moving.  

Since the cat may also be feeling pain with each step it takes, it should come as no surprise that declawed cats will become more aggressive.

 

🌀 Dietary Concerns

Have you ever gotten a headache from consuming certain foods, felt sick, or irritable?

Common sense dictates that your cat also has a sense of internal or organic pain and discomfort, even though there is very little research on the links between feline aggression, diet, and allergies.

Do not be surprised if your cat responds aggressively because eating food causes discomfort, or there is some kind of nutrient deficiency.  

In fact, according to Dr Inglis:

“Over the 12 years I’ve been a practicing vet, I have seen a substantial rise in cases of problems caused by poor diet, including allergies and intolerances, and behavioral issues linked to artificial additives in food.”

While a vet may or may not recommend changing food, you can see if it produces a change in behavior.  

Don’t forget to assess treats, as even a small amount of a toxin or allergen can leave your cat feeling sick depending on its sensitivity to the offending ingredient.

🌀 Side Effects From Flea Killer and Other Medications

Did you know that Fipronil, an ingredient in flea killers like Frontline and PetArmor, can cause aggression in some cats?  

If you notice behavioral changes after applying any kind of medication or treatment to your cat, or after being in the presence of insecticides/herbicides, it may be worth your while to do some research on the side effects of these treatments.  

Flea Graffiti

🌀 Possible Feline Aggression From Cancers and Tumors

In my opinion, some sites wrongly claim there is very little or poorly conducted research on the links between cancer and pet food additives.

On the other hand, as part of FDA approval, many chemicals used in human food are tested on lab animals (including cats) to see if there is an increased risk of cancer.

If you do some research on specific ingredients and can get ahold of those studies, you may find some very firm links between the rate of cancer and additives in foods for cats.  

Even though the purpose of these studies may not be directly intended to apply to cat food, the results of the animal studies may still provide important scientific support for the links between food additives and feline cancers.  

Unimpressed Cat For Canned Cat Food

As it turns out…

There does seem to be an increasing link between cancer and pet food additives.  

Insofar as feline aggression, some brain tumors can cause a cat to have erratic behavior and act in a violent way.  

This behavior may build gradually or occur suddenly depending on the location and extent of the tumor.

8 Causes of Feline Aggression

When you first realize that your cat appears to be having an overly hostile response, you may or may not know what the problem is.  

Here are some common and uncommon things that may be triggering your feline friend:

1. Accelerated Weaning and Removal From the Feline Family Unit 

Newborn kittens need to stay in close contact with their feline parents and siblings until they are at least 8 – 14 weeks of age.

You should never try to accelerate the weaning process or move them out of the home until the mother cat starts isolating herself or attempting to chase the kittens away.

kittens cat veteran

The time spent with their mother and siblings is a vital time for establishing social boundaries that will extend to other living creatures.

If they do not learn how to act without aggression in a feline context, they will have no basis for figuring out what to do when they try to integrate with you and your family.

2. Medical Illness or Pain

Many people dealing with an aggressive cat do not realize that their feline friend may be getting headaches, dizziness, or just plain not feeling well.

Medical issues in cats are just as diverse and far-ranging as they are in humans.

Your cat may have a metabolic disorder, cancer, or even some kind of allergy to a common medication or food that you are giving to them.

3. Changes in Your Emotional and Hormonal Levels

Even though there are few scientific studies on this topic, most cat owners will tell you that cats are very emotionally responsive to their human family members.

If you’re feeling angry, stressed, or are trying to control your temper, don’t be surprised if your cat lashes out on your behalf.

grey aggressive cat out side on a log hissing

Cats can smell hormonal changes that come with your mood changes, thoughts, and even your menstrual cycle.

They can also read your facial expressions and respond accordingly.

In these situations, the cat may attack you because it feels threatened, or they may attack the target of your anger.

Unlike non-aggressive cats that may seek to comfort you or give you some sense of balance, an aggressive cat is more like a mirror that will do exactly what your emotions direct him or her to do.

4. Lack of Appropriate Stimulation or Boredom

Cats are very intelligent, agile-minded creatures that have a need for working out puzzled and solving problems.

Since cats spend a lot of time engaging in efficient hunting, they need stimulation that engages their thought process more than extensive physical exercise.

Below is the classic way NOT to treat a cat that you think is being aggressive or a “jerk”: Be prepared to get angry 🙂

 

This can be hard to deliver in an indoor environment.

Aggressive cats investigate and figure out new things very quickly.

This means they may abandon new toys once they figure out how they work.

5. Destructive Emotions 

While you may not realize it, a cat’s brain only differs from your brain by about 10%.

Even though researchers don’t study this topic very often, it is entirely possible that your feline companion has the same range of social values and emotions that humans have:

  • Greed
  • Jealousy
  • Rage
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Even grieving may stimulate aggression in cats just as much as they do in humans.   

It’s also important to note about aggressive cats that aren’t necessarily acting out of fear cannot be dominated.

No matter how they got this way, these cats simply don’t accept a social order.  

You and the cat will either establish working boundaries or you will not.

One thing you can rely, on, however, is aggressive cats are incredibly consistent and methodical.

Once you reach an agreement on managing triggers, the cat will not change unless a medical problem arises or your actions change.

6. Environmental Problems

Loud noises, bright lights, overpowering (for the cat) odors, and cramped living areas are just a few things that can cause a cat to become aggressive.

Consider how you feel when someone plays a radio loudly and long into the night.

Does it give you a headache and make you feel more irritable?  

Your cat’s sense of hearing and smell are far sharper than yours.

Excess for them is as troubling as it is for you.

Since some cat aggression is also rooted in fear, you may want to pay attention to changes in weather patterns.

Many cats that cannot go outdoors may still have a fear of thunderstorms or anything that indicates bad or dangerous weather is coming.  

7. Overstimulation

Where some cats need more attention, more toys, and more space, others may quickly become overwhelmed.

This is video from the show, My Cat From Hell, where a deaf cat has a hard time with overstimulation:

 

These are the cats that may bite or scratch after you try to pet them for more than a few seconds.

Aggressive cats that feel overstimulated easily may also attack or go into a defensive posture if you try to pick them up.  

8. Past History of Abuse or Neglect

As cute as it may seem for children to play with young kittens, roughhousing, kicking, yelling, or shoving cats can all make them feel upset and stressed.

Needless to say, a cat that has been dumped off, abandoned, or neglected in some other way can also become aggressive.

A great deal will depend on the cat’s overall personality traits and how they perceive you in relation to their past experiences.

In fact, even if you are able to form a good relationship with a cat that has abuse related issues, that does not mean they will transfer that to every other person they encounter.

If nothing else, cats are very selective about how they treat other animals and humans.  

Check out this great video on treating cat aggression and it doesn’t invovle yelling at them:

 

Types of Aggression in Cats and How to Handle Them

Even though there is some overlap between causes of aggression and types of aggression, the following aggression types tend to be easier to spot than ones based on more subtle causes, such as social cues and emotional outlooks.  

✔ Predatory Aggression: 

To put it simply, even though there are many dangers outside, your cat is likely to have some very definite ideas about what they need for survival.

In this case, that means prey to hunt for food.

A cat that is heavily focused on hunting may not feel comfortable indoors because there are not enough prey animals around to feed on.

Prey aggression can start as early as 5 weeks of age and can be transferred to other cats, humans, or anything else that moves close enough to be a target.

✔ Territorial Aggression:

This problem may actually overlap with predatory aggression.  

A cat that can’t leave the house, or doesn’t have a safe space may attack humans, animals, and anything else nearby.

They may also stake out a room, hallway, or piece of furniture as their territory and “defend it” by hissing, growling, and stalking anything that comes near it.

Sometimes you can figure out the areas the cat has staked out by observing where they scratch and then mark with their facial scent glands, or where they leave urine and feces.  

This video below completely discusses the types of feline aggression by Dr. Marci of Feline Behavior Solutions:

 

If the cat makes it a point to mark in this way before getting into an aggressive posture immediately, or at some point during the day, then you may be dealing with this kind of aggression.

Remember:

Cats are calculated, logical thinkers, and they do communicate both their needs and interests. This includes informing you and others that they will not tolerate invasions of their chosen territorial space.

✔ Referred Aggression:

Have you ever gotten into an argument with someone, and heard the phone ring?  

Upon answering the phone, did you snap at the person as if you were already angry at them for some reason?

When cats can’t get to prey flitting around outside the window, or they are triggered up for some other reason, the aggression they could not expend on the original target may spill over onto another subject.

For example…

If you have two cats and they are having a spat you didn’t know about, one or both of them may response aggressively towards you and other people before the referred aggression period has passed.

2 cats aggressively playing outside on the grass

This timeframe can last anywhere from 2 to 24 hours.

If the referred aggression is linked to a territorial problem, it may be several days before you can re-introduce the cat to the environment where the primary encounter occurred.  

✔ Fear Aggression:

Even though many people consider this a form of aggression, I don’t feel this is the case.

Cats that exhibit fear do so for a tangible reason that can usually be figured out with a little bit of effort and observation.

While the cat may hiss, scratch, growl, and crouch, it’s only seeking to defend itself.

If you leave room for the cat to escape the situation, it will.

Unless you are dealing with a mother cat attempting to protect kittens, or it can’t leave for some other reason, fear “aggression” is simply expressing a need for safety.

On the other hand…

An aggressive cat will charge up on you and attack because that’s what it wants to do.

✔ Play Aggression:

Kittens that were taken away from their mother and siblings too soon are likely to go from play aggression to offensive aggression as they get older.

Since play and honing hunting skills are closely tied together in the feline mind, it can be very easy to think the cat is pretending to hunt or “playing,” when it has something else entirely in mind.

play aggression between 2 cats outside

While it may seem absurd to us that a small cat would want to hunt a human and have him for dinner, there is no telling what the cat is thinking about its odds of success!

✔ Unprovoked Aggression:

Unless your cat has a medical problem, there is usually no such thing as “unprovoked aggression.”

If you take the time to think and feel like your feline friend, you are sure to find a reason that makes sense to the cat.

While you may not agree with the cat’s opinion, assessment, or outlook, understanding that there is a tangible “reason” is half the battle towards finding a solution and giving your cat the tools required to make appropriate behavioral adjustments.  

✔ Idiopathic Aggression In Cats:

Perhaps it is fair to say when you run out of reasons or excuses for your cat’s aggression, the only answer left is no answer at all.

Unfortunately, this is also the most dangerous kind of aggression because it can erupt suddenly and be very violent.

white siamese cat being aggressive and hissing

As a cat owner, this is also the most heartbreaking type of cat aggression to deal with.

At this stage, there is no hope of reaching the cat and changing its behavior.

How to Manage 8 Common Aggression Triggers

Now that you have some good ideas about the types, signs, and symptoms of feline aggression, it’s time to focus on solving the problem and increasing the level of safety for yourself and other family members.  

Here are 8 common aggression triggers and how to manage them.  

At each stage, do not hesitate to work with a veterinarian or an animal behavior specialist that specializes in felines. 

#1 Motion

Since cats pay a lot of attention to potential prey and predators, they focus heavily on any motion in their environment.

Normal cats may see motion and simply move to investigate it before pouncing on it, marking it as territory, or walking away.

An aggressive cat will not necessarily stop to investigate or think about their response.

cat stalking prey
“Creative Commons Prey” by Jennifer Barnard is licensed under CC BY 2.0

They may immediately crouch and prepare to charge, or they will charge without much preparation.

Stopping a cat from responding to motion triggers can be very difficult.

  • First, make sure that your cat doesn’t have eye or hearing problems that cause it to attack when it shouldn’t.

Even if the vet doesn’t notice any eye or hearing problems, you can test out different colors and lighting conditions to see if that helps.

For example:

I had one cat that would routinely attack when I was wearing dark colored shoes in the day, but not at night.

As a first step to solving this problem, I had to first work in a semi-dark room with the cat.

After a time…

The cat marked my shoes with her scent, and I was gradually able to increase the lighting.

Once she associated the shoes with my footsteps and presence, she no longer attacked them.

While the veterinarian didn’t notice a visual or auditory problem, the change in lighting did help.

Consult a behavior specialist if you suspect that your cat is having motion related problems.

They will give you exercises to redirect the behavior, as well as suggest ways to enrich the visual environment so that your cat will not be so interested in inappropriate subjects for aggressive actions.

#2 Startling Noises, Lights, or Noxious Odors

Pinning down these environmental cues can be difficult, especially if you aren’t home or near the cat when this primary stimulus occurs.

If your cat seems to enter an aggressive episode for no reason, you will need to find out if environmental cues are creating referred aggression.

If you are unable to observe the environment, try installing nanny cams to see what they pick up insofar as noises and lights.

Odor related cues will be hard to pick up unless you spend time in the room that match up with trigger episodes that don’t match up to a visual or auditory cue.

Even if you aren’t home, watching a recording of your cat startling or having a triggered response can help you figure out what is going on.  

You may also want to try temporarily isolating the cat to one room in the home for a few days to see if the problem is in that room or some other room.

Once you find the cause of the problem, you can take steps to introduce the cat to the stimulus in a neutral setting and help them overcome their excessive response to it.

This is similar to the kind of therapy you would undergo for managing fears and phobias.

A behavior specialist that works with felines can provide both therapy and exercises to work with.

#3 Invasion of Territory

Any human or animal that interferes in your cat’s marked out territory can be seen as in need of correction.

There are two ways to deal with territorial problems:

  1. First, if the cat is unable to go outdoors, you may need to give the cat a room of his or her own. From there, you will need to learn how to act in the cat’s space and build a relationship based in security and trust. Quality time and playtime should be in this room, as well as other parts of the house. Under no circumstance should you allow children, other pets, or other household members into the cat’s room without supervision. As time goes by, other people may be able to go into the room with the cat; however, there are no guarantees.
  2. The second way to deal with territorial aggression is to find out if there is a dominance related issue. In this case, no matter whether the cat has a secure space or not, it may still attack because it seeking to create a specific social order.  

These cases are best handled by an animal psychologist or behavior therapist that can help figure out how best to create meaningful communication that creates a workable social order for everyone involved.

As always with cats, never ever conclude that you will gain all the concessions just because you are higher up on the food chain.   

#4 Pain

No matter whether your cat responds aggressively to visiting the vet, having flea medicine applied, or has a wound, the best thing you can do is be prepared for a battle.

You can roll cats up into blankets and wear gloves when certain procedures must be done. Always handle your cat gently and speak softly, especially if they are experiencing pain for some medical reason.  

When cats are experiencing pain because of a disease such as arthritis or cancer, you may want to talk to your doctor about pain medications.

If those do not work, it may be best to euthanize the cat rather than let it go on suffering.  

#5 The Presence of Prey

Even though you don’t see, hear, or smell a mouse, insect, or other form of prey, that doesn’t mean your cat is oblivious.

It doesn’t matter to the cat if the prey is hiding behind the wall or under a carpet; cats love to wait for their prey and stalk it.

If you or other pets walk into the target area, you are literally interfering in a battle that you cat is very keen to win. As such, you may actually be dealing with refractory aggression.

The best way to manage this problem is to try and find out if there are mouse holes in the area where you are being ambushed, or signs of other prey such as insects.

Pest control professionals will be the best people to help you find out more about this problem.

Once the prey are eliminated, the aggressive behavior should stop.

  • Figuring Out Why Your Cat Attacks Other Cats

There are several reasons why cats may attack each other that aren’t necessarily rooted in one cat or the other being aggressive.

Some of the most common causes of aggressive cat behavior toward other cats include:

🔘 One of the cats is a new member of the family.

This problem can be overcome by keeping the cats separate and then introducing them a little bit at a time.

Gradually, they will learn to live and communicate with each other well enough.

All cats will have a spat from time to time, however it should not go on for long periods of time, nor should the cause serious harm to each other.

🔘 One cat goes to the vet and comes back “different.

Medications, surgical procedures, or even an extended stay overnight can lead to aggression when cats are reunited.

It’s hard to say if this occurs because the cats smell different to each other, or territorial takeovers have occurred.

Since there may also be health related changes, the social order may have been disrupted and needs to be re-established.

🔘 One of the cats has a medical condition.

If you have an aggressive cat on your hands, it may want the other animal’s territory as its own.

The cat may also see a sick animal around as a threat because it can draw predators.

They may also see a sick cat as prey, especially if the other cat seems weak or doesn’t respond with normal behavior.

I once saw this with a pair of my cats who had gotten along well for several years.

It turned out that the cat who was being victimized had a heart condition.  

Even though she acted normally insofar as feeding and other behaviors, my other cat picked up on the health problem.

All you can do with this situation is make sure the cats cannot get near each other.

There’s no point to punishing a cat on this matter, nor should you try.

Once the other cat is well enough or has passed on, then you can simply let the other cat take over the whole territory.

Prior to that time…

Your focus should be on making sure that each cat is comfortable and feels cared for.

That can certainly be challenging when you are dealing with an aggressive cat and feel bad about the one that is sick.

#6 Dominance Issues

Even though the cats in your home may not seem to be changing much from day to day, each cat’s awareness of each other may indicate something else.

A cat that is developing diabetes, digestive problems, or even cancer may smell different to his or her housemates.

Pay careful attention to these cues and see if the cat that is being picked on has medical issues.

If there is nothing wrong with any of the cats, then they may just be squabbling among themselves in an effort to change the established social order.

You may need to provide more toys, more escape routes, and spend more time with each of them to resolve this problem.

A cat behavior therapist may have some specific ideas about toys and furniture that can be helpful as well.

#7 Jealousy

Did you know that studies reveal cats place a priority on human affection over food?

As such, it is entirely possible that your aggressive feline is paying far more attention to your interactions with the other cats in the home.  

Jealousy can be a wicked thing, even in the feline world.

Try spending more time with the cat showing aggression and see if you can offer a special treat or something else that will restore its sense of priority in your life without breaking your bond with the other cat.  

#8 Gender Related Issues

Males that have not been neutered may have an aggressive response to each other.

Female cats can also respond in a negative way to other female cats.

Solving this problem is as simple as a trip to the vet to have your cat spayed or neutered. 

If you’re bringing a new kitten into the home, you will more than likely need to isolate the kitten until it has been sterilized and it’s gender oriented scents are gone.

During that time it is still important to have supervised visits between the kitten and adult cats that will accept it.

Remember, kittens need socializing until they are at least 14 weeks old. Isolation from other cats during this time will do more harm than good.

Reasons Why an Aggressive Cat Will Attack You or Other Humans

Overall, cats will attack humans for the same reasons they will attack other cats.

They can be jealous of the affection you show to children, or they may detect an illness developing in a family member.  

If cats are left out of many family activities, they may also act aggressively in order to get attention and try to regain or take a better place in the household social order.

It is best to resolve these issues by seeking help from a licensed animal behavior specialist, especially if children or elderly people are involved.

Because of the degree of injury that cats can do to an unsuspecting child, or an adult that doesn’t understand feline aggression signals, it is best to work with a professional that will find the solution as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Even if the answers come down to supervised time between the cat and the potential victim, it is still best to work with a professional that can spot problems in both parties and offer both timely advice and correctional methods.  

The Stages of a Feline Aggressive Episode

Aside from knowing the basic signs of a feline aggression, it is also important to know how such episodes evolve and what to do at each stage. 

This is especially important if you are trying to curb the behavior and prevent injuries.  

🔴 Stage 1:

This is a normal stage in which there are no signs of aggression.

The cat may be sleeping, eating, grooming, or just immersed in thought.  At this stage, you should be able to approach the cat with no problems.

🔴 Stage 2:

The cat will be alerted to the presence of a trigger.

This may include turning to see something moving, startling at  a loud sound, or picking up an odor that triggers an aggressive response.

What you are looking for at this stage is anything that diverts the cat’s attention from what it was doing.  

Pay careful attention to the cat’s ears, eyes, and tail.

If you know what the trigger is, see if you can stop the trigger, allow the cat to escape, or remove the cat from the scene.

At this stage, the cat may not yet be fully committed to making an attack.

Just move in gently and calmly.

Do not speak, yell, or make any sudden moves.

Go down or up to the cat’s eye level and gradually work you way in closer. Pet the cat and try to be as calm as possible. If the problematic stimulus is still around, then gently pick the cat up and move it off the scene.

At this point…

Some people might recommend offering the cat a treat or distracting it with a play session. 

This can work if the cat is having fear based aggression.

If the cat is aggressive by nature and temperament, you may be encouraging more aggressive episodes, especially if the cat wants more attention from you.

I personally feel it is better to isolate the cat at this stage and then work on desensitizing methods with a professional therapist.

In a situation where you have supervision with a therapist onhand, or are doing exercises, then follow the suggestions given to you.

🔴 Stage 3:

The cat will move to investigate or attack.

At this stage, the cat may be growling, puffing up or hissing. It will also either have it’s back up or hovering close to the ground and ready to pounce.

By the time the cat actively decides to do something about the stimulus, you may have a very dangerous situation on your hands.

For the most part…

I don’t recommend using lasers with cats.

This kind of situation is the exception to my rule.

Once you know that your cat loves chasing lasers, always make sure you have one with you.

If you notice that the cat is displaying aggressive body language you can distract it with the laser and also direct it into a room of your choice.

Once the door is closed, simply leave the cat in there for a few hours.

Ideally, you should direct the cat to a room where there is already a litterbox, food, and water.  

As long as the stimulus that led to the beginning of an aggressive episode does not distract the cat from following the laser, your attempts to redirect the cat should be successful.

In my experience…

If you decide that you must approach the cat, make sure you are wearing heavy gloves and have sufficient arm covering.

It’ll also help to wear goggles to protect your eyes, especially if you wind up in a situation where the cat goes for your face.

A blanket will also be very useful for covering the cat and rolling it up.

This is a safe way to restrict limb motion and also keep the cat from using its claws on you.  

Before you approach the cat, do what you can to get everyone else out of the area.

If at all possible, you will be best served by isolating the cat until it calms down rather than try to remove it to another room.

Since that process can take several hours, you should pick a room where that process will not be disturbed.  

🔴 Stage 4:

After the cat has attacked or been redirected away from attacking, a calm down period will follow.

This is the time to allow the cat to regroup and for everyone to calm down.

🔴 Stage 5:

If you cannot stop the cat from attacking, this is the time to discuss your options for managing the cat and its role in your life.  

5 Things You Should Never Do When Taming an Aggressive Cat

1. Do Not Yell or Display Stress or Aggression

If the cat is already showing signs of distress or anger, yelling or displaying your own aggression will only push the cat further along towards attacking.  

2. Do Not Strike the Cat to Punish it

As with yelling, striking a cat will produce pain, confusion, and an instinct that aggression is the only answer.  Striking aggressive cat is like trying to put a fire out by lighting another fire.

3. Do Not Engage in Aggressive Play

When you are dealing with a cat that displays aggression, it may not be possible to play games that involve your hands being anywhere near the cat.  Stick to throwing balls, remote controlled mice, or stuffed toys on sticks and strings.

Never show an aggressive cat a treat and allow it to scratch or bite to pry it from your hands.

Even though lasers do not involve the cat coming near your hands, they are not good toys for aggressive cats because there is no tactile satisfaction for the cat. In fact, the frustration caused by laser toys can do more harm than good.

Lasers can provide good exercise for other types of cats, however they can act as triggers for hours on end for cats with an aggressive temperament disorder.

4. Don’t Punish the Cat at All

As I  mentioned earlier, punishing cats by spraying water on them, flicking their ears, or even stepping on their paws will not resolve aggression.

By the time you do any of these things, the cat will already be worked up enough. Any action that inflicts pain, surprise, misery, or embarrassment will only convince the cat that even more aggression is needed.

Unless you absolutely know how to safely scruff a cat, I don’t recommend doing that either.  

5. Do Not Act Inconsistently

The worst thing you can do is respond one way to aggression today and then do something else tomorrow.

This will only confuse the cat more and lead to further aggression. Unless you are doing something wrong like punishing the cat, or need to modify based on advice from a behavioral therapist, it is best to remain consistent.

For example…

If you’re using a laser to distract the cat and direct it to another room when the cat charges up on you, then keep doing that.

No matter how busy you may be, or wanting to do something else, you must stop everything else and redirect the cat.  

Oddly enough, I found out that using a laser with my aggressive cat had an interesting effect on aggressive charging behavior.

Even though I was redirecting him to another room and closing the door, he decided this was play time, so he charged up on me and others even more! Once I stopped using the laser, he stopped charging on his own no matter how many times I passed back and forth.

It was a happy result, but I sometimes wonder why his behavior changed with the removal of the laser toy even though it wasn’t the primary aggressive trigger.

Best and Worst Toys For Managing Feline Aggression

Even though you may wonder at what an aggressive cat could possibly be thinking, they are actually exceptionally brilliant, and often generous, outgoing creatures.

As a case in point, my cat with purely offensive aggression gifts me far more mice and insects than my more passive cats, even though they catch just as much prey as he does.  

If you can find a way to stop their more noxious behaviors, you will be rewarded with a feline companion that will most likely have a unique worldview that includes a full range of emotions and responses.  

That being said…

They can also be very high maintenance cats that take a lot of time and different toys to work with.

Here are some cat toy types to consider:

🎱 Single and Tower Track Toys 

These toys usually have a ball that rolls around inside a track.  Since the ball cannot be removed from the track, the cat will spend hours on end batting the ball around the track.

The motion from these tracks is very useful for cats that are triggered by visual cues.  If the cat is triggered by sounds, you may want to replace the quieter balls with ones that have bells in them. Purely aggressive cats may need 2 or more hours of “cool down” time after playing with this type of toy.

Even though it will help them expend pent up energy, it also triggers them and can lead to redirected aggression.  

🎱 Scratch Toys 

These toys are excellent for aggressive cats because many of them are more tactile by nature. Scratch toys give them a place to mark their scent, and also reduce the discussions you have with the cat over scratching up furniture.  

🎱 Treat and Reward Toys 

These toys usually take the form of balls, cylinders, or other designs where the cat must roll the ball around or reach into a tunnel to retrieve a treat. Since these toys come with a built in reward, they are very useful for cats that have prey based aggression.

If your cat is having a territorial related problem, it is best to put this toy in an area where only it and you can get to it.

For cats that have a more temperament based aggression, you should pay careful attention to whether or not they got the treat.

A cat that is frustrated in achieving its goal can easily redirect onto you or others even if they stopped playing with the toy several hours ago.

🎱 Seek and Find Toys 

These toys can be a simple as cardboard tunnels and holes hiding stuffed mice, or they can be cloth over a base with balls that must be manipulated through the holes.  

These toys are especially good for aggressive cats because they have to figure out how to get at the “prey,” and there is also some satisfaction when they capture the item. Depending on the cat, this may lead to fewer problems with redirected aggression after a play session.

🎱 Tunnels and Dens 

These are the perfect toys for shy or nervous cats.

They can hide in these places and feel safe while they play with balls or simply take a nap.  Offensively aggressive cats will usually use them to hide in when stalking. For these cats, never put this kind of toy in a main traffic area or other place where you don’t want to be charged.  

🎱 Remote Control and Interactive Toys 

With the exception of lasers, remote controlled toys are the best for sharing play time with your cat. Some cats may like a larger mouse, while others will respond better to small ones.

You may also need to choose a remote control model that does or does not have flashing lights.

🎱 In my experience…

I noticed that my aggressive cat would not play with blinking light models, but engaged well with ones that looked more like natural prey. My less aggressive cats, however, didn’t seem to mind and enjoyed playing with both kinds of toys.

It’s things like this that make me wonder about feline common sense and how little we know about it.

3 Secrets for Successful Playtime With Aggressive Cats

No matter whether your cat is displaying aggressive behavior for offensive or defensive reasons, basic feline psychology still applies.

That being said, there are 3 things that you must always be mindful of when playing with an aggressive cat.

  • Do Not “Rough House” With Aggressive Cats

Unlike normal to passive cats, you can never allow your hands or other body parts to become involved in play with aggressive cats.

Not only will the scratch and bite, they will attack these body parts after playtime.

While some people recommend using gloves for this kind of interaction, I do not feel it is worth the risk.  

  • Never Take the Cat’s Toy Away

Believe it or not, aggressive cats can be just as greedy and inclined to be pack rats as they are generous.  

As case in point, I purchased a nylon tunnel for my cat and observed that he didn’t seem very interested in it.

Thinking that it took up a lot of room anyways, I went ahead and put it away. Aside from going off to sulk for several hours, the cat soon started following me around and pawing at me until I took his tunnel back down and set it back up.

Even though he still rarely plays with the tunnel and shows little interest in it, he is still possessive of it.  

  • Always End Play Sessions With a Treat

When cats hunt, their greatest reward is having something to eat or gift.

This is why every play session with an aggressive cat must end with some kind of treat or special food.

While there is no research available on this topic, I suspect that having eaten after a “hunt” may do something hormonally that helps reduce the risk of redirected aggression or the need to look for some other target.

Last Ditch Efforts for Saving a Cat With Aggressive Problems

As you try to work through all of the possible reasons and solutions for feline aggression, you are going to have some days that are very trying. At some point, you may also feel like nothing else is working, and be looking for last ditch solutions that may or may not work.

Here are some that I have used, but found to be temporary fixes at best. 

They can be used to help calm a situation down, but they may not be a permanent answer, or worse yet, lead to other problems.

Medications and Herbal Remedies

Unless your only other option is to euthanize the cat, I don’t recommend using allopathic drugs for controlling feline aggression.

The one cat (rescued from an abusive home and needed something short term) I obtained a prescription for became very lethargic and soon developed problems with eating. Herbal remedies may come with incomplete instructions that put your cat in danger.

For example, they may tell you how often to give the cat the supplement each day, but no information if it is safe to use for weeks, months, and years.

If you contact the manufacturer and they say “ask your vet”, never give that remedy to your cat.

When the manufacturer can’t answer this kind of question about their own product, it should be a red flag saying it may not have been tested properly, isn’t manufactured with proper controls, or it may not be of any use.    

Getting Another Cat

Oddly enough, many sites recommend getting a second cat so that the aggressive one will have company.

This can work as long as the first cat will accept another cat into the home and into the established social order.

I have noticed that cats are nothing like dogs in terms of pack or social order.

An aggressive cat with weaning related socialization issues is not one that may respond well to a new cat in the home.

On the other hand, lonely or bored cats may respond well to a new playmate.

Establish an Outdoor Play Area 

This method can work well if you can close the area off and keep the cat away from cars, people, and predatory animals.

Cats that need a larger territory may appreciate having fresh air, grass to run on, and other elements of an outdoor setting.

Just remember that you must also provide water, shelter, and a means to get away from excessive heat and cold while in the outdoor setting.

A Room of His/Her Own

Even though I don’t like this method, I found it best for offensively aggressive cats.  These cats can be very territorial and also easily overstimulated by visual, auditory, and odor based cues.

Having a set safe room and privacy gives them and you a chance to be calm and relax.  You must still balance time in isolation with interactive play time and family time.

When is it Time to Say Goodbye?

If you are very lucky, the reasons and solutions to feline aggression will happen quickly and easily.

Nevertheless…

There may come a day when you are too tired and too frustrated to go any further, or there may be no further answers left to try out.

At this stage, you will have to evaluate whether or not to keep the cat or put it to sleep.

Dumping it off is not only cruel and irresponsible to the cat itself, it can also put other innocent humans, including children in serious danger.

Likewise, putting a cat with this kind of aggression into a shelter or rescue may not save the cat’s life.

They will evaluate the cat for behavioral issues.

If they see the same signs of aggression, there is every chance they will euthanize it because there are many other good tempered cats that need a home and are more likely to succeed when given a second chance.  

My experience is…

I can’t really say when it is time to part with this kind of cat, as each person has different levels of experience with cats and tolerance levels for bad behavior.

Over the years, I have kept and fostered every kind of cat from newborns to dying from old age or cancer; and I have seen every temperament and combination of personalities.

I would not want to approach taking on an offensively aggressive cat as my first or second cat simply because they do take a lot of experience and effort.

You must also consider your safety and that of your family members.

If the cat is out of control, then it may be best to have a serious discussion with your veterinarian about euthanasia or any programs available for taking in and working exclusively with these kinds of cats.

Q & A On Cat Aggression

Here are some additional questions I have heard over the years related to cat aggression and answers to them:

Are Cats From the Animal Shelter More Likely to be Aggressive?

No.

These cats may have come from abusive homes or they may be grieving the loss of someone they cared very much about.

Cats from an animal shelter may have some permanent trust issues, however any fear based aggression should resolve as the cat gets used to its new home.

The best way to get some idea of how the cat will respond to you is to spend good quality time with it at the shelter before bringing it home.

Depending on the facility, they may be willing to put a hold on the cat and not euthanize or have it up for adoption for a short period of time while you are getting to know each other.  

If you’re dealing with a kill shelter, try to have the cat moved into a rescue or foster where you can have more time to work with the cat and get toys and other items into place before bringing it home.

Why Does My Cat Bite Me Gently?

This is actually not a sign of aggression at all.

When a cat is feeling very contented, they may gently rub their teeth on your hand or graze your chin with their teeth.

For example:

Some of my most affectionate cats will head bunt my chin, and then gently bite.  

There’s no sign of ears back, bristling, hissing, or other sign of aggression.

I do, however, recommend giving yourself some time to get used to this behavior, especially if you haven’t experienced it before.

Why Does My Cat Bite My Hand When I Pet Him/Her?

An actual attempt to bite your  hand while petting can mean the cat wants you to stop.

This is very different from holding your hand in its mouth and not clamping.  

Sometimes, when a cat has overstimulation related aggression disorders, you will see a ripple move along under the fur of over their spine.  

I have also noticed that cats with this problem will tense up or start moving away before they turn to bite or scratch.

The best way to avoid this problem is always give the cat room to jump down or get away if it wants you to stop.

Never try to force the cat to remain in your presence.  

A Checklist for Managing Feline Aggression

√ Make sure you know the signs and aggression in cats and kittens.

Watch videos, ask your vet, and read as much as you can on this topic.

This is also a good time to make sure that you know the signs of an aggressive episode and what to do at each stage for your safety and that of everyone else involved, including the cat.

√ Get pet insurance, especially on new kittens or new cats, so that you can afford any required therapy for this and other problems. 

Make sure the insurance policy covers psychiatric therapies and counseling for your cat.

√ Watch your cats closely as they interact with each other, you, and other family members.

Do not be ashamed or afraid to conclude that your cat has an aggression problem take your cat to the vet and get a full medical exam. If there are no medical problems, get help from a certified behavior therapist that specializes in feline aggression.

Use different toys and techniques to see if you can solve the problem on your own.

If all efforts fail, then you may have to consider having the cat euthanized.

Successfully managing feline aggression can be a complicated task filled with trial and error.

If all goes well, these cats can offer you many rewards along with all the challenges.

Hopefully some of the advice in this article will promote that happy ending!

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Written By: 

Annie Jacobs – “I was literally born with a cat in the cradle. Over the years, I have rescued, taken in, and fostered dozens of cats of all ages, shapes, and sizes. From nursing newborn kittens to taking care of cats with cancer and kidney failure, I have never lost my sense of awe at the feline mind and spirit. It’s my hope to share what I have learned over decades of sharing my life and home with cats so that others can benefit from it.”