Firstly, when a cat is growling, it usually means “back off.”
Cat language can be difficult to interpret, but there is always one thing in any language that is fairly clear to figure out, and with cats, it’s the growling.
When your cat is growling, it’s a definite sign that they are unhappy (which is the opposite of what we want), and often we are left trying to figure out what’s got them in such a bad mood and how to fix it.
This is the most important thing:
Your cat is telling you (loud and clear) that they need their space from either you or whatever they perceive as a threat.
Your cat can be growling for many reasons (most of which are outlined below) but the most common reasons could be anger, pain, fear and/or possessiveness.
Before there was Grumpy Cat, there was Samson.
He was nearly 30 pounds of cantankerous kitty with no patience and absolutely no sense of humor.
Like the king he believed himself to be, he expected his “staff” to be at his beck and call 24/7.
If you pleased him, he would let you pet him. If you displeased him, he would let you know in a manner that was often both painful and bloody.
One Christmas, we thought it would be funny to put a kitty-sized Santa hat on him and take his picture.
We woke him from a sound slumber to pose him in front of the shimmering tree, and he was made it pretty clear from the start that he was not happy to pose for his holiday portrait.
We put the little hat on him and he shook it off.
This happened two or three times, each time feeling we were getting closer to that elusive awesome picture.
When he started to growl, in hindsight, we should have backed off.
It wasn’t until he bit through my mother-in-law’s thumbnail that we gave up and let Samson go back to his catnap.
Cats growl for a number of reasons including displaying their displeasure at being woken up unnecessarily and tortured with a fuzzy hat for holiday portraiture.
What Does It Mean When a Cat Growls at You?
Growling as a Warning
Growling is first and foremost a warning. If your cat is growling, chances are, he is not happy about something. This isn’t a warning you should ignore because cats usually use growling as the last resort before attacking/defending.
Think of growling as their way of saying, “Hey, I’m not happy about this and I may have to do something about it.”
Whether that growl will accelerate to a hiss, swat or a bite is up to the irritated puss… but a growl should never be underestimated or ignored.
What Can My Cat Be Warning Me About?
- They don’t like what you’re doing and will attack if you continue.
Some cats don’t like to be touched in certain areas, don’t like to be held in certain positions or just generally have moods where they need to be left alone (who can’t relate to that last one?)
- They feel threatened and need to retreat somewhere safe.
If you have a visitor (another cat, a chipmunk at the window or a dog nearby) your cat may growl and hiss as a way of communicating their fear and this is also usually accompanied by them hiding somewhere they feel safest.
- They are feeling possessive and you need to stop encroaching on their territory.
A new toy, their food or their favorite laying spot – if you come too close to something your cat is feeling protective of, they may let you know you need to stay away.
Showing Dominance, Fear or Annoyance
In the wild, cats prefer to use their energy to find food and not to fight off other animals.
Cats rarely go out looking for a fight, and only tangle with another feline if they feel they must.
Growling and hissing are useful tactics cats use to frighten away other animals that may pose a threat.
Some other common signs your cat is showing dominance, fear or preparing for an attack are:
- puffing out their hair to look longer, bigger
- arching their backs
- laying their ears back
- baring their teeth
- lashing their tale in a slow and pointed way
- their pupils will be dilated 
Often, this behavior will continue until one cat backs down, admitting defeat.
Despite what appears to us to be an aggressive stance, a puffed up cat growling with ears back and teeth bared is actually a cat that is afraid, not angry.
Fear can create a monster out of even the gentlest kitties.
Having friends visit, being played with roughly by a small child, having itchy flea bites, bringing a new pet into your household and loud noises can all be frightening for a cat.
A frightened cat can bite just as hard as a provoked cat, so be very careful around them.
Try to remove whatever is the stimulus of the fear and then leave kitty to decompress for a while before trying to pet or touch them to hopefully avoid an ER visit. 
Food and Toy Possessiveness
Most people think of dogs as the pet you need to be more concerned about with possessiveness of toys and food, but some cats want you to keep your mitts away from their food and toys.
Especially in multiple cat households, growling can be a frequent sound heard at feeding times.
As part of showing dominance, many alpha kitties feel the right to eat their fill first, and leave the “scraps” to their underlings.
An easy way to avoid this issue is to offer multiple bowls of food in different locations.
After a while, your kitties will start to hang out at feeding time in the right locations.
Also, feed them in the order that keeps the peace.
We feed Tanta first now as she has become a dominant cat, and while she is distracted stuffing his face with gourmet wet food, Coo Coos can also eat her dinner in peace.
Watch carefully as from time to time locations and feeding order change.
It’s easier to go with the flow than to try to force the kitty status quo.
Also, refrain from the temptation to give your kitty a loving scratch or pet them while they are eating.
Just as you probably wouldn’t want someone to touch you while you are eating, most cats would prefer to get their loving at non-meal times.
The same can be said for that fun new toy you just gave your cat – if they sense you may try to take it away from them, they will likely growl at you to tell you they aren’t done playing with it (like in the video below).
For wild cats, showing pain or weakness leaves them open for attack – it shows that they are vulnerable.
A tiger with a serious limp will soon get challenged by a stronger, healthier animal, and would lose in a battle that often ends in death for the loser.
Domesticated cats also have that stoic attitude, and often there are things that may be hurting your cat that you cannot see.
- Picking up your normally social cat to have them yowl and try to get away could be a sign of intestinal pain.
- Touching a sore spot may elicit a growl, especially if you touch it a few times in a row to be sure that it’s the source of the issue like I tend to do.
If there are other changes, especially loss of appetite, hiding, energy level changes and lack of normal grooming behavior, it’s time for a vet to take a look at your furry friend and get to the bottom of what ails them (it could an underlying issue like dental disease or tooth decay).
Check out my post on caring for your cat’s teeth!
Guarding Their Territory
A friends barn cat, Gemini, is very territorial.
He firmly believes the barn is his and does not take kindly to visits from our local feral cat population.
When they had a new feline visitor, who they nicknamed Freeloader, started coming by, they heard some serious growling, hissing and spitting and then some very loud kitty screams before both cats came running out of the barn like their tails were on fire and they fought it out in the woods.
Happily, they have since come to some form of detente as I now regularly feed both cats, just at different times.
If they both are looking for food at the same time, Freeloader eats outside while Gemini eats at the “King’s table” in the barn aisle, and this has certainly cut down on the fighting and fussing.
Cats can even be territorial of areas that aren’t part of their kingdom.
My cats go ballistic growling, screaming bloody murder and swatting at the windows when a feral cat comes too close to the house.
It doesn’t matter that they are indoor only cats; they are territorial of their front yard.
If you have regular “visitors” to your property that your kitty disapproves of, you may need to close the drapes or shutters to limit their view of the offending party.
The cat in the video below, for example, is actually protecting her home (and human) from the scary repairman working on the other side of the glass.
As cats age, they experience many of the same aging issues we have as humans.
Joints get achy, we become less active and sleep more.
As humans, if we have vision issues, we get glasses, but it’s hard to tell if your kitty is having difficulty seeing.
Losing vision or hearing for a kitty is frightening, and can cause them to startle more frequently for often little reason.
Especially if they are having other issues that may make them more susceptible to attack from a “predator” a kitty with limited eyesight or hearing may growl and lash out before realizing that something is not a threat.
Elderly felines also can experience dementia called cognitive dysfunction which can cause a wide variety of strange behaviors.
My 19-year-old cat, Megan, was growling at a spot on the wall for nearly an hour before she stopped and just walked away.
She had also been diagnosed with cognitive dysfunction shortly before she passed away, and growling at nothing became a frequent activity of hers in her last months.
She had also been diagnosed and treated for hyperthyroidism, kidney failure and high blood pressure, three very common issues in older cats that are often a precursor to feline dementia.
Any ailment can make your cat feel awful, and if they have multiple issues or are slowly heading into multisystem organ failure, you will probably see a whole range of cantankerous behaviors often precipitated by growling and hissing when frightened or in their minds, provoked. 
What Is Feline Non-Recognition Aggression?
If you have more than one kitty in your household, chances are you may have to take one to the vet without the other.
When we had our kitten Bubs neutered, Tanta was none too pleased when he came home.
Although they got along well pre-surgery, Tanta acted like she had never seen Bubs before.
When he came home, she was growling, hissing and swatting at Bubs and wanted nothing to do with him.
This is symptomatic of something called feline non-recognition aggression, and this is not a particularly unusual behavior.
Being at the vet’s office, taking medications, having had anesthesia, and of course, being neutered… all of those things changed the way Bubs smelled.
Although we knew we brought home the same cat, Tanta’s sensitive nose smelled a difference, and she firmly believed we had brought home an imposter.
Separating them for a few days until Bubs smelled like himself solved our problem, and they went back to their usual behavior patterns after a few days.
So do you have a vet trip planned for one of your cats, or have your cats boarding at someone’s house while you’re away?
Here are some things you can do to prevent this kind of thing from happening to your cats when you re-introduce them to each other:
- Prevent the reunion for as long as you can.
Maybe bringing your cat home from the vet and allowing them to roam upstairs while your other cat(s) are downstairs for a few hours can be helpful.
- Don’t allow your cats much (if any) interactions while one/both of them are on medication or coming off sedation.
This can drastically change how cats interact with each other…cats who aren’t usually violent can become so if they feel they are being threatened in their weakened state.
- Know your plan beforehand…if you’re heading to a vet appointment with one of your cats, perhaps you can set up a little area for that cat upon your return so they have time to come off the sedation and begin to act (and smell) like themselves again.
- Test the waters – allow your cats to see each other, don’t place them together.
If they approach each other, all is fine – if not, maybe some more time apart is needed.
My Cat is Really Becoming Aggressive With Me (Even Though I’ve Done Nothing Wrong)…
Imagine you’ve had a hard day at work and come home to find your toddler has drawn all over your walls while the babysitter was supposed to be watching them.
You take a little too much of your anger out on the babysitter and find yourself wondering why you’re so angry with her over an accident.
This can happen to your cat, as well.
If you’ve come home to a particularly grumpy and threatening cat, the best thing to do is to separate yourself from that cat (as well as separating other pets in your home from the cat) until she has calmed down.
Watch in the video below how to deal with a stressed cat:
If problems persist over days or weeks, consider taking your cat to the vet to see if there are underlying health/pain issues that are causing your cat to be in the agitated state all the time.
How Should I Respond to My Cat Growling?
Of course, it depends on the situation, but most of the time giving your cat some space and alone time can help de-escalate the situation.
Like we talked about at the beginning of this post, your cats growl is a warning that something isn’t right and if it continues, they will prepare to attack.
Here’s what you can do to de-escalate the situation if your cat is growling at you:
- Don’t ignore your cat’s warning.
- Never try to touch or approach a cat when they are growling, (even if it’s to remove them from the threatening situation, as they may consider this as a danger, too).
- Don’t back your pet into a corner (let them know they have an escape from the situation.)
- Don’t provoke your cat into growling more (it could lead to them attacking in some way.)
- Let your cat be alone for as long as they need (preferably until they come to find you or come back out of hiding.)
Let them leave the room and retreat to somewhere they find safe (like a closet or their favorite laying spot). 
Regardless of why your cat is growling, a cat that is fearful, painful, territorial or just plain aggressive is one that needs their space until they calm down.
No one has the formula to tell when your kitty’s growling is annoyed posturing or if the next step is a trip to the ER with a bite wound or deep scratch.
And if your puss isn’t feeling in the holiday spirit?
Trust me – as the saying goes, just let sleeping kitties lie.
 VetInfo – Cat Hissing and Growling
 The Cat Site – Redirected Aggression in Cats
 Vet Clinic – Stressed Cats and How to Deal With Them
 Modern Cat – Cat Sounds and What They Mean
 The Nest – Aggression and Growling in Cats
 The Catster – Why Does Your Cat Growl & How to React
 PreventiveVet – How Can I Tell if My Cat is in Pain?