Aggressive behaviour in cats

Although our feline friends are loving and gentle most of the time, they can occasionally have bad moods just like we do, and cat aggression is the second most common feline behaviour issue after indoor spraying.

As cats have evolved to be top-of-the-food-chain predators, aggression is an integral part of their behaviour. Cats use aggression for lots of reasons, such as catching and killing prey, defending themselves and their territory, and warding off competitors.

Hopefully your cat shouldn’t show aggression towards you at home, but if they do there are certain things you can do to understand and resolve any issues.

If your cat is being aggressive, you need to ask why. Are they fearful or anxious about something? Are they in pain? Are they defending their territory? Are they simply playing too boisterously and not keeping their teeth and claws in check? Or does it seem that they’re pursuing you as if you’re their prey?

There are many reasons why cats demonstrate aggressive behaviour, and most of them are normal, if not inappropriate for a home environment. Sometimes it’s temporary, caused by immediate circumstances (perhaps they’ve stumbled across an enemy cat), while sometimes it’s more in-built into your cat’s personality – a lack of socialisation and handling at a young age is often a common cause of aggression.

It’s always a good idea to get your cat checked over by a vet if they have become aggressive, just to make sure their behaviour isn’t the result of pain or discomfort. Pain-induced aggression is common, so if your vet can make your cat more comfortable they’ll probably be a lot less irritable.

Drawing of hissing cat

Most cats love being stroked and cuddled – it’s part of their great appeal and one of the many reasons they make such wonderful pets. But some cats aren’t fans of being petted, possibly due to rough treatment when they were kittens, or because they simply weren’t handled enough when they were young. Whatever the reason, you should start with small actions to allow your cat time to adapt to being touched.

This is best done through short but frequent petting sessions, which should be positive, rewarding experiences for your cat. Steer clear of sensitive areas such as the tummy and tail, and stroke along the top of their head, down the shoulders and along the back. Speak to them reassuringly and perhaps offer a treat, particularly if they’re motivated by a tasty morsel!

End the petting session while they’re still happy being touched, but monitor their body language carefully. If the purring stops, their eyes dilate, they stiffen, their tail flicks or their ears flatten, end the petting straight away and have another session again a few hours later. If you hear your cat growling, and especially if you hear your cat hissing, back away and give them some space – a hissing cat is not a happy cat!

Slowly increase the length of the petting sessions over time, but be realistic about what you can achieve. Some cats simply don’t like being picked up or having their tummy tickled.

This approach can also be used with aggressive cats where one moment the cat is affectionate and enjoys being touched, but then suddenly turns and lashes out with a bite or a scratch. This is understandably upsetting, because it may seem that your cat doesn’t like you, but this isn’t the case. Cat aggression in this form usually means your cat is confused by them having something of a dual identity as a pet and as a solitary predator who must look after themselves, so they lash out as an instinct.

Ginger cat's paws being held

Although it may be a shock, try to keep calm if you’re scratched or bitten by your aggressive cat, as shouting, sudden movements and physical retaliation will only scare your cat, and make them less likely to accept fuss in the future.

Be sure to wash any scratches or bites promptly in warm, soapy water and treat them with antiseptic cream. Seek medical advice if the scratch gets infected or if you develop any symptoms, such as a fever, headache or swollen lymph glands.

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During play time it’s common for your cat to view whatever they’re playing with as ‘prey’, so never play with only your bare hands or you may be pounced on and scratched. Instead, use a fishing rod-style toy or a remote-controlled toy to play with your pet at a safe distance.

Redirected hunting is often seen in indoor cats that have limited opportunities to express their natural predatory behaviour outside, which is why they may sometimes lie in wait behind a door and pounce on you as you pass. As with most cat behaviour problems it’s best to ignore it. Stand still, be silent and don’t react. If you do nothing, your cat will lose interest. If you suspect they’re about to pounce on you, divert their attention by rolling a toy across the room for them to chase.

Sometimes, your cat will seem to become fixated on another object, such as the sight of a rival cat or a bird through the window, and you can clearly see from their body language that they’ve gone into ‘predator mode’. It’s common for them to redirect an aggressive response to you if you happen to touch or disturb them when they’re in this state, as they may not realise it’s you, and not the object they’ve been tracking. Talking to them in a reassuring voice before approaching them can help snap them out of their focused state, or try rolling a ball of paper past them to distract them safely.

Cat peering over wall

Cats can be quite solitary creatures, but they will usually get along quite happily with their feline family members. Many cats are very affectionate and loving with each other, while others will learn to tolerate each other and leave one another alone, providing they have enough space. But if their living area is too cramped, squabbles can erupt more often.

Cats are usually non-confrontational and prefer to run away from threatening situations, so if you have more than one cat make sure there are plenty of high up escape routes around the house, such as cat activity centres and uncluttered windowsills where they can retreat to if they get into a tiff.

However, just as there are all kinds of personalities in the human world, there are many different personalities in your pet’s world too, and some cats simply don’t like sharing their home with others, or will take a dislike to a particular single cat. In these cases, the advice of a behaviourist can be helpful, although sometimes re-homing one of the cats is the safest and fairest option to all of them.

Take time and care in introducing new cats to the house, and never tell off or punish your existing cat if they’re not particularly welcoming to begin with, as this can lead to further negative associations. Give them time and space to get used to their new feline housemate, and seek help from your vet or a feline behaviourist if necessary.

Brown and ginger cats sitting together

Aggression to neighbourhood cats is most commonly seen in unneutered male cats, who can be very territorial and competitive. Luckily, the vast majority of neutered cats live together quite happily, or at least tolerate each other! They’ll try to avoid physical contact as much as possible, preferring posturing and meowing threats at each other, before eventually reaching a time-sharing agreement for favourite areas to explore.

In urban areas, however, where space is at a premium, cats can come to blows while they wait to use the same space. In this instance, try talking to your neighbours to see if you can arrange to let your cats out at different times, so they’re less likely to cross paths. It’s also a good idea to let your cats out only after they’ve been fed, so they’ll be more lethargic and contented.

Always consult your vet if you have any concerns about your cat’s health. If your cat is particularly aggressive, or becomes aggressive for no obvious reason, it’s important your vet checks them over. They may suggest a referral to a cat behaviourist. To find out more about feline behaviourists in your area, visit The Coape Association of Pet Behaviourists.

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If you’d like more information on aggressive behaviour in cats or have any other queries, contact our PETCARE EXPERT TEAM.

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