Aggression in cats

A shelter cat sits perched on a cat tree

Play aggression and overstimulation

Cats aren't close-contact animals by nature, and some cats tolerate less touching than others before becoming uncomforable. Understanding your cat's body language can help to avoid agression caused by overstimulation.

Be aware of warning signs

Tail lashing/thumping, shifting of body position, skin twitching, and direct stares are indications that your cat has had enough petting. If the petting continues, he will likely scratch or bite. Stop petting if you notice these signs. Do not try to interact with the cat in any way. Just leave him where he is.

Make sure no one is encouraging rough play

Using hands or fingers to rough-house with cats teaches them that such things are acceptable playtoys. Never encourage your cat to jump on, cuff at or bite your hands and fingers, because he might get really good at it!  Use appropriate toys such as “cat dancers” (plastic wands with feathers on the end), streamers or catnip toys as chasing/pouncing outlets.

Try not to reach your cat’s warning phase

You don’t want your cat to learn that the only way to get his message across is to hurt you. If your cat becomes overstimulated after four minutes, for example, stop petting after two minutes.

Respect a cat that doesn’t like petting

It may sound strange, but some cats simply don’t enjoy being pet. If yours is one of them, allow him to sit on your lap or beside you on the couch. Not petting him will build trust and allow him to feel safe around you. You might try scratching his chin or the back of his head, starting with just a few seconds.

Avoid rubbing your cat’s belly

If your cat exposes his belly, it typically means one of two things: defensive aggression or relaxation. Even a relaxing cat can become defensively aggressive when his belly is touched.  Avoid it!

Supervise all child-cat interactions

If you have small children, don't let them chase, grab, pick up or carry the cat, as this could result in serious injury. Older children can be taught that cats are not playthings but living, sensitive animals. Young children won’t understand this and should be closely supervised around your cat.

Don’t punish

This may sound like strange advice, but cats don’t generally respond well to physical or verbal punishment. Playful cats may interpret the reaction as a game and bite harder, while fearful or aggressive cats may think they are being attacked and bite harder. Bored cats may learn that such tactics are a successful way to get a reaction.

Provide plenty of environmental enrichment

Cats in the wild cover a wide range of territory and spend large amounts of time — up to 6 hours — seeking food. Owners of busy/hyper cats need to approximate that hunting activity, especially if they are gone during the day. One method is to buy a food-dispensing toy (such as a Roll-a-Treat) and feed the cat’s meals exclusively from it. The cat can then spend his time rolling the toy around and eating each piece of kibble as it falls out, providing mental as well as physical stimulation. For cats that don’t like such toys, the owner can simply scatter kibble in various parts of the house. Warning: the cat may start searching for food where there is none, such as between sofa cushions, behind shelves, etc.

Provide interactive play (as described above) at a set time, perhaps when the owner comes home

Play for the amount of time you choose (ex. From 6-7 p.m.), then put the toys away and ignore the cat. If the cat “attacks” in an attempt to solicit attention, give him a time-out. While some owners may use a separate room, keep in mind that cats provide their own entertainment, and may view a time-out room as a reward, depending on the environment. If the cat is kept active in the manner described above, confine him instead to a pet carrier for a set time (ex. From 7-8 p.m.). The cat may remain in the room, if the owner chooses, but without interaction. This is only fair if the cat is kept active during the day. If the cat starts to vocalize, don’t let him out until he is quiet.

Rotate the cat’s toys

Keep them off the floor, take out 1-2 at a time, and put them away when the cat is done playing with them. This will prevent him becoming bored with them and provide further stimulation when the toys are out.

Consider adding a second cat

Young, hyper cats sometimes benefit from a playmate with whom they can play hard and who may provide an education on appropriate cat-to-cat manners. Cats typically either pin each other down or “whap” each other without claws, and thus can communicate rules in a way that humans cannot. 

Aggression between cats

Types of aggression between cats

Inter-male aggression

Description: As males reach adulthood they may begin challenging one another. Unneutered stray cats frequently engage in ritualistic threats and actual fights. The cats sit or stand very stiffly and stare at each other. They tilt their heads slowly and turn their ears so that the backs of the ears face forward. This posturing is accompanied by prowls and very loud howling. Then, one cat may leave very slowly or one or both cats may attack.

Solution: Sterilization usually prevents or stops inter-male fighting, especially if both males are neutered, although a small percentage of neutered males continue to fight with other males. Some drugs may suppress a cat's motivation to engage in inter-male aggression. The advantages and disadvantages of drug therapy should be discussed with a veterinarian.

Territorial aggression

Description: Territorial aggression between cats in a household usually develops slowly and gradually. One cat is usually the aggressor and the other the "victim." The encounters begin with hissing and growling and progress to swatting, chasing, relentless pursuit, and finally attacking and fighting. The "victim" may become progressively more afraid of the aggressor and become defensive. He may hide and come out only when the aggressor cat is not present. Occasionally, litter box problems occur because the fearful cat is too afraid to move from his hiding place.

We do not know what factors determine which cats will become territorial and will try to exclude other cats from the home. If territorial aggression develops, it usually does not start until one or both cats are between 1 and 3 years of age. A territorial cat can be aggressive toward one cat in the household yet get along well with other cats in the home. The aggressor is not necessarily always the first cat that was introduced into the household nor the eldest.

Solution: Territorial aggression is rarely treated successfully. Although new behavioral procedures are constantly being tried and new drug therapies explored, sometimes the best solution for this problem is to find one of the cats another home. Territorially aggressive cats can be wonderful pets in a home without other cats.

Another method to manage the problem is to keep the cats in separate areas of the household or yard to avoid encounters. Sometimes providing a larger living area by moving from a small apartment to a large house or giving one of the cats access to the outdoors will help the problem.

Fear-induced aggression

Description: When two cats in a household become aggressive toward each other, the cause is generally fear related. The cats do not seek each other out, but if they run into each other, both are startled and will attack. Usually this problem begins by accident. For example, two friendly cats may be resting when a frightening incident occurs, such as a bookshelf falling over. Both cats become startled, puff up, and assume defensive postures. When they see each other in a defensive posture, they respond as if the other is about to attack. Thereafter they are aggressive whenever they see each other.

Solution: This type of aggressive behavior is usually treated successfully. The cats must become used to each other again without either cat becoming afraid or aggressive. First, the cats should be separated so that they cannot see each other except during treatment procedures.

One way to reintroduce the cats is when they are hungry. The cats can be positioned at opposite ends of the room several times a day and fed small amounts of food. If both cats are hungry and occupied with eating they will see each other in an unaggressive state. Bring the food dishes closer together gradually over several days or weeks. Eventually after eating, the cats can spend some time with each other if they are kept apart on leashes at a safe distance. Pet or play with the cats to keep them relaxed and in a good mood. This technique is more likely to work if the level of aggression is relatively low. If the cats' behavior does not improve using this method, the following technique can be tried.

Expose the cats to each other for prolonged periods without letting them come in direct contact. They might be kept in large cages at opposite ends of the room, where they can see each other but cannot escape. After several hours, they might be brought closer together. After many sessions, it should be possible for them to be close to each other and eventually be let loose.

Sometimes, however, a cat's defensive behavior is so intense that even the very sight of the other cat will lead to an aggressive fear response. In that case, it may be necessary to gradually bring the cats into view of each other. For example, cats could be allowed to see each other through the crack of a fastened door (opened about an inch) or through the gap below the door. Limited visual presentations can reduce the fear enough that subsequent progress can be made. The door can be gradually opened wider as the cats are fed, played with or petted.

In some cases, the cats can be separated by a screen door, with the lower screen covered completely with a large piece of cardboard. First, the cats should be allowed to approach the screen door and encouraged to play with each other's paws at the under the door. Then, a very small gap or slit can be made in the cardboard so that they can barely see each other. The play under the door should be allowed for several days. Very gradually (every few days or so), the opening in the cardboard should be widened so that the cats can see more of each other. Once they can see each other completely and still play (several weeks at least and maybe even several months), it is safe to let them play with the screen door removed.

Redirected aggression

Description: When a cat is highly aroused and in an aggressive state (for example, by the sight of an outdoor cat or after being chased by a dog), it may redirect its aggression to a person or another animal. Redirected aggression can occur whether the motive for the aggression is inter-male, territorial, fear-induced or defensive in nature. Generally, cats do not redirect aggression unless they are touched or closely approached by another animal or person.

Solution: Don't pick up or approach a cat that is highly aroused and aggressive. Wait until after the cat has groomed itself, played or eaten. If the aroused aggressive cat must be moved, use a very thick blanket to catch it and pick it up.

Source: Victoria L. Voith, DVM, PhD, and Peter L. Borchelt, PhD.

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