When the Tiger Comes Out — How to Manage an Aggressive Cat

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

When the Tiger Comes Out — How to Manage an Aggressive Cat

Story at-a-glance -

  • Feline aggression typically takes one of a few different forms, including territorial aggression, or aggression related to fear, play or petting
  • Some cats display redirected aggression in which they attack a substitute target
  • Tips for managing an aggressive cat include avoiding triggers when possible, recognizing the look of a kitty who’s about to become aggressive, and teaching your cat to obey commands to receive things she values
  • There are also many things you can do to enrich the environment in a multi-cat household, which can go a long way toward reducing stress and aggressive behavior

Like most things feline-related, aggression in cats can be a real head-scratcher. Some of the triggers that bring out the tiger in Mr. Whiskers are unexpected, for example, something outside the window can cause him to launch a sudden attack on the nearest two- or four-legged family member.

Feline aggression typically takes one of five forms: territorial aggression, fear-related aggression, petting-related aggression, play-related aggression, or redirected aggression.

Territorial Aggression

Unlike dogs, cats aren't naturally all that social. If they do choose to mingle with other cats, it's usually with a close relative (e.g., a littermate) or a kitty they've grown up with. This is why kitties in multi-cat households who were introduced as adults often don't get along all that well.

Felines in the wild can easily avoid cats they don't like. But inside your house, your kitties have limited options for steering clear of each other. This can set the stage for feline friction, which often takes the form of one cat stalking, chasing and/or showing aggression toward another.

Cats are quite territorial and should one of your kitties interfere with what the other considers his territory, such as his favorite napping spot, toy or human, the fur can fly. Often the problem is exacerbated because the cats live in close physical proximity to each other and share food bowls, litterboxes, bedding, cat perches, etc.

"Think of cats as moving around in a bubble," says veterinary behaviorist Dr. John Ciribassi. "That determines the space between cats. They carry their territory with them."1

Sadly, even cats who've been friendly for years, including siblings, can lose their relationship. Seemingly minor bumps in the road from a human's perspective can permanently damage the bond between cats. For example, a kitty who has been hospitalized returns home smelling like the veterinary clinic. In response, her feline housemate no longer views his long-time friend as part of his social group.

Fear-Related Aggression

Fear-based aggression in cats can be triggered by unfamiliar or unpleasant stimuli, such as a new person, animal, or noise, a ride in the car, or a visit to the veterinarian. Cats displaying fear aggression often flatten their ears to their heads, hiss, bare their teeth, crouch low to the ground with their tail tucked, and their fur may stand on end.

The best way to deal with fear aggression is to identify and avoid situations that produce a fearful response in your cat. For situations that can't be avoided, you can attempt gradual desensitization by briefly exposing your kitty to the stimulus that causes the fear from a distance, and then rewarding nonaggressive behavior with food and praise.

Petting-Related Aggression

If your cat unexpectedly gets aggressive while you're petting her, it can be really confusing — especially if she came looking for attention from you and then suddenly turns on you. Fortunately, there's an explanation for the behavior that may make you feel a little better.

Some cats, for reasons known only to them, have an innate "petting limit," meaning they have a low tolerance for being stroked and petted by human hands. When your kitty reaches her limit, she's probably displaying body language to tip you off. She may tense up. She may flatten her ears to her head, twitch her tail or try to wriggle out of your grip. She may even hiss or growl.

The trick is to learn to recognize her "I've had enough" body language and let her go at the first sign. Also, it's also not a good idea to restrain your cat while petting her. In general, it's always best to let kitty come to you. Cats like to feel in control of their environment. They want interactions on their terms. Uninvited handling is not the best way to stay on good terms with your feline companion.

The more you let your cat make her own choices, the more often you might find her jumping into your lap. And even when she's in your lap, she may not want a lot of petting, so tune in to her body language. Some cats are just cuddlier than others.

Play-Related Aggression

Play-related aggression is fairly common in kittens and young cats. Hiding under the bed, for example, and taking swipes at your feet or ankles as you walk by can be highly entertaining for a healthy young kitty. Another fun game is to "stalk" and pounce on your toes under the covers.

Kittens raised with littermates learn to control biting and scratching as part of their socialization to other cats. Intense play aggression with uninhibited scratching and biting is usually seen in cats taken early from their mothers, under-stimulated kitties and those without appropriate play outlets. The behavior can continue into adulthood and is most often seen in single cat households where kitty is home alone all day.

One way to curtail aggressive play behavior is to increase the amount of time you spend interacting with your cat each day. Make sure to keep an assortment of toys on hand that your kitty responds to and make it a point to engage him with a favorite toy for short periods several times each day.

The interactive toys you select should keep him a minimum of an arm's length from you to limit his ability to sink his claws or teeth into you. Approach him calmly and speak in soothing tones. Playtime should be fun and challenging, but not rough. Rough play is inappropriate with cats, especially aggressive ones.

Provide plenty of feline-friendly scratching surfaces, climbing poles and perches around your home so your cat can exercise his natural need to scratch, stretch, climb and escape to an elevated resting spot.

Redirected Aggression

Redirected aggression occurs when a cat can't get at the thing that is bothering him — his target. For example, your kitty sees another cat outside on his turf, but because he's inside, he has no way to confront the intruder. In the same moment, one of his feline housemates strolls into the room and comes over to greet him, and the frustrated cat goes after him.

Your best bet in this situation is to remove the source of your aggressive cat's frustration (e.g. cover the window or limit your cat's access to it) and take steps to ensure the situation doesn't progress to full-blown intercat aggression in which the housemate kitty becomes the full-time substitute target.

5 Common Sense Tips for Managing an Aggressive Cat

  1. Learn to avoid triggers that may cause your kitty to become aggressive. For example, if she's aggressive at feeding time, put her in another room while you prepare her meals. Place her food bowl in its usual spot and then let her into the area to eat.
  2. Learn what your cat looks like right before he gets aggressive. Common signs are narrowed eyes, furtive glances at the irritant/target, ears swiveled sideways and flattened against the head, and twitching tail.
  3. Consider training your cat to obey commands to receive things she values. With the proper incentive (typically food treats), many cats can be clicker trained to perform certain behaviors like sit.
  4. Consult with an integrative or holistic veterinarian about natural supplements that might benefit your cat, including homeopathic and herbal remedies, L-theanine, rhodiola and passionflower.
  5. If kitty's aggression problem is severe and you can't manage it on your own, talk with your veterinarian or consult an animal behavior specialist (Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists, American College of Veterinary Behaviorists) who has experience with feline aggression.

Environmental Enrichment

There are a number of things you can do to relieve stress all around for the cats in your family:

Offer lots of scratching surfaces — one for each cat at a minimum. There should be both vertical and horizontal surfaces, as many cats prefer one or the other. Also consider experimenting with different textured surfaces that offer a bit of variety.

Make sure each of your cats has an individual, out-of-the-way resting spot. It could be the top of a cat tree or a crate (with the door left open), or a comfy spot on a closet shelf. It's extremely important that each of your kitties has at least one private area she can retreat to.

Provide lots of toys that appeal to your cats' prey instincts, and make sure to include interactive toys that you can play with, with your cat. Also consider building or investing in a catio, which is an outdoor enclosure that allows kitties to get all the benefits of being outdoors, while keeping them safe from harm.

Consider providing multiple perches for your cats at eye level or higher. Many kitties are drawn to high roosts because they feel safe from predators and can keep an eye on activities at ground level. You can provide access to high spaces in your home such as high closet shelves or plant ledges.

Alternatively, you can buy traditional cat furniture like cat trees or you can get creative and design your own custom kitty perches. Try to provide at least a perch or two near windows so your cats can bird watch and keep an eye on neighborhood activities (unless you have a cat who's displaying redirected aggression as described above).

Consider using natural products like those from Bach Flower Remedies or Jackson Galaxy's Solutions to help your cats manage stressful feelings and events in their lives. Also talk to your integrative veterinarian about homeopathic remedies that fit each cat's personality and symptom pattern to help reduce emotional responses.

Many cat parents also have good success using Feliway, a pheromone diffuser product, to reduce stress levels and ease tensions between cats

Finally, offer your kitties a fresh, nutritionally balanced and species-specific diet, and make sure they get adequate exercise. Many housecats today don't get the physical activity they need to be optimally healthy. Under-exercised, under-stimulated cats can accumulate pent-up energy that takes the form of hostility toward other felines and/or humans in the household.