1. Home
  2. Companion Animals
  3. Cats
  4. Behaviour
  5. My cat is being aggressive towards me, what should I do?

My cat is being aggressive towards me, what should I do?

Tabby on stair case

There are many different reasons why cats might be aggressive towards their owner or other people. To be able to successfully manage this behaviour, it’s essential to work out what the underlying cause, or trigger, is. To do this, we highly recommend that you consult with a qualified veterinary behaviourist (your local vet can refer you). A veterinary behaviourist will ask you lots of questions and may also visit you in your house so they can observe the cat in their own environment and their interactions with you and any other members of the household.

Medical conditions can cause aggression, so it is important to rule out any underlying medical causes prior to addressing behavioural causes for aggression. For example, neurological disease, liver disease, pain-inducing disease (e.g., arthritis) and hormone imbalances can cause aggression.

This article provides some basic advice about seven common types of aggression in cats and how to deal with them:

  1. Patting/petting aggression
  2. Fear aggression
  3. Redirected aggression
  4. Pain-induced aggression
  5. Play aggression
  6. Noise-induced aggression
  7. Sexual aggression

1. Patting/petting aggression

In patting/petting-induced aggression, the cat will not approach a person with aggressive intent, and does not generally actively avoid people, as the ‘fear aggressive’ cat does. Instead, when the cat is being patted, they reach a point at which they no longer seem to enjoy the interaction and want it to stop; this is when the cat will start to show aggression. Every cat is different, and each will have a different threshold at which they no longer tolerate petting; this will depend on who initiated the interaction (cat or human), the intensity and nature of the interaction (pressure, speed, area of physical contact) and the amount of time the petting has continued. Typically, aggression occurs sooner and is more intense if the person has initiated the patting (e.g. by picking the cat up and putting them in the person’s lap) than if the cat initiated the interaction. However, petting-induced aggression can occur in both situations.

Some cats do not tolerate being patted for a long period. In these cases, the cat tends to be very content while being patted initially, then suddenly will start showing signs of irritation or stress (swishing tail, dilated pupils, tense body, ears back) and, if the person does not end the interaction, the cat will then bite or scratch, jump down, run a short distance, sit and groom, with pupils dilated. The bites and scratches are often initially inhibited (not made with enough force to injure/claws retracted) but can escalate to more serious bites and scratches.

Prevention and management

If your cat shows signs of patting/petting-induced aggression:

  • Don’t pat the cat for a prolonged period, learn how much interaction your cat can tolerate before getting irritated.
  • Wait for the cat to initiate patting – and then keep it short.
  • Look out for any signals that the cat sends when they do not wish to be patted anymore and use these as your cue to stop patting (e.g. swishing tail, dilated pupils, tense body, ears back).
  • Some cats can learn to tolerate more patting through desensitisation. This involves patting the cat for at first very short and then increasingly longer times, while rewarding the cat with food treats for tolerating the patting. This will not work for all cats, and it is important to accept the individual cat’s right to choose what kind of interactions they have with people and for how long.

2. Fear aggression

Cats usually display fear aggression when they feel threatened, especially when cornered. Initially the cat tends to show defensive body language (e.g., a crouched position, tense face and body posture, ears may be swivelled sideways, head lowered and tucked into body, and pupils may be dilated) and will attempt to avoid the person they are afraid of, but when cornered they may show aggression in an attempt to create distance between themselves and the person. In this situation, their ears will generally be turned back, and the tail and body lowered, teeth will be displayed, and hissing or growling may occur. Cats with fear aggression generally do not approach; they are displaying aggression in an attempt to keep the person they are afraid of away from them. Fear aggression can occur at any age.

Causes of fear aggression include the cat’s living situation and people’s interactions with them, lack of socialisation, genetic predisposition, and a cat’s general personality. Inappropriate human-cat interactions, such as a history of punishment, can lead to the development of fear aggression.

Prevention and management

  • Avoid potential triggering situations.
  • It is important to accept the individual cat’s right to choose what kind of interactions they have with people but if the triggering situation cannot be avoided, patient and empathetic desensitisation can be attempted through by gradual exposure of the cat to the fearful stimulus.
  • Give the cat a food treat while they are calm during the trigger situation. Rewarding with a food treat whilst calm reinforces relaxation during exposure to the fearful event. This is known as ‘counter-conditioning’ (associating a fear-evoking situation with a pleasant experience).
  • Teach the cat to perform an alternative behaviour in situations in which fear was shown. This is known as ‘response substitution’.
  • Sometimes medication can be used in combination with behavioural modification (your vet will advise).
  • Synthetic pheromones can also have a calming effect (e.g. Feliway® spray/diffuser – available at vet clinics).

3. Redirected aggression

Redirected aggression occurs when a human attempts to handle a cat who is aroused by something unrelated to the person, such as being chased by a dog or fighting with another cat. A common scenario in which redirected aggression is shown is when a cat sees or smells another cat, who is unwelcome leading the cat to show territorial aggression. However, since the cat cannot directly interact with the outside cat, they then redirect the aggression to another cat in the household or a person.

If the aggression is directed to another cat in the household, this can result in inter-cat aggression whenever the cats meet again and may not resolve without specific treatment. In either case (when the aggression is directed towards cats or towards humans), redirected aggression is likely to occur repeatedly unless the trigger can be removed.

Prevention and management

  • Take steps to avoid the trigger situation from occurring, e.g., by preventing access to window sills, covering windows or keeping other cats away.
  • Avoid handling the cat if they appear aroused by something.
  • It may be possible to systematically desensitise the cat by gradual exposure to the fearful stimulus, or use a counter-conditioning approach in which you give the cat a food treat while they are calm during the trigger situation. Rewarding with a food treat whilst calm reinforces relaxation during exposure to the fearful event.
  • Medication may also be used in combination with behavioural modification (your vet will advise).

4. Pain-induced aggression

This form of aggression may be shown in response to pain, or the anticipation of pain. Examples include aggression shown during handling of a cat who is painful (e.g., due to chronic pain such as arthritis or an acute injury or a painful procedure being performed) or if the cat associates handling with pain and acts aggressively in an attempt to avoid the pain (e.g., a cat who has had a painful grooming experience due to a matted coat may anticipate that grooming will be painful and may attempt to avoid this by displaying aggression).

Prevention and management

  • Avoidance of the trigger, including provision of adequate pain relief for conditions resulting in acute or chronic pain (your vet will be able to assist).
  • Once you have ensured the cat is not in pain, systematic and gradual desensitisation to situations that were previously associated with pain.
  • Give the cat a food treat while they tolerate or are relaxed during the trigger situation.

5. Play aggression

One of the most common types of aggression is play aggression. Vigorous play in cats is part of normal cat behaviour. These cats are usually young, energetic cats living as single cats in a household and sometimes have a history of being taken early from their mother and siblings. Often, owners contribute to the problem by playing roughly with the cat when it is a little kitten, rewarding it for biting and clawing by continuing the play.

Play aggression typically involves the cat approaching (stalking) the person and then leaping onto them. There is usually no warning growl or hiss. The cat may hide in wait behind a barrier, intensely focused, and with their tail twitching. The cat does not show characteristic signs of fear or retreat from or avoid the person. In fact, the cat often hides behind some furniture and waits until a person walks by, and then dashes out and attacks the person’s ankles. Hands dangling over the armrest of a chair are also favourite targets.

Prevention and management

  • Avoid trigger situations where possible.
  • Do not encourage aggressive play: this involves ignoring unwanted behaviour (not reinforcing it with your attention). If your cat tries to play aggressively, move away from the situation, preferably into another room, shut the door and do not react. No reaction means that your cat receives no attention for the unwanted behaviour (and thus they are less likely to continue that behaviour if they learn that they won’t get any attention when they do it).
  • Positive reinforcement training also involves rewarding ‘good’ behaviour. So, when the cat is playing with their cat toy or when they are calm and relaxed, you can reward them with a food treat.
  • Confrontational reactions such as physical punishment, or reacting to the aggression with fast movements or high-pitched vocalisations, may simply reinforce the aggression (via negative reinforcement). This is because any reaction by the owner (even negative) is still attention, and some cats would prefer to have negative attention than to have no attention at all.
  • Make sure you are prepared by putting a bell on your cat, so that you can hear where they are.
  • Redirect the behaviour – once you have interrupted an aggressive advance by ignoring and moving away, toss a toy for the cat to initiate appropriate play. You can then reward them for ‘good’ behaviour. Learn how to predict when play aggression is likely to occur and redirect the behaviour before it happens.
  • Provide interesting toys and rotate their use (avoid string toys as these can become intestinal obstructions if swallowed).
  • Interact in appropriate play with your cat. To teach your cat to interact appropriately with you, and to satisfy their need for social contact, have daily play periods. In these play periods, interact with your cat using toys. The idea is to allow for playful interaction and expression of normal stalking, pouncing, and grabbing behaviour but without giving the cat the possibility to bite/scratch you directly.
  • Teach bite and claw-inhibition using positive reinforcement training. Do this initially when the cat is calm, NOT when they are motivated to play. Gently pat or play with the cat. Do not get them excited, because then rough play is likely to escalate and they won’t learn that this is undesirable.
  • As long as the cat remains gentle, let them nibble and hold your hand. As soon as they put any pressure on your skin, immediately stop playing and ignore them for some time. This will teach your cat to play very gently, just as one kitten would learn from another kitten or cat (positive reinforcement training). As time goes by, you reduce the amount of pressure that you tolerate more and more. You can teach even an adult cat not to grab you with their mouth, and to never use their claws when interacting with you.

6. Noise-induced aggression

Cats may respond to certain sound frequencies with aggression. Examples include another cat crying, high-frequency whistling, a baby crying, or squeaking sounds.

Prevention and management

  • Avoid trigger sound frequencies (where possible).
  • Where appropriate and safe, you can attempt desensitisation and counter-conditioning. Desensitisation to noise means playing the ‘trigger’ sound at a very low volume and if the cat remains calm and relaxed, they can then be rewarded with a food treat (counter-conditioning). The volume is then very slowly increased over time and the cat continues to be rewarded as long as they remain calm and relaxed during the sound.

7. Sexual aggression

Only male cats exhibit sexual aggression. The cat will mount a person’s arm or ankle, grab the skin with his teeth, and initiate pelvic thrusting. Attempts to dislodge the cat at this point will result in increased aggression. While a female cat’s thick scruff generally protects her from actual harm due to the males nape-bite (back of neck), human skin is not so well protected and can result in injury. This may occur as a result of incorrect sexual imprinting.

Prevention and management

  • Learn to recognise the triggers for an aggressive sexual mount and then avoid the situation (e.g. leave the room).
  • When this behaviour starts, distract the cat with a toy instead or food (food treats should not be given if the cat is already showing aggression as this may negatively reinforce the behaviour).

Also Read

Updated on May 5, 2022
  • Home
  • Companion Animals
  • Cats
  • Behaviour

Was this article helpful?