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Aggression to People

What is means when your cat acts out around people and how to deal!

Cat aggression can be frustrating, overwhelming, and upsetting to deal with. Cats can show aggressive behavior seemingly for no reason. They can show this behavior while you're petting them, even when they sought out the attention. They can show this behavior while they play. They can also show it through redirection or being territorial. As some of these behaviors may seem unpredictable, and often times impossible to prevent or fix, cats do not act out aggressively for no reason. 

Key steps in working with any type of aggression in any animal are to:

A) Identify the cause,

B) Observe the tells,

C) Respond with patience and understanding.


As with most aggressive behaviors, especially those that have “come out of nowhere”, consulting your vet is a wise first step. Do understand that this type of behavior is a normal behavior for a cat. It is a communication tool that they have learned to use within their species. It is our job to teach and lead the cat to communicate in a way that is more people friendly and more beneficial to all parties.


Play Aggression

Play drive to prey drive is even more closely related in cats than it is in some dogs. A cat has a naturally high prey drive. They are predators. It is a natural instinct and it is something that the cat enjoys and feels “proud”afterward. So when a cat is showing play, it is common for the style of play to resemble closely that of their prey style. There's crouching, tail twitching, ears flicking, and then pouncing. You'll see the cat wrap their feet around the item, chewing and kicking with the back legs. It’s fun and interesting to watch but it is not the way we want the cat to play with us. Kittens play this way, and although it is cute, it can lead to scratches, small bites, and learned behavior that is not acceptable into their adulthood.


Here is a way to teach your kitten or cat to play without hurting you:


Use a "feather wand" toy and play away from your body. If you don't have one, they're very easy to make using a stick from the yard, some string and your cat's favorite toy tied to the end. If at any point they start trying to chew or scratch you, redirect them back to the toy. Cats love strings and they love toys, so the "fishing pole" type of toy is ideal. If the cat becomes overstimulated, let them know with a verbal cue (“no”, “hey”, “uh-uh”) and discontinue play so they can have a chance to cool down. Don't resume play till they have settled down some.


Never yell or hit the cat. This is not communication that they will understand, nor will they learn from, with the outcome only leading to either nothing changing or the cat becoming afraid.


Petting Aggression

This is a tougher behavior for people to understand. It happens quite a bit with cats that solicit attention. Cats will show this type of aggression when they've hit a tolerance limit, or maybe a sensitive spot was touched. This type of aggression, probably more than any other, seems like it comes from out of the blue. On the contrary, the cat will show signs and it is up to us to read these signs and respect the cat's threshold. Some of these signs will be: tail twitching, ears turning back, noise (low growl, hiss), turning their head toward your hand, and restlessness. Be sure to watch the eyes, as well.


When you observe these signals, stop petting the cat. You can let them continue to sit on your lap, or let them go off on their own. Some will continue to seek out pets and then try to bite right away. In these cases, try to slowly stand up so that the cat has to remove themselves from your lap.


Remember, some cats aren't that into that type of attention and prefer not to be pet. One thing a person can do is try to and win the cat over with some tasty treats. Offer a treat, pet shortly, offer another treat. Let the cat associate physical touch with something they find pleasant, which is the treat. It’s important not to rush this though; go slow at first, and slowly increase how long you pet the cat before offering the treat.

Territorial Aggression

Cats are often very territorial, but its mostly with other cats. Every so often though, you'll come across a very stubborn-minded cat who believes the home is theirs and will guard that territory from people, as well. This can even occur with the cat's owners. Recognize all those warning signs mentioned above and don't push the envelope.

You cannot allow a cat to run the house, though. When confronted by a cat that is going to stare you down, or bite at your feet, keep a squirt bottle of water on hand. Give the cat a quick squirt as soon as they show any signs of territorial aggression in order to deter the behavior.

Redirected Aggression

This type of behavior can occur when the cat has become overstimulated and aroused by something other than what they show aggression towards. An example of this could be they saw a bird out the window. They work themselves up wanting to get to that bird, and to release that aroused energy, they strike at the first thing that crosses their path. It can be another cat, but it can also be you.


Always observe your cat closely before approaching (especially if this is a common behavior seen with your cat). Are they staring hard out the window, or another cat, or a bird in the cage, maybe even a toy. Do they stare to where they aren't even aware you're there? Do they respond when you call them? Is the tail jerking back and forth? Is there growling, hissing, or loud meowing?


Don't approach; instead, clap your hands loudly. Break the fixation and then walk away. Let the cat calm down on their own.

Redirection can occur if you try to break up two cats fighting with your hands. You'll likely get scratched up and/or bitten. Instead, use a squirt bottle, toss a pillow, or try to make a loud noise.


When aggression with your cat seems common-place, try to confine your cat to a single room. You can move the litter box, and their food and water in there, as well. If you do notice the cat has calmed down, it’s likely they become aroused or overstimulated when there is too much going on, it is too loud. 

DISCLAIMER OF LIABILITY: Any advice provided by Citizens for a No-Kill Philadelphia ("CNKP") is for informational purposes only. The Community Help Desk is managed by volunteers of CNKP and does not necessarily represent the views of CNKP. Behavior and training advice and suggestions provided through its Help Desk are not intended to be a substitute for the advice of a professional animal trainer or qualified animal behaviorist. Any and all advice from CNKP regarding housing assistance, surrender prevention, or veterinary referrals is to be used for informational purposes only and does not substitute for the advice of a professional. CNKP expressly disclaims any and all liability, expressed or implied, with respect to the service and advice received via its Help Desk. Your reliance on the advice provided and/or content of CNKP's website or Help Desk communications is solely at your own risk.

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