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From wanting to play to feeling overstimulated, cats can act aggressively for various reasons.

How to Recognize Cat Aggression

Aggression in cats can include a range of behaviors. They often start out as subtle signs that a cat is anxious, frightened, or upset and progress to more dangerous behaviors. They can include:

  • Making noises, such as low growling, hissing, or yowling
  • Exposing their teeth and claws—some cats will roll onto their back to show off their sharp nails
  • Swatting
  • Scratching
  • Nipping or biting

Offensive and Defensive Postures

Cats may assume offensive or defensive postures of aggression depending on the situation. They’re both defensive mechanisms intended to protect the cat from harm.

Offensive postures make a cat look bigger to intimidate and scare off the perceived threat. Cats taking an offensive posture will stand with rigid legs, raise up their rear end, and prick their ears upright. They will face the threat head-on and make growing or yowling noises.

Cats use defensive postures to look smaller and show that they’re not looking for an altercation. These postures include crouching down, lowering their head, flattening their ears, and turning sideways to the threat. They may also hiss and strike out quickly with their claws as a warning.

Causes of Cat Aggression

There are a variety of reasons for cat aggression, from overstimulation to illness.

Your Cat’s Had Enough

Why is my cat suddenly aggressive toward me? All cat parents have probably asked this question at one time or another.

One moment your kitty is all relaxed next to you on the couch, purring contentedly as you stroke their fur. Then, in a flash, they nip at your hand without warning. Luckily, those bites typically aren’t painful, but they are annoying, especially when they catch you off guard.

While we don’t know for sure what’s going on in a cat’s head, that small nip is likely their way of telling you they’ve had enough attention for now. This kind of reaction can feel like a surprise, but if you pay close attention, you’ll probably notice some signs that let you know your cat is reaching their limit.

Your cat might start to get restless and shift their weight around, twitch their tail, or flick their ears flick back and forth. If you happen to notice these behaviors, it’s best to stop petting your cat and avoid that nip on the hand.

Your Frisky Feline Wants to Play

Some cats, especially kittens and younger felines, like to attack your feet as you walk across the room. They might lurk behind the coffee table and suddenly jump out, wrapping your ankle up in a rough embrace. It’s their way of saying, “Hey, I want to play!”

If you have time, engage them in a game of chase or fetch to get out that excess energy. If you can’t stop what you’re doing to play with your cat, you can use an interactive toy to entertain them. Be sure to supervise your cat while they play with any toy to help prevent injuries.

While play aggression is a normal behavior for cats, it can cause problems when they don’t inhibit their bites or strike out too forcefully with their claws. This can be more prevalent in cats who were orphaned or weaned too early. These kitties may have missed out on the opportunity to roughhouse with their littermates and learn how to mitigate their playful activities.

Cats who are bored or spend a lot of time alone are also prone to play aggression. Make sure you spend quality time with your cat and enrich their environment with things like interactive toys, music, and nature shows.

Why does my cat get aggressive at night? Cats instinctually like to hunt in the later hours, which can disrupt your sleep. Get solutions for cat behavior problems like this.

Your Cat is Feeling Territorial

Territorial aggression in cats is not uncommon. It’s seen more often in unneutered males who may show aggression toward each other as they guard their space and compete for a mate.

Territorial cats might patrol a certain area of the house, chase anyone who breaks their perimeter, and mark their territory by spraying urine, which is a tough smell to get out. These kinds of behaviors can be caused by a change in the cat’s environment, such as a new pet, baby, or guest in the home.

Cats can also get territorial about their food. Food aggression in cats can happen when kitties feel anxious about having enough to eat. If you have more than one cat, it’s a good idea to give them each their own food and water bowl.

Spaying or neutering your cat can help reduce unwanted behaviors and prevent certain cancers. Learn about the benefits of spaying and neutering.

Something Aroused Your Cat

Unprovoked aggression in cats can occur when something arouses them that’s out of their reach. For instance, your cat might spend the morning watching a bird flittering around outside of the screen window and then lash out at you when you walk by.

This is called redirected aggression in cats. This behavior is not malicious but more like a reflex that allows them to release pent-up energy. There can be a long lag time, sometimes up to an hour or more, between the arousal and their aggressive reaction.

Something’s Wrong with Your Cat

Cats who are in pain or aren’t feeling well can become aggressive, especially if you try to handle them in a way that aggravates their discomfort. Cats are renowned for keeping illnesses and injuries a secret from their cat parents, so you may not even know that your cat is in distress.

Conditions such as arthritis, dental disease, or hyperthyroidism can cause even the friendliest cat to lash out. Senior cats who are experiencing mental decline can also become confused, agitated, and aggressive.

If you suspect that a medical issue is causing aggressive behavior in your cat, you should take them to the veterinarian as soon as you can. That way, you can get them on the road to recovery faster.

tuxedo cat hissing and swatting

Treatment for Cat Aggression

The best first step to treating cat aggression is to take them to the veterinarian to determine the reason for the problem. If your cat is hurt or sick, your veterinarian will need to treat the underlying condition.

If your cat is healthy, they can offer other suggestions for treatments, which may include medication to reduce anxiety. Synthetic pheromones that come in sprays or diffusers may also be useful to calm your cat. Your veterinarian can also recommend an experienced trainer or behaviorist if needed.

How to Get an Aggressive Cat into a Carrier

It’s tricky to get an aggressive cat into a carrier to take them to the veterinarian. It’s best to wait until the cat is calm, if that’s possible.

If they need to go right away, enlist someone to help you out. They can hold the carrier open while you carefully wrap your cat in a blanket or towel and safely tuck them inside.

Pet Insurance and Cat Aggression

If your cat is acting aggressive due to an underlying illness or injury, pet insurance can help you manage the costs of care. Behavioral coverage can also reimburse you for the diagnosis and treatment of behavioral issues like aggression. Learn about what’s covered.

The information presented in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and does not constitute or substitute for the advice of your veterinarian.

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