Feline Aggression (General)

Filed Under: Cats, Behavioral & Training

The second most commonly reported feline behavioral problem is that of aggression. It is estimated by behaviorists that aggression represents approximately 13% of their feline case load. The display of aggression in cats is influenced by the environment, heredity, and early experiences in the life of the cat.

A good medical examination by your veterinarian and history of the behavior in question are important to the diagnosis and treatment of the behavioral problem. Situations that create or contribute to the anxiety should be duly noted.

In some cases aggression may only be a clinical sign that is indicative of other underlying disorders or anxieties. Internal disorders that contribute to aggressive behavior include: pain, illness or infections diseases, and tumors, either hormonal or neurological, which may induce behavioral changes. Stress, either acute or chronic, has a great influence on aggressive responses.

In order to have a well adjusted cat, basic needs of that pet should be provided and should include: adequate outlets for play, social interaction, down time, hiding places, and climbing areas. Resources should be adequate and easily accessible for each household cat. Necessary resources would include food, water, resting areas, and litter boxes. Each cat should be provided with safe areas from other pets and, when necessary, from certain humans. Some small children may literally love the cat to death.

The critical period of socialization for cats to other cats is from 3 to 6 weeks of age. Kittens raised with other cats are likely to continue to have friendly interactions with those same cats later in life. The critical period of socialization for kittens with people occurs from approximately 2 to 7 weeks of age. Early handling of kittens during this sensitive period is necessary for cats to be socialized to people decreases fearfulness to people later in life. Cats that are not familiarized with people during this critical period may never be socialized. These cats exhibit what has been termed “isolation syndrome.”

When a cat is aggressively aroused, providing a quiet, dark, and isolated area may help diminish the response. Covering a cat with a box or heavy blanket may prevent injury to other animals and people.

The types of recognized feline aggression include:

General signs of aggression include: extension of the hind legs, crouching on the forelegs giving an upward slope to the body, hairs in the middle of the back standing up straight (piloerection) giving the cat a fuller appearance, the tail becoming stiff with the hair fluffed out and may twitch, especially at the tip, or there may be an inverted U-shaped tail position. The pupils will dilate and the ears will turn back and outward. The cat will try to appear menacing and will stare at its opponent. Cats in a threatening posture tend to give a side presentation. Howling, spitting, hissing, or growling are all common and they will often drop the lower jaw.

Cats in an offensive posture will often hop or charge back and forth along with various sound effects.

Cats that stand firm during an attack of aggression have about a 65 % chance of avoiding the attack.


Beaver, Bonnie. Feline Behavior: A Guide for Veterinarians. W.B. Saunders Co. 1992. Pp. 97-115.

Crowell-Davis, Sharon. “Intercat Aggression.” Compendium for Continuing Education Veterinarian. September 2007. Pp. 541-546.

Horwitz, Debra. “Feline Aggression Directed Toward People.” NAVC Clinician’s Brief. May 2007. P. 33-34.

Marder, Amy and Victoria Voith. “Advances in Companion Animal Behavior.” Veterinary Clinics of North America. Vol. 21. No. 2. W.B. Saunders Co. March 1991. Pp. 315-327.

Topics: aggression

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  • When threatened and afraid, any cat may become aggressive, especially when they cannot escape from the situation. Cats may become afraid of people when being reached for, cornered, or otherwise restrained. In general, the less stressed a feline is, the more tolerant it will be. Cats may become afraid of other cats as well as other animals in various circumstances. Illness may change the threshold for this response by making a cat more irritable.

  • Queens may show aggressive behavior to toms before delivery of kittens as well as while kittens are suckling and dependent. Infanticide (killing of kittens) has been observed in free-roaming farm cats and it is possible that queens treat toms as potential predators.

    Some queens, typically friendly to people, may be protective of their kittens in the presence of human intruders. This behavior typically subsides as the kittens become older.


    Beaver, Bonnie. Feline Behavior: A Guide for Veterinarians. W.B. Saunders Co. 1992. Pp. 97-115.

  • Redirected aggression occurs when an aroused cat in an aggressive state attacks a person or other animal that was not the original cause of the aggression. The original target has become inaccessible and the cat directs its attention to a new target or individual. An example would be where an outside cat visits the sliding glass doors to a home housing two additional cats. The two indoor cats typically get along but when aroused into a frenzy, due to exposure to the wandering outside cat, suddenly turn their aggression on one another or alternatively, a human in the area.

  • One of the most frequent forms of cat aggression toward people is biting or scratching while being petted. This type of aggression often results from a mismatch between the owner’s and pet’s desire for physical contact. Warning signs may include twitching of the tail, restlessness, and “intention” bites where a cat moves as if to bite but doesn’t.

  • In any stable household environment cats will develop a hierarchy of personalities and form dominance relationships. Sometimes these relationships will be subtle while other times they may be problematic or worse. Often, the alpha cat is not aggressive unless challenged or while protecting desirable resources. Family members may suddenedly be in flux when a family member becomes deceased or a new family member is introduced. This may result in the remaining family members vying for dominance.