Feline Fearful or Defensive Aggression

Filed Under: Cats, Behavioral & Training

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.

The fearful aggressor will lower its ears, head, and tail to the side of its limbs when approached and will try to avoid the cat it is afraid off. Attacks are a result of the dominant cat’s persistent attempts for interaction. In some cases, the fearful cat will defecate or urinate when confronted with the cat it is afraid of.

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 two cats are fearful of one another, a gradual introduction may be successful as described under territorial aggression. When a cat is afraid of people, the introduction should also be gradual with the person moving closer each day only as long as the cat remains relaxed; usually this is best done while the cat is being fed. Care must be taken not to proceed too quickly. A fearful reaction may negate any progress that has been made up to that point.

Fearful cats may be medicated with drugs such as fluoxetine which have anxiolytic (dispels anxiety) and antiaggressive effects. An alternative drug used in extremely timid cats is buspirone (0.5 to 1.0 mg/kg every 12 hours). Buspirone often achieves a decrease in the fear response and increases confidence. Feliway Spray® may also be helpful in the relief of stress. The product mimics facial pheromones which give the cat a feeling of well-being thereby making the cat less fearful. These cats should be separated when they are not being supervised.


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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