Cats Behaving Badly

Cats Behaving Badly

Dr Jane Bicks
As a holistic vet, I’m frequently asked, “How can I deal with my cat’s bad attitude?” The problem area dubbed “feline aggression” can be complicated, upsetting and potentially hazardous for pet parents. Not only can cat bites and scratches really hurt, they can transmit diseases, too, such as cat scratch fever (yes, it is real). While most cat moms and dads prefer a purring lap-warmer, especially on cold winter nights, some felines need extra help learning how to sheathe their claws.

Unfortunately, feline aggression is not well understood or handled appropriately. An important first step in dealing with this frustrating issue is to understand the behavior. Learning why a cat lashes out can help pet parents deal with the issue patiently and properly.

In this post I’ll be covering the five basic types of aggression in cats.

Pain- or Health-Related Aggression

A cat who is experiencing pain or ailing may exhibit aggressive behavior, so it’s vital that your first stop be a trip to your vet, especially if what you’re witnessing is a recent change in behavior. Medical conditions that can cause pain and aggression include abscesses, dental disease and arthritis. Additionally, hyperthyroidism is associated with increased aggression in older cats. Alleviation of underlying medical conditions can often resolve the aggressive behavior.

Play Aggression

This form of aggression is typical of young cats and kittens. You can recognize play aggression by the feline’s posture: stalking or crouching like a lion, lashing the tail from side-to-side, especially when their pupils are dilated. As unsuspecting “prey” passes, whether it’s your dog or your spouse ... pounce! The cat who attacks your ankle and then disappears in a flurry of fur isn’t trying to maim you - he’s playing, albeit aggressively.

The best way to address play aggression is integrate a toy, such as a cat fishing pole or a laser pointer, into play sessions. These toys serve a dual purpose - they will hold your cat’s attention while burning off excess energy and keep your hands out of the “strike zone”. A stuffed sock can provide the perfectly-pouncible object. If additional measures are required to curb the behavior, consider blocking access to your cat’s favorite stalking places or use a noise deterrent, such as shaking a can full of coins. Remember that you must use a noise deterrent within the first few seconds of the inappropriate behavior for it to be effective. Never let your cat, even when he is a cute kitty, view you as an acceptable chew-toy. You might also trim her nails to minimize the “ouch factor” (here’s a video that shows you how).

Fear Aggression

When a fearful cat encounters an unpleasant situation, such as the veterinary office, he will likely take steps to protect himself. Fear clues include crouching with tail and legs tucked under, hissing and baring teeth, flattened ears, dilated pupils and fur standing on end. If your cat is fearful, it is important to identify and avoid, if possible, the thing triggering the fear. To overcome fear aggression, you can try to desensitize your cat to the fear-inducing object by keeping it at a distance and rewarding your cat with treats for non-aggressive behavior. Also, try to minimize stress in a fearful feline’s home environment. If your cat is completely out of control, have your veterinarian refer you to a behavioral specialist who can work with you and possibly prescribe medications to get your cat through the rough spots.

Redirected Aggression

I like to refer to this type as “innocent bystander aggression”. Redirected aggression typically occurs when a cat is aroused by one stimulus, such as a bird outside, when another pet or person intervenes. A cat exhibiting redirected aggression can be staring at something while growling and pacing with a lashing tail and dilated eyes. Avoid this cat until he has calmed down because interaction can lead to injury. If you can identify the stimulus that sets off your cat, you may be able to prevent the aggression. If it’s an external stimulus for an indoor cat, try using sticky tape or window blinds to prevent him from perching on windowsills. This, coupled with motion-activated lights (or sprinklers) to discourage outdoor visitors, could end the behavior. If your cat is aroused for an extended period of time, you can herd him with a thick folded blanket to a “time out” room equipped with food, water and litter. After he becomes calm, reward him with loads of attention.


Similar to redirected aggression, overstimulation usually occurs when you are petting your cat and out of the blue they grab you and sink their teeth or claws into you. For highly reactive and vivacious cats, even a single long stroke down the spine can elicit an aggressive reaction. The key here is to recognize the warning signs: when the tail starts twitching, stop petting. Restrict your affections to areas that your cat enjoys, such as behind the ears or under the chin. If your cat grabs you, try not to overact; in fact, if you can, simply freeze … they will usually calm down quickly and let go.

If you take-away anything from this article, I hope it’s to never, ever hit a biting or scratching cat. Physical punishment, even a light rap on the nose, can increase fear and anxiety, potentially worsening the aggressive behavior. With time and patience, you can turn even the most claw-happy kitty into a loving companion.

Thank you for all you do to make the world a better place for companion animals,

Dr. Jane

Comments (13) -

  • cindy rogers

    3/24/2011 6:47:27 PM |


    A small black female cat adopted me this year.  She is agressive, claws extended toward my other two cats and rabbit, who are laid back--california cats.  I try to catch the situation before the claws come out with a squirt of water.  

    I heard that there is a calming spray that w/help this problem.  She's a sweet kitty and loves to play and cuddle.  But I don't want my other two california cats to get scratched and injured where I'd incur a vet bill.  I don't want them to be hurt.  

    She was fixed when I found her.  Her behavior toward people is friendly and playful.  So my guess is that the owners didn't take proper care of her.  

    She was overeating and throwing up when I first welcomed her into the home after the lukemia test.  That subsided and started up again.  I think she is anxious of afraid of my other pets.  I just want everyone to feel safe in their home.  Thanks and Jesus Loves you and me, too!


  • Catherine Mikkola

    3/25/2011 10:51:52 AM |

    We have a cat, Tigger, who is usually the sweetest, most loving cat.  Tigger in neutered and is an indoor-outdoor cat and comes and goes out our doggy-door as he pleases.  He's in good health and is 5 years old.  We have another cat and 3 dogs and most of the time, everyone gets along together. But, every-so-often Tigger look will down the street, spy another cat, who is sitting in its own yard, minding its own business, and Tigger will go trotting down down the street and attack this other kitty.  

    Any suggestions for how to curb this unwanted behavior?

  • Marilyn

    3/25/2011 5:43:16 PM |

    I liked this article, but my cat's issues don't seem to fit into one category. Shouldn't there be a "dominance" section in the article? I think that's what my cat's problem is, but I'm not sure.

    I have an adult Siamese who is bullying my adult Ragdoll. I've had her for 2.5 years but just got him 3 months ago. Everything was fine until a few weeks ago when he began chasing her around. She would hiss and growl, and he wouldn't stop. It has now progressed to him bothering her and trying to bite her on the back. They are both fixed. It isn't a constant thing; it's usually just in the evening. They'll sit next to each other on my bed but nowhere else. When he acts up, I put him in my room for about 15 minutes so everyone can calm down.

    My vet's advice was to keep them separated when I'm not home because they will never get along. I don't think that's true; I just don't know how to help them get along.

    All I can think of is that he is trying to be very dominant OR he knows that my cat has trichomonas and that has somehow affected his behavior. But, she's had it the whole time he's been here, though she is being treated for it. I don't like mysteries! If anyone can explain this behavior, I'd welcome it!

  • cindy rogers

    3/25/2011 7:57:42 PM |


    I've seen cats, my own, go up to a dog, my own, and swat him for no reason and walk away.  My guess is that tigger is showing his dominance to this other cat.  And it's possible that he just flat out doesn't like that cat.  We don't always like every person we meet and cats are alot like that, too.  As long as no injury or fights, it will prob continue as such.  Don't like to see it happen, but it does.  It could be that cat isn't fixed, too.  

    My cats are all fixed.  My females do not like to lay next to Rochester.  He's a snuggler and likes to get as close as he can to the girls or anyone.  It's happened with 3 girl cats.  Might be the scent.  Or perhaps, it's because sometimes, he wakes up and starts to fight them.  Why, I don't know.  He'll be sound asleep, wake up and start biting lacey on the neck.  What a way to wake up at 4am.  No alarm clock needed here.

    A friend told of a spray that helps to relax cats that live in the same house and some of the spray or have conflicts with the other cats.  Also heard that prozac/other anti anxiety meds and other commercial calming meds--I think, but not sure, they maybe herbal, it helps the cat to relax.  Being the new cat on the block, I think something like this w/help suz.  That reminds me.  I went outside to spray stuff on the windshield to keep the ice off, we are or may get 1-4 inches of the white stuff that refuses to leave, it's 35 degrees.  Suz ran out and ran from me.  Perhaps, now she has kewled down enough to come back in.  Good luck.  Keep in touch.  Jesus Loves YOU!  Cindy.

  • Shelley

    4/1/2011 3:44:31 AM |

    These are all great suggestions in dealing with aggressive behavior.  I work with cat rescue and have a couple of suggestions for aggressive behavior described here.  First, the article is spot on with why a cat responds the way it does to stimulae.  Pain is an important aspect to rule out.  Also unseen influences, smells, behavior are critical.  Feliway can work well depending upon the cat.  On the other hand, there is no way to keep cat on dog or cat on cat aggression under control if the animals are allowed to run free.  That is why our shelter really says that cats belong in the home -- not outdoors.  If the cat really wants to be outside then look into ways to keep both the cat safe from predators and the other animals safe from the cat.  There are many enclosure systems that are available now to look into.  Moreover, when one of my cats gets into a fight with another one I separate the two, put one of them in a room and close the door.  That stops the prey reflex that is at the heart of some of the aggression.  A quick way to separate cats is to use either a water spray or an air spray used to clean off computer keyboards.  And a final note, when introducing a new cat to a clowder of cats in a house or even to one cat, make sure that the new cat has its own room in the house for however long it takes for the cat to feel at home.  While it is in that waiting room, make sure the other cats get to sniff the litter as it is changed and the bedding and food dishes.  This is an easy way for a house cat to become accustomed to a new cat.  And if all this doesn't work, do what I do and spread catnip on the floor and get ready to referee.  I tried that last year when all three of mine were having a serious relationship issue that lasted a week.  And it worked well.  Now when they start to get into hissy fits, I use catnip to defuse the fight.  Take care out there

  • Amelia

    4/1/2011 9:43:45 AM |

    As a pet sitter, I have found that cats that behave badly create a lot of stress for the pet owner as well as the other pets in the house. Many times, they are placed in a new home so that the rest of the household can live in peace.  Sometimes these cats are happier by themselves and do not want to be touched.


  • Season Margolis

    9/9/2011 3:54:12 AM |

    This is brilliant!

  • Joanne

    10/31/2012 3:37:13 AM |

    All excellent comments. I like the one about the motion sensor water sprinkler. That will take care of 8 months out of the year. Since I live in cold Wisconsin, I'll have to find something for the other 4 cold months (freezing water). My problem is a patio door. Clear glass runs down to the floor. The neighboring cat sits outside the door driving my indoor cat nuts. I might play with blocking off the bottom portion of the door during those months. Any other suggestions?

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