Cat Aggression: How to Calm Them Down

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Sharing your home with spirited cats makes life interesting. But, if your kitty has a tendency to become aggressive, you may not know what to do. Aggressive cats aren't uncommon. Learning how to calm an aggressive cat can help you build a strong and loving bond with your feline friend.

How to Identify Aggressive Behavior

Understanding a cat's body language during "normal" circumstances can help you identify when they're acting out of character. "It enables [pet parents] to more accurately 'read' their cats and understand their feelings and motivations for doing what they do. It also helps them respond more effectively to behavior issues like aggression," explains the ASPCA. Cats use their eyes, ears, tail and voice to communicate with their people, and as you get to know your cat, you'll recognize their behavior patterns for wanting food, playtime and affection.

close-up of cat with dilated pupils
Some cats are naturally rowdy, doing crazy things such as running up and down the hallway (always in the middle of the night), throwing their toy mouse in the air and playfully yowling. This isn't aggressive behavior, though; it's quite clear when a cat is being more than just rambunctious and instead is being downright aggressive. Watch for:

  • Hissing
  • Biting
  • Swatting
  • Growling
  • Exposed claws
  • Opened mouth
  • Stiff stance

If your cat suddenly exhibits aggressive behavior, take them to a veterinarian's office to rule out an underlying medical cause. Once they have a clean bill of health, you can then identify and manage other likely causes of your cat's mischief.

Causes of Aggression

Cornell Feline Health Center points out, "Aggression, defined as hostile or violent behavior intended to dominate or intimidate another individual, is a fairly common behavioral problem in cats." A few causes of aggression include age (kittens and young cats up to age two are the very definition of "rowdy"), lack of socialization (this is especially true for cats who are isolated in their early life stages) and maternal instincts (mama cats are protective of their babies).

The three most common types of cat aggression are play, inter-cat and territorial aggression.

Play Aggression

Cats love to play, but play can sometimes turn into aggression. This commonly occurs in kittens, who are just figuring out their boundaries. If they bite or swat their littermates too roughly, their siblings will straighten them out quickly. Cats who are about to take playtime to the next level shake their rears, flatten their ears and their pupils may dilate.

Inter-Cat Hostility

Inter-cat aggression is the second most common type of aggression. According to Tufts University Cummings Veterinary Medical Center, "Adult cats may or may not enjoy having another [cat] quartered on them." Reasons include incompatible temperaments, territorial competition or overcrowding.

Kittens often get along well, but dynamics change as they mature. Adult cats reach social maturity between two and four years old and may then begin to argue about territory. They need time to renegotiate boundaries.

Also, cats identify family members by scent, sleeping together and grooming each other. If that friendly smell changes — perhaps one cat visits the vet and smells unfamiliar — cats can have trouble recognizing the strange-smelling cat. It may take time for them to reestablish their relationship.

Territorial Aggression

Many cats enter attack mode if intimidated or provoked. A cat can act loving with you but suddenly growl and swat at a visitor or whack the family dog who snuggles on the couch with them. Invading kitty's turf prompts cats to lash out.

Thankfully, you can curb your cat's aggressive behavior.

How to Calm an Aggressive Cat

Identify the reason for your cat's aggression to manage their behavior. Some reasons are temporary and somewhat easier to manage, like maternal aggression, because you know exactly what to do: Stay away from mama cat and let her do her thing. For other instigators, you may have to be a bit more creative.

De-escalate or prevent play aggression by avoiding roughhousing with your cat. This form of play, in which your cat attacks your body with their jaw and/or claws, promotes combative behavior. Redirect their attention to a replacement toy such as a stuffed dog toy. Made of sturdier material than cat toys, they won't disintegrate after the first attack.

Once a cat establishes their domain, they make sure other animals (and people) know they're the boss. When introducing new cats to each other, or if longtime cat friends suddenly squabble, you may have to separate their eating, living and litter box areas and reintroduce them slowly.Two cats outdoors, while one is crouched and hissing at the other walking by.

Aggressive cats can be dangerous, so never intervene while your cat acts upset. If cats are tussling, make a brief loud noise or create another distraction to separate them. Don't approach or touch them until they're ready. It takes two hours for an aggressive cat to calm down.

As the joke goes, cats train their pet parents and not the other way around. As you navigate your cat's aggressive behavior, don't try to punish them "as this may cause a cat to become fearful of people or may be interpreted as play, which may inadvertently reward the aggressive behavior," explains Cornell Feline Health Center. "Walking away and ignoring a cat engaged in play aggression may teach [them] that inappropriately aggressive play results in no play at all." Bottom line: Reward the good behavior and not the bad.

When to Seek Veterinary Care

Your vet can help you understand ongoing feline aggression due to physical or behavioral causes. Neutering and spaying cats reduces aggression, and treating illnesses like dental disease or hyperthyroidism (which speeds up metabolism) can decrease or eliminate your kitty's aggression. A referral to a behaviorist provides expert help to keep your furry friend in top health.

With these tips, advice from your vet and a lot of patience, you can calm your fur babies and enjoy a long, happy life together.

Contributor Bio

Amy Shojai

Amy Shojai, CABC

Amy Shojai is a certified animal behavior consultant, and nationally known authority on pet care and behavior. She began her career as a veterinary technician and is the award-winning author of more than 35 prescriptive nonfiction pet books.