How Do I Get Him to be Nice?
by Rita Reimers, Multi Cat Behavior Expert
Help, My Cat Is Aggressive, what do I do?
I recently received a call from a very stressed kitty parent. She told me that her newly adopted cat, Barney, was acting aggressively toward her, her husband, and the other kitty in their household.
When I asked her to describe his behavior, what she told me may or may not have been aggression. She said Barney stalks and jumps at them, often grabbing ankles or jumping onto the back of their other cat, Bella. He never hissed or growled, he was just very physical and highly charged whenever he interacted with them.
After visiting with them, observing Barney’s behavior with Bella, and interacting with Barney myself, I was able to clearly identify what was going on. Barney had play aggression; all he really wanted was to play.
This cat never had a home before; he grew up in the shelter living in a cage, and was never properly socialized. He had lots of pent up energy and lots to give, but he lacked the social skills needed to make friends with people or cats.
Was he being aggressive? Yes, but not in the traditional meaning of the word. There are different types of cat aggression, and just as many different reasons why this behavior comes out.
More important than just seeing the aggressive actions, the circumstance around the behavior is what really tells the story. It’s easy to mistake play aggression for fighting aggression, unless you can identify the subtle differences.
What Cat Aggression Looks Like
What was my client seeing that lead her to think that Barney was being aggressive?
Barney was exhibiting a few of the classic characteristics of feline aggression:
- Dilated pupils
However, what made this PLAY aggression versus fighting aggression was the absence of:
- Hissing and/or spitting
- Growling and/or screaming
- Low, Flat ears
- HUGE black eyes (ie: Full dilation)
- Showing of claws
Had this been a case of aggression that was about to become a fight, Barney would have been using his teeth and claws to attack once he jumped on the object(s) of his fixation.
Types and Causes of Cat Aggression
There are different types of aggression in cats, and many different reasons why they may react the way they do. Here are some of the most common types of aggression and what generally causes these reactions.
1) Play Aggression
Usually seen in young kittens who are just learning proper social behaviors, kittens use their high energy to roughhouse with their littermates. These play sessions are also where kittens learn to hone their fine hunting skills by “stalking” and jumping out at one another. They also will scold one another when they play, scratch, or bite too hard. This is how they learn acceptable/unacceptable play behaviors. You might also see an improperly socialized adult cat exhibit play aggression, as in the case of Barney.
Humans may also unwittingly encourage aggressive play behavior by playing rough with their kittens using hands and feet instead of toys. It might be cute to let that sweet 3-month-old kitten bite your hands and toes, but it won’t be so funny when he is a full-grown cat.
Have you ever been petting your cat as she sits quietly in your lap, and all of the sudden she turns around and bites you? What happened? She became overstimulated and wanted you to stop. If you were distracted while petting her, you invariable missed the cues she gave you before she bit. There are always signs before the bite! Undoubtedly her eyes blackened, her ears went back, and her tail began to twitch wildly. She may have even given you a low growl. All these were signs to warn you that she was about to strike.
Another common call I get: “I brought home a new cat, he is under the bed hissing and growling at me. Why is he doing that?” Its simple; he is scared. Think of everything your new cat has just been through. He was probably in a shelter, a rescue, or a foster home before you adopted him. Then perhaps he was taken to an adoption fair where he sat in a tiny cage feeling vulnerable.
Finally salvation, you come along and adopt him. If he were a person, he would understand that now he will have a great life. But he doesn’t know that, all he knows is now he is in a brand new place with new people and new smells, maybe even another pet is in the household. So your new cat reacts by telling you he is scared and by using aggressive behavior to make sure you don’t get too close until he is ready.
It’s a perfectly normal reaction, and given some time he will come around, once he gets accustomed to his new surroundings. (Tuna bribes work wonders to promote the bonding process!)
4) Food Aggression
I have mostly seen this in tiny kittens, or cats that have been foraging for food outside for a long time. Kitten aggression over food happens when kittens are weaned too young. I will never forget when I brought 7-week-old Peanut kitten home (yes that is too young to be taken from momma cat!). I also had 8-week-old Boo-Boo and Pinky kittens at home, and it didn’t take long for them to become friends.
Until mealtime, that is. Tiny Peanut stood in the middle of the plate of wet food and growled as loudly as his little lungs would let him. The other two kittens were confused about this, but putting out a second food plate solved the problem. He did grow out of it eventually! As for adult cats, I have seen alpha cats demonstrate their status by pushing another cat away from a plate of food. Usually the other cat will just peacefully go to another plate.
If your adult cats get aggressive over food, here is an article I wrote for Catster: Food Aggression in Cats.
5) Territorial Aggression (MOST COMMON!)
Perhaps the most common type of aggression I see between cats is over territory. This happens especially when another cat is added to the household, or when there aren’t enough places for each cat to claim for himself. Cats need their own space, even cats that get along.
Adding tall cat trees and cat cubby hole hiding spots will usually help alleviate aggression over territory and space. Also, be aware that to a cat, you are their territory as well, so be sure to give each of your cats love, attention, and playtime every day to help avoid jealousy. At night, my cat Punkin has claimed the space next to my head for himself. If any other cat is in his spot, he will get a swat from Punkin. (this is Punkin in the photo, by the way!)
Calming the Aggressive Cat
It’s important to tone down the aggression and calm your cat quickly before anyone gets hurt. Talk softly to your cat, but don’t try to pick him up or pet him during an aggressive episode. If this behavior happens frequently, trying adding calming music, or some calming flower essences to take the edge of his aggression.
If your cat’s behavior is constantly aggressive, he should be seen by your vet to rule out medical causes for his behavior. Illness or pain can cause your cat to behave in an overly aggressive way, so be sure your cat has a clean bill of health before you decide he has a behavior issue.
Once medical issues have been rules out, it’s important to identify the cause of your cat’s behavior so you can find a solution. Does he want your attention? Is another cat trying to play too roughly, does he need a safe place of his own to climb upon? Could he be seeing another cat outside that is upsetting him? Do you need to add another food dish at feeding time?
Usually one or two simple changes will solve the problem, once you identify the reason for your cat’s aggression. Once the problem is resolved, your kitty will go back to being the coolest cat around!
Katie Withers says
Your right about putting out an xstra kitty food bowl, from there everything turned out to be okay.
I befriended a stray cat at our apartment complex who let me feed and pet him but after a couple of pets he turned around and slashed my finger so badly I thought I’d need stitches. When I tried to walk away he followed me and slashed at my ankles and drew blood. I’d like to adopt him but am afraid of him. Local agencies are not helpful. What should I do?
Rita Reimers says
Bless you for trying to give this homeless sweetie a home. A few things are going on here.
Since he is approaching you, he was probably someone’s cat at some point, but either escaped or was let go outside. He approaches, he wants to trust you, he’s loved starved so he lets you touch him, but he’s also scared, so he lashes out after a few pets. Then, when you walk away, he doesn’t really want to be left there so he follows, then he slashes at your ankles to stop you from leaving. Counter intuitive I know, but that’s how a scared, abandoned cat reacts…
Is he near your apartment? I have coaxed in scared abandoned scared cats by leaving a food dish outside when you know he’ll come by. OR, if you only see him when you’re out walking, keep treats in your pockets to offer.
Once he sees you will leave or bring food at a regular time, he’ll come by more and more. When he does, sit nearby so you can talk to him, but don’t approach; let him come to you. If he approaches you, let him rub your legs but don’t bend to pet him just yet. He (and you) needs to make sure he trusts you enough to not lash out at you. When he begins hanging around you more, you can offer a hand for pets, again letting him come to rub against you.
It won’t take long before he follows you home and wants to be let inside. If you have other pets, especially other cats, its best to have a vet check before letting him mingle with your others. It’s important he has a clear Snap test (for FIV and Leukemia) before he meets your other cats. Then introductions can begin slowly.
Let us know how it goes! I pray you can give this kitty the love he craves.
Any recommendations on aggression that started as non-recognition aggression? Two of our cats had a falling out after one of them had a grooming appointment. One is the aggressor (Cat A), the other (Cat B; the one who got groomed) doesn’t even try to defend himself. There have been vet visits and grooming appointments prior to this one of course, but a switch seemed to flip this time, and it’s been three months of tension and worry. The cats used to be good friends, but we’ve had to keep them separated for the safety of the other cat as Cat A’s single goal in life seems to be destroying Cat B. We’ve tried Feliway, swapping them out into each other’s spaces, harness/leash, a see-through barrier (in hopes that they would acclimate to each other). But it doesn’t seem to get any better, and Cat A is just growing more and more frustrated and keeps trying to go after Cat B. Cat A used to be very focused on human interaction and affection, and now he’s just always looking for Cat B. Cat B on the other hand, remains absolutely terrified of him. It’s taken a huge toll on everyone living in the house, pet and human alike, and we’re just not sure what to do from here. Any suggestions would be welcome.
Rita Reimers says
We’ve seen this happen quite often. Stress and anxiety can often cause cats to displace their aggression and go after their feline housemates.
Slow re-introductions over time, along with some calming activities, can bring them back together again. Time and patience are the keys, along with some supervised with each other, will help them become more relaxed in one another’s company.
Let us know how things go, and if you need some help along the way, Linda and I are here should you decide to book a behavior session.
Hello, I have a 1 1/2 year old female cat, I adopted her when she was 2 months old, she is the 3rd cat in the home, the last 5 months she has become so aggressive towards the other female cat we have had to make a new space for the older female. Now the kitten is attacking my male cat the smaller dog (she does not go after the large dog). I have tried extra playtime, calming treats, feliway, seperation, positive time when she seems stressed/aggressive, she has claimed me as her own and I think that’s where a lot of the aggression comes from. She does not want the other animals in the room I am in with her at the same time. She is drawing blood and making fur fly with the other animals. I have had a check up and she is healthy, I do not know what else to do.
Rita Reimers says
Your kitty is experiencing anxiety, which you know, but getting to the root cause of this would take a behavior session.
Meanwhile, try ordering Convivial House Cat. This is an all-natural tincture that helps calm down anxiety in cats: https://www.catfaeries.com/chc.html
Let them know we sent you and they’ll give you an extra gift. Do let us know how things are, and if a session is needed, we’d be happy to help.
Rhonda Guenther says
I have a male 10 1/2 yr old cat. Recently I added a stray to the household. It wasn’t something I planned to do as much as I would love lots of cats. The weather had turned bitter cold & it was snowing. I was afraid ‘Peanut’ would freeze to death even though I had made her a home out of a garbage can. When Peanut would come every evening for me to feed her, my cat would lay by the patio door and wait for her to show up. If another stray in the neighborhood showed up my cat would jump up and growl at it. After I brought Peanut in the night of the storm she began following my cat everywhere which I thought was cute. But my cat didn’t like it, and began swiping at Peanut with his paw. I’ve tried to be patient knowing this has been a big adjustment for him. But I also don’t want him scratching Peanut’s eye out since she is significantly smaller. I’m not sure what the best course of action is. If they can’t get along I’ll have to give Peanut to a friend who said she’ll take her. I don’t want my cat, Taz to think I don’t love him anymore because I do. I just envisioned having another cat so they could keep each other company.
Samantha Wood says
I have a new kitten actually we have had him now for a year now. We got him when he was a few weeks old. We have a total of 7 indoors cats. The kitten is very aggressive towards my 4 years old cat to the point she is terrified to Come out our bedroom. The kitten will also be aggressive to the others more of aggressive play. But when it comes to the 4 year old and the kitten it gets bad. Alot to hissing screaming and hair all over the place. What should I do. My husband think I need to give away the aggressive kitten. He only stresses out other cats in home. I don’t know what to do
Rita Reimers says
Especially when introducing young kittens full of energy to older cats, patience and time are the keys. Keep them separated and let them get used to each other’s scents by doing some scent swapping. It helps if you can put up a partition to allow them all to see one another yet not have physical contact.
If you feel you need some guidance and some specific steps to take, I believe our 30-minute session would give us enough time to lay the groundwork to accomplish a successful integration. https://catbehavioralliance.com/cat-behavior-consultations/
Linda and I have been through this process many times ourselves as well as with our clients, and we’d love to help you, too!
My 9 month old indoor cat has recently started getting very aggressive towards my pre teen. She is the kindest and loviest with the cat, always gentle in nature and adores him. Recently as soon as she walk in the door his demeaner changes. He stalks her, and jumps up at her biting, he circles her and attacks her legs, bitting very hard. She is often brought to tears and we have to remove our boy cat or distract him with a toy. This behaviour is increasing, it is not okay. My daughter is heartbroken and biting and hurting my child is not okay. My cat is also food crazy, we have had to velcro and tie food cupboard doors closed to try and dis encourage him. We love him but find ourselves very frustrated with this behaviour.
Rita Reimers says
9 month old cats are generally very active and get overstimulated easily. Is he your only cat? He could be just trying to play, especially if he has no other kittens or cats to run out his energy with. Also, has he been neutered? If not, this is prime time to have that done, as neutering calms male cats so the aren’t quite as fixated on protecting territory or being aggressive.
If he has indeed been neutered, try giving him some extended playtime with a wand toy or something to chase to run out his high energy (try not use hands or feet to play, as he will think that is an ok way to play!). You might want to try this holistic calming tincture we recommend to many of our clients, and we use ourselves, its called Convivial House Cat. https://www.catfaeries.com/chc.html. Let them know we sent you and you’ll get an extra gift, too.
Should he still be overly aggressive, a session with Linda and I could help. We can create a plan of action specific to your cat, and give you ways to help calm his wildness. I think a 30-minute session would be all you need. If you’d like to meet us before scheduling a session, you can book our FREE 15-minute Pre Consultation so you can make sure you’re comfortable with us before you book a session.
Visit our reservations page at https://catbehavioralliance.com/cat-behavior-consultations/
Let us know how things are going, and if the Convivial was enough to help.
Nick K. says
My 2 year old cat that I adopted as a stray suddenly began attacking my other cat Borris. Borris was my original pet and at first they got along then one night I got out of bed and accidentally stepped on Borris’ tail and Terra the new cat just started attacking him when he yelped. For 6 months they got along fine now Terra is determined to murder Borris it seems. And she attacks me when I try to stop her. I have several new scars in the last month or so because of this and I don’t know what to do. She’s either gonna to be released as a barn cat where she can start all the fights she wants so she can learn her place or find her a family with no other cats so she can be alone. She’s been separated from my other cat for about a month and she’s doesn’t seem to be any better no matter how I try to reintroduce them.
Rita Reimers says
I am sorry to hear this happened. The sound startled Terra and she took out her fear and aggression on you and Boris. We’ve seen this scenario before, there are ways to help them get passed it.
My suggestion is to start with separating them if you can, and let them have short supervised time together with you talking softly and petting them both if you can. Convivial House Cat is something we often recommend for calming and re-introductions, to help them through the rough patch. It’s all natural, non addictive, and non sedative. You can only get it here: https://www.catfaeries.com/chc.html
If you need help mapping out a formal plan, you can always book a session with us. This would only need a 30-minute session. You can always book a Pre Consultation meeting with us first to see if you feel comfortable with us: https://catbehavioralliance.com/cat-behavior-consultations/
Keep us posted on how things are going between Terra, Boris, and you!