Redirected Aggression: When Good Cats Attack

aggressive cat attack

We recently covered petting aggression and play aggression in cats. Today, I’d like to address one other form of feline aggression, and it’s one that can be very frightening, as well as damaging, for cat guardians. This form of aggression is called redirected aggression, and it happens when a cat is agitated by an animal, event, or person it can’t get at. Unable to lash out at the perceived threat, the cat turns to the nearest victim. This may be another cat or pet in the household, or it may be the cat’s humans. These attacks happen seemingly out of the blue, and they can be fairly damaging to the victim.

Redirected aggression is not unique to cats. The human equivalent is the man who gets so angry he wants to punch someone, and ends up punching a wall instead.

What causes redirected aggression?

Most commonly, redirected aggression is triggered when indoor cats see a strange cat outside the window. Since they consider their home their territory, the outside cat is perceived as an intruder. Other triggers can include smelling a strange cat on the guardian’s hands or clothing, being frightened by something or someone, coming back inside after accidentally getting outside if the cat is normally an indoor cat, or even watching birds and squirrels outside.

This kind of attack is often described by cat guardians as coming “out of nowhere.” However, from the cat’s perspective, there is always a trigger. It is important to understand that these attacks are not malicious, or even intentional on the cat’s part. The cat simply reacts to a perceived threat.

I’ve only experienced this once with one of my cats, and thankfully, it was an isolated incident. Feebee and I were standing by my sliding glass door looking out into the backyard. I even remember talking to him. All of a sudden, I felt his jaws clamp around my calf. I screamed – not because it was all that painful at that moment, but because I was so startled. A second ago he was sitting next to me, peacefully looking out the window. Now I saw a puffed up, hissing little grey monster next to me. I slowly walked away, and within about 30 seconds, he calmed down and acted normal again. He had left two deep puncture wounds in my calf. I don’t remember seeing anything we hadn’t seen before, but clearly, he had. And I now know how lucky I was that he recovered so quickly. For some cats, it can take days, weeks or even months to return to normal.

Of all the types of feline aggression, this is the most difficult form to deal with, because it may not always be possible to identify the trigger, and because, unlike with petting or play aggression, there’s usually no warning from the cat in terms of body language because these attacks happen so fast. It becomes especially difficult when the attack is directed at another cat in the household, because in most cases, the triggered cat will continue to be aggressive toward the victim.

What to do when you experience redirected aggression

If this is the case, the first order of business is to temporarily separate the cats. Ideally, put the aggressor cat into a darkened room with very few stimuli, and allow the cat to calm down. Never try to separate two fighting cats with your bare hands, and don’t yell at the cats to break up a fight – they are already in a heightened state, and will most likely react by attacking you. Use a thick towel, or a broom, to get between the cats.

Use the cats’ natural pheromones to remind them that they “know” each other. You can do this by rubbing a sock or washcloth against the side of one cat’s face, then leave the sock or cloth with the other cat, and vice versa. Use Spirit Essences’s Bully Remedy for the attacker, and Peacemaker and Stress Stopper for both cats. Use   Pheromone plugins or sprays like Feliway may also help.

Slowly start reintroducing the two cats to each other. Follow the same steps you would follow with two cats that have never met. Depending on your cats, and how severely triggered the aggressor was, this can take weeks and sometimes months.

If you know what triggered the aggressive episode, remove the trigger. For example, if an outside cat continues to come near your windows and upsets your cats, close the blinds, or make your yard unattractive to other cats. Ultrasonic deterrent devices like the CatStop, or motion activated sprinklers like the ScareCrow keep other cats out of the yard without harming them.

If you don’t know the trigger, and the episodes happen again, you’ve got your work cut out for you. Remain vigilant when you are at home, and in time, you may be able to identify the cause of redirected aggression.

The most unusual case I’ve seen was a client who lived in a small apartment with three cats who got along wonderfully, until a new mattress was delivered. One of the cats became very scared during the delivery and installation, and for reasons known only to the other two cats, they turned on the scared cat. It took a few weeks of separating the cats, along with the use of Feliway and flower essences, to return harmony to the household.

Feline aggression is a serious problem. If simple behavior modification doesn’t work, consult with a veterinarian to rule out medical or neurological issues, and/or consult with a feline behaviorist.

Photo: istockphoto

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327 Comments on Redirected Aggression: When Good Cats Attack

  1. Kimberly
    May 1, 2017 at 2:08 pm (3 weeks ago)

    I have a kitten that knows when I am frustrated. I frequently get frustrated with my mom because she can’t hear and when I am talking on the phone to her and I have to raise my voice repeating over and over to her what I have just said. This really frustrates me, and when the kitten knows I am frustrated (depending on how badly) he comes up to my face and starts boxing me in the face. He never uses his claws but I have never seen a cat respond to frustration like that. If I am talking to my mom and trying to keep my voice low even though I am still frustrated, he can tell and comes up to my face an lightly nips my cheek. Has anyone else had this happen. I think it’s really cool because it seems as if he is getting on to me for raising my voice or getting short tempered with my mom.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      May 1, 2017 at 2:52 pm (3 weeks ago)

      It sounds like your kitten is very much in tune with your energy and mood, Kimberly – you two must be sharing a very special bond.

      Reply
  2. Lauren
    April 23, 2017 at 5:08 pm (4 weeks ago)

    I have 2 males cats. One of the cats is 12 and one is 9. I got the 9year old when he was 8 weeks old. We live in a studio apt. He has had redirected anger before when he sees other cats outside. This usually goes away after about 30 mins. Last night he freaked out when I closed the front door. I assumed that because it is finally getting warm out, he must have seen another cat. However, when I woke up this morning he was laying in his bed and hissed and howled at me when I walked by. He ran into our large back storage room. All day long, I have been going back there once every hour or two to try and give him food but he would freak out again so I just left the food on the ground. Finally, I found a vet that was open and could take him on a Sunday. I tried to get him into his kitty carrier and he viciously attacked me. I am at a loss. I don’t know what to do. My husband is out of town for work and I am scared to death. I know something is wrong with him. It’s like he’s been possessed. Any suggestions please???

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      April 24, 2017 at 5:17 am (4 weeks ago)

      It can take hours, and sometimes several days, for cats to calm down after an incident. The best thing you can do is keep him a separate room with food and water, and minimize interaction with him. I would also block off any windows where he can see the outside cats. Once he’s calmed down, you may want to try to take him to a vet again to rule out medical issues. You may also want to consider working with a feline behaviorist. I’m so sorry this is happening to you. I know it’s terribly distressing.

      Reply
    • Steph
      April 24, 2017 at 7:33 am (4 weeks ago)

      Hi,

      I can feel your frustration and pain and it happened to me 3 times. I have tried royal canin calming food which can be bought from a vet clinic or animal pharmacy. after my cat attacked me I have fed her this calming food and it seemed to work… Once I stopped, she attacked me again after a few months. so I decided to continue with this type of food. I guess some cats are really sensitive to noise and feelings and can get stressed especially when they see you stressed out, sad or angry.

      Reply
  3. Taylor Erin
    April 21, 2017 at 10:25 pm (1 month ago)

    Hello! I currently have two female cats, not yet fixed, that are both a little less than a year old. My older cat by a few months has always been a bit skittish because of my 7 year old sister, but the younger one has always been the sweetest thing. Lately I’ve noticed that my younger one, Leia, has been shedding a TON but still acting fine. However, being a child of a divorce, I had to take both cats to my dads house yesterday and leave them there while I was at school and then brought them back to my moms today. The older one, Rey, was fine, but Leia attacked my father which she has never done to anyone before. Then she kept acting very aggressive towards my dog as well as Rey, hissing, growling, and trying to attack them. She seemed to calm down, but after she was brought back to my moms, the aggression got even worse, to the point where my younger brother and I had to throw a towel over her to catch and seperate her from attacking the other animals and ourselves. I keep squirting her with water every time she goes to attack but I don’t know what else to do. She went from constantly purring and wanting everyone to pick her up and love on her, to an evil thing that my family if scared to be around in the span of 24 hours. Is she just stressed from moving around while being in heat or something else?

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      April 22, 2017 at 5:27 am (1 month ago)

      Most likely, being moved to your dad’s house and then bringing them back to your mom’s caused Leia to be super stressed, and unfortunately, that stress took the form of aggression. You need to keep her in a separate room and give her a chance to calm down. This may take several hours to several days. Once she’s calm, you may have to very slowly introduce her to Rev and to your dog. I urge you to contact your veterinarian as soon as possible for more help and to get both cats spayed as soon as possible.

      Reply
  4. Dottie
    April 19, 2017 at 3:00 pm (1 month ago)

    I adopted a cat that belonged to my friend who recently passed. She was spayed less than a month ago but has been so friendly and was getting along with my 2 other male cats I felt we would live happily ever after. Until 1 week ago, when we had a little tiff between 2 of my cats, I yelled , and she attacked me. This moment was short lived and everything went back to normal until today. Again playing got a little out of hand, i went to look and not yell and was attacked again and spent most of 3 hours locked behind closed doors because her attacks. I finally got her into a cage, my family wants me to take her to the pound but it is breaking my heart. Any thoughts, I want to give her a chance at a good life and I fear even with adoption she will never get one.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      April 19, 2017 at 3:25 pm (1 month ago)

      I’m so sorry this happened to you, Dottie. I would recommend working with your vet and/or a feline behaviorist. In the meantime, keep her in a room separate from your two male cats, and keep interactions with her to a minimum until she has calmed down.

      Reply
    • Kim
      April 19, 2017 at 5:19 pm (1 month ago)

      I felt heartbroken too and still do. I made mine an outdoor cat instead of taking him to the pound and handing him a death sentence. Some say that outdoor life is horrible but cats are designed to hunt. He sleeps on my porch and I feed him. My attack was brutal and it was the second time. I’ll do my best for him while he resides outdoors but he cannot come in again, just can’t take the chance of that being my face or one of my small dogs faces

      Reply
  5. Christien
    April 19, 2017 at 1:53 am (1 month ago)

    Ok so my house is like this… My room on one end of the house then i have to walk through the living room to get anywhere. Its small and my cat hides by the table and always waits for me to walk by to try and attack. She usually stops before the attack as long as i make it known that ive seen her as shes running at me but tonight the light was off and when she jumped at me she started biting and scratching a lot and not hissing but like when a cat is in a fight the way they meow or if you accendently step on their tail or something she started doing that like she was really trying to hurt me? Whats that about she doesnt go outside i cant see how she would be sick, there have been no changes at all around my house, i play with her in the correct ways, no loud noises nothing that doesnt happen and hasnt happened literally everyday.. So whats up with this?

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      April 19, 2017 at 5:27 am (1 month ago)

      It’s possible that the fact that the light was off caused the stronger attack reaction as it was different from the usual pattern. Since you know the table seems to trigger the behavior, you may want to consider removing it, even if it’s only for a while. Alternately, toss a toy into the room before you walk in to distract her before she can get ready to attack.

      Reply
  6. Stephanie
    April 7, 2017 at 5:20 am (2 months ago)

    my cat first attacked me when we moved to our new house a year ago. a month after we moved, I started noticing that she was stressing out as she was shedding a lot of fur. She attacked me twice and both attacks happened with triggers like switching on the tap or closing the garbage lid. the attacks were traumatic since the cat didn’t stop running after me until I found the closest door and got out. she tore my clothes and my body was scratched all over. we consulted 3 different vets and we introduced calming food and sprays and after a few weeks we also got a kitten which also helped a lot. she was back to normal, loving and relaxed.

    Now a year after, just yesterday in fact, I was at home and accidentally stepped on the other cat’s paw (the kitten), my senior cat got scared and attacked my legs and feet! and again it was traumatizing. from the first 2 attacks it took me a month to learn to trust her again and now exactly a year after she did again for no reason! i consulted different vets, and putting her down is not an option. also I don’t wish to put her up for adoption as she might attack others. Any help please?

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      April 7, 2017 at 5:25 am (2 months ago)

      I’m so sorry, Stephanie, it’s so distressing when this happens. It sounds like she’s triggered by unusual (to her) noises, and in yesterday’s incident, it was probably your kitten yelping that triggered the attack. You may want to consider working with a feline behaviorist, and you may also want to discuss medication with your vet. It can make a big difference for highly reactive cats like yours. Also, keep in mind that it can take a few days for her to completely settle again after this attack. The good news for you, and I know it’s probably hard to see it that way, is that she did settle down after the initial incident, so there’s no reason to believe she can’t recover from this one.

      Reply
      • Stephanie
        April 7, 2017 at 5:32 am (2 months ago)

        Thank you for the reply. The problem is that my younger cat didn’t even yelp, he just moved out of the way. the cat’s attacks are so unpredictable. one day she’s sleeping next to me and constantly rubbing against my feet and the next day she just attacked me for stepping on the other cat’s paw. I’m afraid I cannot trust her again after the last attack. we are considering the option of leaving her outside in the garden and refurbish the shed to a more comfortable room. Now I am to threatened to be alone with her in the house. even the younger cat go scared and went to hide.

        Reply
        • Christy
          April 18, 2017 at 11:15 am (1 month ago)

          I definitely feel for you. I also have a cat that attacks unpredictably… one time she bit me hard on the leg simply because my dog was whining to get out of his kennel and it stressed her out. When my husband tried to help me by removing the cat from the room, she bit him too. We both ended up having to go to the hospital because the bite wounds became infected. One time she attacked me because I tripped and fell and it stressed her out. I had to go to the hospital after that attack as well because the bite wound became infected. We don’t know what to do with her. Like you, we don’t find putting her down to be an option. Right now, she lives in a spare bedroom in our house and my husband spends a little bit of time with her each day. It’s not an ideal solution, but I’m afraid she’ll bite us again or that she’ll attack our dog.

          Reply
  7. Abby
    March 28, 2017 at 3:36 pm (2 months ago)

    Hello, I have just recently adopted a new cat (male) 3 days ago, I also have another male cat. they accidentally met yesterday and were not happy but were immediately separated. I will also mention that the new cat has a lovely affectionate personality but today has lashed out for no reason at all and has attacked 2 members of my family right after being affectionate. Could the worry of another cat in the house of caused this? Thanks.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      March 28, 2017 at 4:07 pm (2 months ago)

      I suspect that the new cat’s attacks were a delayed reaction to the accidental meeting yesterday, although it’s not always possible to identify the trigger in these situations.

      Reply
  8. April
    March 27, 2017 at 12:50 pm (2 months ago)

    I recently moved into a apartment with my boyfriend and his two kids 6 and 4 come over on the weekends. My cat was being fostered with some close friends for the last 6 months and she was just reunited with me. This last month she seems content, plays
    with kids, gets a ton of love and purring all the time. The other day she lashed out at the kids (they were not paying any attention to her at the time). The 6 year old was brushing his teeth in the bathroom where we keep the litter box. She was meowing at the door and my boyfriend opened the door thinking she needed to go to the bathroom to instead start hissing at the child. He scolded her and she ran out and then aggressively attacked the 4 years and scratched her pretty good in her arm and butt. It was a traumatizing situation for all of us. I put a calming collar on the kitty and we finally got her in our room and closed the door. Not sure what triggered the attack but I have a big concern since the kids are feeling threatened and scarred of her now. Advice welcome! Thank you

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      March 27, 2017 at 2:06 pm (2 months ago)

      Unfortunately, it’s often not possible to identify the trigger when it comes to redirected aggression. It’s possible that she felt threatened by the closed door or a scent. It’s also possible that she saw something outside a window that had nothing to do with the child or your boyfriend. I suspect that stress played a part, too. She’s probably still getting used to the new apartment, and having the kids over may have been too much change all at once.

      Reply
  9. T
    March 12, 2017 at 2:04 am (2 months ago)

    I was petting my cat when he, a indoor cat maybe a year or two old, attacked me and when i put him outside of my room jumped at my hand by the light switch. Then he hissed at me and reared back. whats going on?

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      March 12, 2017 at 7:12 am (2 months ago)

      As explained in the article, it’s often impossible to tell what triggers the event when it comes to redirected aggression.

      Reply
  10. Trish
    February 28, 2017 at 6:01 am (3 months ago)

    Hi! I am currently trial fostering two male cats that are unrelated but best pals. The older 4.5 Year old has not been successful in finding a home because of his biting problem. I’m his 7th home. What seems to be the issue is that if he is startled, he will come and chomp down on you. I’ve seen a picture of the injury of one previous owner and it was pretty terrible. It caused the shelter to have his canines removed I guess to lessen the damage on flesh when he attacks. I just dropped a pair of scissors on my wooden floor and he ran over to give me my first bite. What I did immediately was to firmly grab his scruff, not too hard and not lifting him or anything. He loosened his jaws on my arm and I held his scruff for a little bit until I felt he was ok. I also said a firm NO at the same time. After I let go he was fine, I told him he was ok and he was back to his love bug self, purring and rubbing on me. Was my response appropriate? Do I need to be worried that the attacks may be more severe in the future? I’m just concerned about running a blow dryer or something like that. I don’t really often use loud appliances like that, but I’m wondering if there is a way to do like an exposure therapy with him to help reassure him? If this is what I have to deal with, even though it is quite painful, I don’t feel it’s a reason to give up on him. Thanks!

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      February 28, 2017 at 6:24 am (3 months ago)

      With some cats, desensitization therapy will work. For loud noises, you’d start by recording the noise, then playing it at a very low volume and for a very short period of time. If he’s okay with it, reward him with a treat. Gradually increase the volume and length of time, but back up if you notice signs of stress.

      Be very careful about handling him when he’s in attack mode. While scruffing him may work, I don’t recommend it as you’re risking additional injury to yourself if you can’t manage to grab him on the first try.

      Reply

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