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Cats are often stereotyped as unpredictable and moody, but this is a common misconception. While you may be surprised that your cat is suddenly hissing, growling, and even swatting at you, it’s very likely that they have already given you a warning. Unfortunately, these warning signs can be easy to miss, especially when we don’t know how to read their body language. By paying close attention to your cat’s body language, however, you can often get an inkling of what they are feeling, including if they’re anxious, scared, or aggressive.
It’s important to not only take care of your cat’s physical health but also their mental health. In fact, an aggressive cat is often trying to signal to you that there is something else that is bothering them, be it fear, pain or illness. Help your kitty live a long and healthy life by learning how to calm them down when they are aggressive and knowing when to investigate their aggression to look for underlying causes.
- How To Tell If Your Cat Is About To Become Aggressive
- Why Is My Cat Aggressive?
- How Should I Behave Around An Aggressive Cat?
- What To Do If You're Bitten Or Scratched
- Tips For Calming An Aggressive Cat
- How To Calm An Aggressive Cat: FAQs
- Final Notes
How To Tell If Your Cat Is About To Become Aggressive
Although we may think of our pets as our kindred spirits, it is important to understand that in the end, they are a completely different species and behave, socialize, and showcase their emotions in their own distinct way. When your cat is swatting at you to go away or hissing as a warning, you may think they are being angry with you. However, this is a common misconception. Rather than being angry, your cat is instead showing aggression, and not for no reason. Perhaps they feel that their space is being invaded. Or, they may be expressing that they are scared or in pain. Regardless, it is important for us as pet parents to know that cats don’t just blow up all of a sudden. In fact, they have very likely already tried to clue you in on their feelings with certain quiet signs of discomfort.
Knowing your cat’s body language is very important as it will help you take better care of them. Here are the physical signs to look out for to differentiate a happy and content cat from an “angry” cat.
Happy cats appear natural. They're relaxed with a closed mouth and may even look as if they are about to fall asleep. Content cats may lie down with exposed bellies to show they're not anxious.1 When standing, they still have a relaxed posture with a loosely held tail and ears in a neutral position. If you take a closer look at their tails, you may even notice that it is in the shape of a question mark. This signals that they are interested in interaction.
When cats are aggressive, or what we may think of as angry, they'll appear tense with stiff body language. If the cat is lying down, they'll have a flat body with no exposed belly, flat ears, and dilated pupils. When standing up, angry cat signs include arched, stiff bodies, raised hair, and tense tail posture.1
If a cat is about to become aggressive, they may stare at you, look completely away from you, look at their lips, pull their ears back, or growl.2 Pay special attention to a cat's tail, which may wag in a thrashing or flicking motion. They may knock it against the ground to tell you they're becoming uncomfortable as well.3 Aggressive cats also make sounds to warn you. They may growl and hiss to tell you to back off. If a cat hisses at you, it's best to leave them alone. Meanwhile, if a cat hisses at another pet, you should separate them as soon as possible because the situation could escalate.
If your cat showcases little bouts of aggression from time to time, remember in what situations they are being aggressive and keep a log. For example, if your cat doesn't want you approaching them when eating, they may hiss at you. In this case, you should find the reason behind your cat’s behavior and help them not feel so worried. As we will mention later in this blog post, some common scenarios in which aggression occurs include aggression due to pain, aggression due to excessive petting, redirected aggression, and more.
If your cat is aggressive, no matter how infrequent it’s occurring, you should always be concerned and speak with a veterinarian for advice. While they are acting as if they want you to stay away, in reality, they may be in pain, and need your help. No matter what the reason is behind their aggression, aggression is treatable, and you should always seek help for your aggressive cat. For their well-being and for your own safety, contact a veterinarian as soon as possible and explain the situation. Follow their instructions closely on how to proceed and see whether your cat needs to have a checkup.
In general, knowing the signs of aggression and anxiety in cats can help determine that it is time to take them to the vet, especially if they're usually content and calm.
Why Is My Cat Aggressive?
Cats are aggressive when they want to increase the distance between themselves and something that is bothering them. It doesn’t always have to be violent and can have a range of complex causes.4 There can be many triggers for aggression in cats and these triggers can be different for every cat.
Understanding why your cat is acting aggressive can help you help them. After all, aggressive behavior is detrimental to their health and overall wellbeing. Not only can it lead to injuries, but for cats in households with young children, for example, if their behavior cannot be adjusted in a timely manner, they may also be relinquished to shelters. Additionally, aggression indicates a level of suffering. We need to take care of our cat’s mental well-being as well.
The causes for aggression in cats can range from relatively harmless to very alarming. Here are some examples:
- Play aggression: Play aggression can be very dangerous. Perhaps your cat was taken from their littermates at too young of an age, so they did not have the chance to learn about the proper boundaries of playing. With play aggression, your cat may pounce at you and even stalk you. This requires your intervention with distractions and discouragement. In many cases, training is an important part of treatment and sometimes, medication is required.
- Aggression due to petting: Although we love to pet our cats and it can be very relaxing for us, we need to recognize that it can be overwhelming and overstimulating for our furry friends. In some instances, they may even become aggressive due to too much petting. Know your cat’s boundaries. Typically, your cat gives you a warning sign before they act out, but this is often overlooked, which causes them to escalate to biting or scratching. In general, always reward your cat for calm interactions.
- Territorial cat aggression: Cats are naturally territorial animals. When their space is invaded, whether by another animal or person, they may become aggressive. For pet cats, this is most noticeable when another cat is brought home from the shelter or even for a short visit. Keep in mind that the proper introduction techniques are needed in order to avoid this aggressive behavior. This needs time and patience. Sometimes, it could also require treatment from a vet or a veterinary behaviorist.
- Aggression induced by pain: A cat’s aggression can also give you insight on how they are feeling physically. For example, they may be in pain. They may not want you to touch them on certain areas of their body because something is feeling off. A cat with osteoarthritis may hiss at you when you try to touch their joints because of their inflammation. Consult your veterinarian about how you can diagnose and treat your cat and manage their pain.
- Fear aggression: Sometimes, aggression comes from fear. Your cat may be scared of something new in your house, whether that’s a new friend who just came over, a new loud sound, or even a new piece of furniture. When this type of aggression arises, try to figure out what is causing your cat fear and remove it from the environment. Speak with your veterinarian to see how your cat can be desensitized to it.
How Should I Behave Around An Aggressive Cat?
Now that you know the signs of an aggressive cat and what makes cats aggressive, you should know how to best behave to keep yourself safe in the presence of an aggressive cat. When your cat is aggressive, always consider your safety. Since aggressive cats may scratch or bite, it's best to leave them alone, especially if you're unsure of the cause behind their aggression. In most cases, if you're bothering your cat, they will find somewhere else to spend their time. For example, if your cat gets aggressive because you're petting them too much, they may try to leave. In that case, it's best to let them walk away and leave them alone.
As soon as you recognize that your cat is becoming agitated or aggressive, leave the room and shut the door. Only come out when your cat is visibly calm. If your cat was very upset in your previous interaction and has scratched or bitten you, it’s best to give them ample time to cool down before approaching them again. This could take hours, but your patience is needed.
If your cat is trying to attack you, the best way to de-escalate the situation is by throwing heavy blankets over them in an attempt to move them into a different room. In some cases, putting a laundry basket upside down over them can also help you move them safely.
Never yell or scold an aggressive cat. If your cat is aggressive due to anxiety or fear, yelling could exacerbate their feelings.
If your cat isn't aggressive at you but is instead displaying signs of aggression towards another pet, separate them as soon as possible to prevent further conflict. You can keep them in separate rooms by removing the pet that isn’t aggressive. Don't try to touch or pet the aggressive cat, because they may perceive you as another threat, causing them to act out further.
What To Do If You're Bitten Or Scratched
Cats have sharp teeth and nails that can cause serious injury to pets and humans. Cat scratches and bites can lead to infection. If a cat bites or scratches you, it must be washed out as soon as possible to flush bacteria and irritants like cat saliva. Use mild soap and water before slowing the bleeding with a clean tissue.5 You should also apply an antibiotic ointment and keep it protected with a bandage to prevent infection. Schedule an appointment with your doctor as well as prescription antibiotics could be necessary.
If you're worried about the risk of infection, you can visit your doctor, who will prescribe antibiotics to prevent infection and give you a booster for tetanus. If the wound is deep enough, you might require stitches.5 If you don't think you need stitches and choose not to go to the doctor, keep an eye on your wound.
Tips For Calming An Aggressive Cat
Sometimes when a cat is displaying aggression, all you need to do is back off and give them some space. However, depending on the situation, you may need to take action. Here are a few tips to help you calm an aggressive cat:
- Give them a safe space: Cats need places where they feel safe. These sanctuary spaces can give your cat somewhere to go when they're feeling anxious or uncomfortable. If you have multiple cats, giving each cat their own area might be more difficult since most cats prefer to roam the house. However, you can separate their food bowls and have a litter box for each cat to prevent conflicts.
- Talk to a vet: If your cat seems aggressive or stressed and engages in undesirable behaviors, they might benefit from working with a vet. In addition, anxious cats may require medication to help them stay calm and prevent their aggression. If your cat's behavior suddenly changes, a vet may help identify the cause, especially if your cat is suffering from an underlying physical medical condition.
- Redirection: Cats have many ways to self-soothe, including grooming. However, when a cat is aggressive, it might be difficult to find ways to distract them. Using cat toys, catnip, and treats can help you reduce your cat's aggression without provoking them. However, when using cat toys to calm your cat, never try to force them to play, as it can cause further harm.
- Positive reinforcement: Positive reinforcement can help your cat feel calm, especially during situations that can make them anxious. For example, if your cat is afraid of strangers, you can give them a treat when they meet someone to associate people with something positive.
- Never punish: Never punish an aggressive cat because it can cause them to act more aggressively. For example, when you yell or scold your cat, you appear threatening, which can make them act on their feelings of fear. Instead, if you're unsure what to do when your cat is aggressive, give them space to let them calm down on their own.
How To Calm An Aggressive Cat: FAQs
Can cats be spiteful or vengeful?
Cats are not spiteful or vengeful but may act on their feelings. For example, if your cat gets annoyed with you, they may swat your hand away or hiss at you and move away. However, it's unlikely they're displaying these behaviors to spite you. Instead, you've done something to upset them.
Can a cat be depressed?
Yes, cats can be depressed. Common causes of depression in cats include:
- Lack of mental stimulation
- Lack of exercise
- Health problems like obesity
Cats may also appear depressed when they're content because they nap or look out windows. However, cats may also experience short-term depression due to external factors like lack of sunlight on a rainy day.
How long do cats stay angry?
Cats are not angry, rather, they exhibit aggressive behavior if agitated. A cat could be aggressive for hours. In general, they need about 12 hours to calm down.
Unlike humans, cats don’t get angry. But, they do exhibit aggressive behavior from time to time for a variety of reasons, from minor annoyances to health issues. Knowing the body language of an aggressive cat can help you diffuse the situation, so you should always monitor them, especially when they're around other pets and children. In some cases, it's best to leave your cat alone when they're aggressive, while in others, you may need to take action by separating cats or removing them from situations that scare them.
Is your cat sometimes aggressive? Try Dutch's online vet care to talk to a licensed professional who can help you uncover the reason for your cat's aggressive behavior. We can treat aggression and other behavioral issues like anxiety in cats to improve your pet's quality of life and your relationship with them.
"Understanding Cat Body Language." RSPCA, https://www.rspca.org.uk/adviceandwelfare/pets/cats/behaviour/understanding.
"The Cat's Meow." The Humane Society of the United States, https://www.humanesociety.org/resources/cats-meow.
"How to Read Your Cat's Tail Language." PetMD, https://www.petmd.com/cat/behavior/evr_ct_what-does-it-mean-when-a-cat-wags-tail.
"Aggression in Cats." ASPCA, https://www.aspca.org/pet-care/cat-care/common-cat-behavior-issues/aggression-cats.
"What You Should Do for a Cat Bite or Scratch." Cleveland Clinic, 10 Dec. 2021, https://health.clevelandclinic.org/cat-bites-scratches/.
Plummer, Joseph M. "How Long Does a Cat Hold a Grudge? - Way to Apologize a Cat." FVEAP, 18 Aug. 2022, https://www.fveap.org/how-long-does-a-cat-hold-a-grudge/.