Unprovoked Aggression in Cats: The Complete Guide

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Cats being somewhat violent isn’t rare. However, it is odd for it to be so serious that you need advice from professionals. Not to worry, we are going to give you a crash course that’ll help you understand, and eventually fix your cat’s anger issues.


What is Aggression in Cats?


Aggression is defined as harmful or threatening behavior towards an animal, person, or another cat. It is completely natural for animals to be aggressive when they’re guarding their territories, protecting themselves, and defending their children. 

In domesticated cats, aggression can be anything from hissing to full-on attacks.

Most of the time, unprovoked aggression in cats is misinterpreted. There is almost always a reason for your pet kitty to be aggressive, no matter how obscure or seemingly irrelevant. Sometimes, it is simply that there is something physically wrong with them, causing them to lash out seemingly out of the blue. But anyway, we’ll get on to that a bit later.

Right now, we need to make sure you understand your fur baby’s body language before getting to all the different types of aggression.


Cat Body Language


It is an absolute must for you to be able to understand your kitty’s body language. Why? Well, they can’t speak English and we can’t speak cat so that’s the only way to know what’s going on with them. Once you know exactly what you’re looking for, you can handle aggression far more effectively.

So, what do we mean by body language?

It is commonly thought that this phrase refers to posture and nothing else but it is so much more than that! Body language refers to posture, facial expressions, and the position of body parts such as the ears, tail, and whiskers.

You don’t need to become an all-singing all-dancing cat whisperer to read these signs. Just follow along with us here and you’ll be an expert in your little kitty in no time.

There are two types of aggression — offensive and defensive. If your cat is being offensively aggressive, then they will try to look as big as possible. On the other hand, if your cat is being defensively aggressive, they will try to make themselves look as small as possible. 

Now, let’s get on to the typical postures displayed when your feline friend is showing aggression.


Offensive Posture


  • Stiff tail — this may be lowered or pointed straight to the ground
  • Stiffened rear legs — generally their rear will be higher than their head
  • Stiff and upright stance — their legs will be locked in their straightest position
  • Piloerection — this is the technical term for “hackles up”, yes including the tail
  • Constricted pupils
  • Direct stare
  • Upright ears — usually the backs will be turned towards their eyes
  • Growling or howling — this doesn’t always happen
  • Slowly moving towards their opponent — sometimes they’ll just square up to them without moving forwards.

Defensive Posture


  • Tucked head
  • Crouched or hunched down
  • Fully dilated pupils — sometimes they will be only partly dilated, it depends on the situation
  • Wide-open eyes
  • A tail curved around their body
  • Tail tucked
  • Flat ears — this could be sideways or backward
  • Piloerection — i.e. hackles up
  • Hissing or spitting with their mouth open
  • Claws out, generally swiping quickly with their front paws
  • Sideways to their opponent — remember, if they are facing them straight on, it’s an offensive posture
  • Retracted whiskers — only if they are anxious
  • Stretched out whiskers — only if they are fearful

Overt Aggression


  • Scratching
  • Fighting
  • Swatting
  • Swiping somewhat manically with their front paws
  • Biting
  • Shrieking — you’ll know what we mean if this happens, it’s truly blood-curdling
  • Rolling onto their side or back so all their teeth and claws are visible — this only happens if they are getting ready for a full-on fight
  • Trying to take your hand and bite it — tends to just be if they have rolled onto their back or side

The overt aggression postures are far more noticeable and less subtle than the others. However, all of them are equally important to understand and “listen” to.

Those lists are there for you to go back over at your leisure so you can gain confidence in your new-found knowledge. But we’re going to move on to the types of aggression now. Ready? Let’s get some answers!



Types of Aggression


There are many reasons why your cat is being aggressive — and hardly any of them are truly out of the blue acts.

You need to figure out the root cause of your cat’s behavior so you can manage it effectively. We will go over the general aggression categories here. But just remember, all cats are different, you know your cat best!


Fear Aggression


When your cat is showing signs of fear aggression, they tend to act on a “best defense is a good offense” principle. It is commonly seen by all vets when poor little kitties know it’s time for their jabs. But that doesn’t mean this is the only situation where cats will act like this. Anytime they feel intimidated and trapped, they will display fear aggression.

It all stems from the innate “fight or flight” response. If your gorgeous little cat believes they can’t flee, then they have no choice but to stand up and fight.

Trust us, cats who are on this kind of mission can be incredibly fearsome — and cause some pretty hefty damage too! You need to be extremely careful here. You don’t want to end up with lacerations.

The best course of action is to not touch them or attempt to reassure them (no matter how much you want to). It will only end badly. We recommend partaking in some play therapy every day to reduce your little one’s overall anxiety level. This should help lower the frequency of him or her displaying fear of aggression.


Play or Predatory Aggression


You probably won’t see play aggression very much in cats who had littermates when they were growing up. Why? Because they have had a lot of chances to play! This type of aggressive behavior usually stems from not having anyone to play with when they were at their most playful.

Cats need to learn how to play suitably (this comes as quite a shock to some people, especially first-time cat owners). They learn when they are biting or digging their claws in too much when their siblings retaliate or stop having fun with them. If your little one was reared on their own, they might not know this vital life skill, resulting in them showcasing play aggression.

You will be able to tell when they are about to start this type of behavior as their tail will usually jump back and forth. Plus, their pupils will be fully or partially dilated, and their ears will be tacked to their heads. Sometimes, they will pounce on you (or whoever their target is) from behind sofas or bushes when you’re least expecting it (hence why it’s also known as predatory aggression).

Having said all of this, your cat might display this type of behavior if he or she is particularly territorial. Don’t worry, this is only natural, but you should work on it as much as possible. Otherwise, you or your kids will be the ones who get hurt. 

It might be hard to intercept this behavior. So, your best option is to figure out the cause. Decide whether there is a pattern to your cat’s play aggression. If there is, you can preempt it by distracting them. This could mean taking them away from a certain area or playing with something else. Remember, if you choose to play with something else, ensure it is far away from your fingers.

For some though, that won’t help. In this case, you will need to use some sort of noise to startle them. We know it sounds harsh but it redirects their focus away from the aggression and on to something else. You are not trying to scare them! This will work against you, we promise. Try using a can of compressed air that releases a slight but significant hissing sound instead of a foghorn!


Overstimulation Aggression


This kind of aggression is often called petting-related or petting-induced aggression. It is still unclear as to why this happens exactly, but it probably has something to do with your kitty wanting to be in control of when the petting stops.

It can be quite scary since you’ll be having cuddles one second and then the next, your cat seems to be going crazy. But, you need to remember that they are very sensitive animals. It might simply be too much for them and they need it to stop. Alternatively, you may have touched an area on their body that has bad memories or pain linked to it.

Regardless of the reason, if you pay proper attention to your feline friend, you’ll soon realize that they are not attacking without warning. There will be subtle changes in their posture and pupils that signify their mood changes. For example, their pupils might fully dilate, they might start twitching their tail, or their whiskers might flatten to their fur. All of this is a recipe for disaster if you don’t stop.

Hopefully, this goes without saying — never try to hold your cat down or stop them from doing something. Just take your hands off them and let them be. Or, you can try giving them their favorite toy to distract them.


Redirected Aggression


If your cat has seen something exciting outside the window which they can’t get to, they are likely to turn that aggression towards you or another pet in your family. It’s unfortunate but very common — especially when your cats are strictly indoors for a certain period.

You should try to remove the potential stimuli here. This means you might have to keep stray cats away with a deterrent, stop any vicious behavior between indoor pets, and pull the curtains closed.

This tends to be a type of aggression that seems to come from nowhere. Bear this one in mind the next time your little kitty cat acts “badly” towards you.


Pain-Induced Aggression


Of course, this is natural and there is almost nothing you can do to stop it apart from leaving them alone. Here, your cat is behaving aggressively because they want to stop you (and others) from touching them or asking them to move. 

If your little one has arthritis, they will not like it when you touch their joints and will lash out if you do so. Sometimes, cats will continue to be aggressive long after the pain has healed since they are scared that it might happen again. Don’t worry, it will pass with some hard work and gentle play therapy from you.


Pod-Cat Aggression


This happens if one cat leaves the house (to the vets or groomers etc) and then comes back. Since they smell different from before they left, your other cats might act aggressively towards them because of this weird scent they carry. We’ve found this to be especially prevalent once they’ve been spayed or neutered — or undergone any type of operation.

You might have to separate them if it gets too out of hand. But 9 times out of 10, they’ll stop being vicious when they’re convinced they know who they are.


Intact Cat Aggression


This includes maternal aggression and territorial aggression. Let’s look at each one in turn.

Maternal Aggression

It is completely natural. It happens when the mum cat is protecting her young. 

Territorial Aggression

Although this tends to come from tomcats, it can be seen in females. 

Of course, intact cars are far more aggressive and territorial than those who have been spayed or neutered. Not to mention that they spray urine over everything.

The solution here is spay/neuter your currently intact males and females! Although you might have to deal with a bit of pod-cat aggression when they first return, it’ll save you agro in the end.

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