top of page
  • Writer's pictureZia Mowbray

Reducing Cat Aggression Towards People

If your cat has been biting, scratching, stalking and/or pouncing on you or others, this is inappropriate and potentially dangerous behaviour you need to address. 

In saying that, it is important to note that some forms of cat communication, such as clawless swiping, could be considered aggressive if you don’t know the signs to look for

Because cats normally use behaviours such as biting, scratching and pouncing to tell other cats certain things (such as that they do not wish to interact, to protect their territory, or even to play), they may be attempting to communicate the same way with you. You can usually tell if this is general communication - and not aggression - if they touch you with retracted claws, lick you after a small bite, or only “attack” when you touch them in a specific spot. (Which, if they’re doing this last point, just stop touching that area. They’re trying to communicate that they don’t like it, just as you’re now probably trying to find a way to communicate to them that you don’t like them biting you.)

Similarly, cats may hurt people or other animals simply because they don’t know how to play appropriately.

However, even if they mean well, it is important to teach them more effective ways to set boundaries and play, and that methods like biting and scratching are not allowed, especially if they are common. 

If your cat is being actively aggressive towards you, make an appointment with your veterinarian before treating your cat’s aggressive behaviour at home. Occasionally, medical problems that can cause pain or irritability will lead to aggression and treating these conditions may resolve the behaviour.

Cats at the vet
Some of our kittens at our local vet, Vet Love Billinudgel

Causes of Cat Aggression

It is not always possible to know what’s causing aggressive behaviour, but there are several known causes behind aggressive behaviour in cats.

  • Fear - When a cat feels threatened they may act in ways to defend themself. This is the most common type of aggressive behaviour so when you are developing a behaviour modification plan your goal should be to make the cat feel more comfortable.

  • Play and excitement - Some cats have a hard time distinguishing between appropriate and inappropriate play. These cats often have difficulty controlling themselves and may not have learned as kittens the self-control necessary to regulate their play before it causes injury.

  • Redirection - Just as humans redirect frustration with a situation to others around them, cats can do the same.

  • Dislike of petting - Some cats show a high sensitivity to being petted in certain places and their annoyance can flare up in an instant. Some cats behave aggressively when touched on the rear end or when being petted while sitting on someone’s lap. The reasons behind this behaviour are not well understood, but these cats sometimes learn to accept petting for short amounts of time.

  • Pain and sensitivity - Numerous medical conditions can cause pain and discomfort, and the cats lash out to protect themselves from pain or anticipated pain. This is why a vet appointment is a crucial first step to managing cat aggression.

cat playing

Ways to Reduce Aggression

Prevent harm-

There are a number of ways you can prevent your cat from harming you. You will need to determine the factors that cause your cat to strike out, but firstly have his claws trimmed so that less damage is caused by the scratching.

  • Identify the triggers for the aggressive behaviour. Write a list of all the circumstances surrounding the onset of the behaviour, including the time of day and day of the week, interactions with other animals and people, activities involving your cat, sounds and smells. Once you’ve identified them where possible try to avoid the triggers while working on resolving the undesirable behaviour.

  • Many of the warning signs a cat shows are common to the species, but individual cats may also have their own distinctive signals. Pay attention to your cat’s body language and learn to recognise the signals that occur shortly before your cat attacks. The signs can be dilated pupils, change in ear position, a rapidly swishing tail or a crouched tense body posture.

  • The goal is to recognise the signs that your cat displays before behaving aggressively and to stop interacting with the cat before it gets to that point. 

Enrich the environment-

Enrichment of the cat’s living environment has multiple benefits for cats showing undesirable behaviours. It can relieve boredom and frustration, stimulate the mind, and provide an appropriate form of play and energy release. Much undesirable behaviours can be curbed by providing your cat with enough enrichment options but be aware that some forms of enrichment may not be appropriate depending on your cat’s triggers. Make sure you are providing enrichment that doesn’t cause your cat to be overly aroused or fearful.

  • Create a toy box for your cat, but keep it out of their reach. Toys that are available all the time quickly become boring. Cats love novelty and rapid movement. Rotate the toys in and out of their box every three days so that they are only allowed to play with the toys for a few days and then a few new and exciting toys arrive.

  • Scent is important to cats and can make a toy more exciting. Carry small toys around with you before you give the toys to them so that they acquire your scent. Put them outside in the garden so that they acquire the scent of the outdoors. Some cats love the smell of catnip toys and you can buy food-dispensing toys that provide your cat with entertainment without your direct involvement.

  • Interactive toys that you have to manipulate in order to make them fun, such as a feather attached to a stick or a string tend to maintain cats’ interest for the longest period of time. If you have an active cat you should play with her for a minimum of 20 minutes twice daily.

  • Don’t ever use toys that involve using your hand or any other body part as an object of play, as you will encourage aggressive behaviour by teaching your cat that it is permissible to play with your hands.

cat playing on scratching post

Use behaviour modification techniques-

​Managing the behaviour by avoiding all circumstances that cause aggressive behaviour is an appropriate solution if your cat does not seem emotionally troubled. However, you should seek professional help if the situation has remained static or is worsening, or if your cat has unavoidable triggers or seems anxious on a regular basis.

Basic behaviour modification techniques you could use include:

  • Reinforce incompatible behaviours: Your cat cannot scratch your leg if he’s using his scratching post.

  • Reinforce behaviours you like: Reward him for calm behaviours.

  • Refocus your cat’s attention before he acts inappropriately, Try crinkling his favourite bag of treats or opening a small can.

  • Pair scary things that are unavoidable with yummy treats. When the dishwasher being turned on means he’s going to get a tuna treat the noisy appliance becomes less scary to your cat.

  • Additional things that you may want to try include Feliway pheromone products and a calming collar. Also, ensure your cat is desexed. Cats, especially males, can have more aggressive tendencies thanks to their intense hormones, so getting them desexed may reduce their aggression significantly.

There are some techniques that you should always avoid:

  • Do not punish your cat. Punishment may cause your cat to be more aggressive and it will damage your relationship. Even punishments that are considered mild should be avoided, including squirting a cat with a spray bottle, shaking a can with something noisy in it and prolonged isolation.

  • Do not push your cat past his comfort level because it is likely to cause setbacks and hinder his progress.

No matter how bad it gets with your cat, remember they are very similar to you and need compassion, patience and support to keep calm and stop their aggressive tendencies. And if you have any other tips, share them below!


bottom of page