August 2019


When cats swat, scratch, or bite family members, serious injuries can occur, and the human-animal bond harmed. Therefore, it is important to address aggression towards family members early. Even mild forms of aggression, when not properly addressed, can evolve into serious aggression.

Most forms of aggression should be assessed by a professional who looks at the context in which it happens, rather than using a punishment technique. Aggression is the most serious behavioral issue in cats and is more common than one may think. It's a symptom of an underlying problem, and it always needs to be taken seriously. Aggressive behavior can be seen in cats of any breed, size, age, or gender, and it can stem from many different motivations.

The most common include:

Fear is the most common reason for aggression even to familiar people, followed by play and petting-induced aggression. Handling issues are also common. Many cats are naturally reluctant to being picked up or having their bodies touched or manipulated. If cats are not taught at a young age to accept and enjoy handling, they may scratch, hiss, or bite in this context. These forms of aggression often happen when your cat is either reached for or petted. As we gain more knowledge on aggression, it seems unlikely that feline hierarchal and social behavior rules apply between species (cat and human), which makes social or dominance aggression highly unlikely.

Read your cat's body language to learn what aggression looks like.

Irritated, overstimulated: Pupils dilating, ears turning back, tail twitching or waving. In this situation, your cat may growl or put their teeth on you as a warning to stop. Intense play can quickly turn to overstimulation in some cats, resulting in biting and scratching.

Nervous, insecure, fearful: Ears sideways or back, pupils dilated, tail low or tucked between legs. Low body posture, wants to hide, turns away.

Frightened, startled: Ears back and flat against head, whiskers back, back arched, fur standing on end, tail erect or low. May yowl, growl, hiss, or spit.

Fearful, aggressive: Crouched position, ears flattened, whiskers back, tail between legs or wrapped around body, pupils dilated. May meow loudly, growl, hiss, or spit.

Aggressive, offensive: Ears back, pupils very constricted, tail up or down with fur standing on end. Hard stare or growl, hiss or swat.

Stop petting at the first sign of any of these early warning signals. You can do this by calmly dropping your hands to your sides. If your cat is very agitated, walk away from the cat. If your cat is on your lap, stand up slowly and let them gently slide off. Wait some time before attempting to pet again. Some cats only take a few minutes to settle down, while others can take several hours. You can also interact with your cat through playing with toys. Punishment is not the way to address this behavior problem. Never yell at or hit as this will not help. It will only make your cat fear you or become even more aggressive.

This document created by the San Francisco SPCA with a grant from Maddie's Fund®.