Cat Aggression Toward New People

August 2019

Audience: Executive Leadership, Foster Caregivers, Public, Shelter/Rescue Staff & Volunteers, Veterinary Team

Many cats are not comfortable around strangers, or certain strangers in the home. Even if they are your guests and friends, they are still strangers to your cat. Aggression is a serious behavioral issue in cats and is a symptom of an underlying problem. Aggression towards strangers can be seen in cats of any breed, size, age, or gender, and it can stem from many different motivations. To avoid injuries, it is important to understand why cats act aggressively.

The most common include:

Fear is the number one reason for aggression, and handling issues are very common. Many cats are naturally reluctant to being picked up. They often don't like having their bodies touched or manipulated in certain places or in certain ways. If cats are not taught early on to accept and enjoy handling, they may scratch, hiss, or bite in this context. It is always best to give your cat time to approach the stranger, rather than reaching out or touching a fearful cat, especially when they are hiding.

Know your cat and set them up for success. Teach your guests about the body language of your cat.

Irritated, overstimulated: Leave the cat alone if you see dilated pupils, turned-back ears or a twitching or waving tail. These are signs that your cat is overstimulated. If these signs are ignored, your cat may quickly escalate to growling, starching, or even biting.

In some cases, it may look like play. However, because your cat is overstimulated, it can quickly turn to aggression and results in biting and scratching. Even mild forms of aggression can evolve into serious aggression if not properly addressed. Work with a professional who can look at the context in which it happens. Never use a punishment technique as this often makes aggression worse.

Nervous, insecure, fearful: Watch for changes in body language telling you that your cat is getting nervous or fearful. This includes your cat's ears turning back, pupils dilating, tail low or tucked between legs, with a low body posture ready to run and hide. Always give your cat a way out to a safe hiding place and never reach towards a fearful aggressive cat.

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

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