August 2019

Audience: Foster Caregivers, Public, Shelter/Rescue Staff & Volunteers

Aggression can be a serious behavioral concern. Aggressive behavior can occur in cats of any breed, size, age, or gender. Cats don't speak our language, so often aggression is the only way they can communicate to us that they are uncomfortable. Fear is the most common reason for aggression. Other triggers for aggression may include play, territorial behavior, or anticipated pain. It can occur as a conditioned response if the cat has been physically punished in the past.

Pay close attention to your cat's body language as you approach. A nervous or fearful cat may display the following signs: sideways or backwards flattened ears, whiskers pulled back, pupils dilated, and tail low or tucked between legs. Your cat's body posture maybe crouched or low to the ground, as if they want to hide or turn away. Direct signs of fear aggression include arched back, fur standing on end, and erect puffed up tail. Audible fear aggression signals include hissing, yowling, or spitting.

Play aggression in cats can have different noticeable signs. A playful cat may be stalking you when you approach or walk by. They might hide and leap out to attack any movement nearby. Their pupils may also be dilated, and their tail may be up or straight out. Their ears can be forward or drawn back at the time of attack. This type of aggression often occurs in young cats and kittens.

To avoid escalating aggressive behavior, stop approaching your cat and turn your body away. Give your cat a hiding place where they feel safe and protected. Do not reach for them or otherwise force them to leave their safe space. Approach your cat slowly, get lower to the ground, turn your body sideways and use a wand toy or treats to make them more comfortable.

Even mild forms of aggression, when not properly addressed, can evolve into serious aggression. This is why it is important to assess and tackle any change in your cat's behavior right away. To address aggression, work with a professional who can determine the context in which it happens. Never use physical punishment to discipline your cat.

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