Cats have a range of different emotional responses, from affection to hesitation to fear and anxiety, but one of the hardest to deal with is anger 😾 and aggression.
Angry 😾fur babies are hard to corral, and the last thing you want to do is try to handle them. They're pretty sharp!
And I don't just mean clever, either; they can do a lot of damage if you corner them, and they feel like they have no alternative but to fight to escape.
Ordinarily your kitty might be a loving😺, loaf of cuteness, and you may only see fear and defensive behavior when it’s time to go to the dreaded V E T👨⚕️, so it’s important to know how to handle your fur baby to lower their stress and make any interaction as safe as possible.
How do you handle an angry kitty? Let's talk about it.
Standing with an arched back, fluffed up hair, flattened ears, and erected tail are some of the most common physical signs of a cat being angry.
Cats have a lot of different kinds of body language, and often times it can be hard to tell the difference between cats that are roughhousing, cats that are posturing at one another for territory, and cats that are genuinely scared and angry.
If a cat is angry, in addition to the above-mentioned behaviors, they will normally display behaviors such as:
Growling and hissing, as an audible sign and verbal warning that something isn't right and that whatever is encroaching on them should back off.
Avoidance. Cats that are experiencing anger and aggression will avoid their favorite toys and foods and are likely to ignore attempts to give them treats. This is because they don't feel comfortable enough to let their guard down to play or eat.
Hiding. Cats don't like to get into conflicts if they can help it, and if they feel stressed or anxious, they're likely to hide away rather than fight. They will only get aggressive if they're cornered or trapped.
Flattening their ears back. As mentioned above, this is one of the main signs of an angry cat. Putting their ears back and down helps protect them from other aggressive animals and prepares them to run or fight. This type of aggression is known as fear aggression.
“Cats demonstrating fear aggression may flatten their ears against their heads, hiss, bare their teeth, or crouch low to the ground with their tail tucked under their body, and their fur may stand on end.” – Cornel Feline Health Center
Biting or swatting. Teeth and claws are the weapons a cat is armed with, and if their other warnings don't work and they're still cornered, those are the weapons they will use to escape.
Angry cats can also twitch their tails, scratch at furniture, and even purr. Purring isn't just a sign of affection, it's a primary method of communication, and aggressive purring can be misinterpreted by people who don't know better.
If you're dealing with an angry cat, it's worth deciding if it's something you need to engage with or if you can just walk away.
An angry stray might be causing a problem for someone trying to rescue her kittens, or a friend's fur baby might be anxious and aggressive when someone unfamiliar tries to catch them, and these are often cases where it's better to just back off and leave them be.
If your fur baby is displaying unexpected aggression, however, it might mean something is wrong, and you may have no choice but to engage.
Cat anger and aggression can be a serious matter. In very severe cases where cats may endanger people around them, some pet parents have been advised that euthanasia might be the answer.
Watch this video by Animal Planet where Jackson Galaxy Saves an Aggressive Cat from Being “Put Down” | My Cat from Hell.
What Makes a Cat Angry or Aggressive?
Cats don't generally have anger issues. If they're angry, it's for a reason. Very occasionally, though, a fur baby might have some inherent aggression they display, such as during play, social conflict, or territorial defense.
The occasional bout of anger isn't a problem. It's only when it prevents you from caring for your fur baby, or when it's an unexpected development, or when it's a pattern that makes them too disruptive or dangerous to care for, that it becomes a problem.
After all, you can’t have your fur baby try to swipe at you every time you try to play or feed them.
Anger in cats comes from a few primary sources.
Most commonly, it's an escalation from anxiety and fear. Cats are predators, but they prefer to avoid conflict, so they generally only get aggressive when they're cornered while being stressed.
It's a sign of something wrong in their environment. This could be a new cat encroaching into their territory, something changing in their home.
It’s a sign of pain, or medical issue they have no way of dealing with on their own. Aggression is only one indicator, but you can learn about other signs of pain or discomfort to better identify it in your cat. It’s important to note that cats often hide their pain, so the only indication might be anger and aggression when you go to pet a certain spot or pick them up.
Overstimulation. If you’re petting your cat and out of nowhere s/he bites you, that’s likely a sign of overstimulation or petting of an undesirable area like the belly.
Lack of stimulation. A cat that lacks exercise of the body and mind will find ways to entertain themselves and your feet or hands or clothing may become targets for that hunting instinct to play out. While it might look like aggression to you, it’s actually just play hunting.
How to Help Calm an Aggressive Cat
So, if your fur baby is being abnormally angry, or if you're trying to deal with an aggressive stray or foster, what can you do?
Step 1: Identifying the Cause
The first thing you should do is see if you can figure out why this fur baby is angry. I know it seems easier said than done.
But, like many cat-related issues, the key to uncovering their cause lies in closely watching your cat.
There's always a reason; it just might not be obvious. Out of the many options, here are some of the most common ones.
Keep in mind that just like us humans, every cat is unique so the reason why your cat is angry might not even be in the books. 😊
The hardest to identify reason why a cat might be aggressive and angry is that they're ill.
Whether they're suffering from a feline flu or they have some kind of internal issue that causes them pain they can't get away from, it will lead to a short temper.
“…a number of medical conditions can cause or contribute to your cat’s aggression, including toxoplasmosis, hyperthyroidism, epilepsy, abscesses, arthritis, dental disease, rabies, trauma, and sensory decline or cognitive dysfunction in older cats. The first step in resolving your cat’s aggression problem is to have a complete veterinary exam to assess his physical health.” - ASPCA.org
They're not so different from us people, after all. Added stress, tension, pain, and irritation all make it easier to reach a breaking point and get angry about it.
Aggression Caused by Another Cat
Since one of the most common causes of aggression and anger in cats is territorial disputes, consider if you’ve made a change by bringing another cat into your home and observe how they interact with one another.
Sometimes it's a matter of a few mild spats before they shake out the pecking order and who gets to claim what room.
Other times, it's an escalating conflict between two cats who each believe they're the dominant one, leading to endless fighting.
Sometimes it's even a cat outside, riling up your fur baby when they can't get at them to stand their ground.
Consider that your kitty might feel unsafe.
Aggression Caused by Lack of Safety
If you recently moved or let’s say had your carpets replaced, your cat may feel less confident in their new smelling surroundings.
Cats like to have a place they can go to hide and relax, and if they aren't familiar with the area – or if they can't find a place they feel safe – they can feel cornered and stressed all the time.
That, in turn, can eventually escalate into increased angry reactions.
Aggression Caused by Excess Energy
Frustrated cats can also get irritable. When they have excess energy and want to play but have nothing to play with, they may expend that energy with less than desirable behavior.
This holds doubly true if you react poorly when they try to get your attention by scratching furniture or otherwise doing something they may know is wrong but still do to get you to look at them.
Formulate Hypotheses and Test Them
So, run through the checklist. Is this cat being trapped or harassed by a child, another cat, a dog, or even you? Do they have nowhere to go and nowhere to hide? Are they getting enough attention and have outlets for their energy? Is there anything outside your window that might be stressing you cat?
If there don't seem to be any external causes for the increased anger, it's more likely to be internal, which means a vet visit is in order.
Step 2: Monitor Your Behavior
If you're going to be engaging with or approaching an angry cat, you absolutely must do it properly, or you risk serious injury to yourself.
Cat scratches and bites are no joke, and that holds doubly true if you're trying to work with a stray cat with unknown health.
If you must approach, do so slowly, and be as small as you can. You're much larger than a cat, and you trying to step up to them can be interpreted as aggression, and they will react accordingly.
Move slowly, and try not to stare at them. This isn't the time to try the slow blink.
With your own, typically non-aggressive kitty, sometimes, you might be able to use a distraction.
Waving a toy around, or making a noise, can be enough to jolt them out of their aggression, though this is more applicable to cat-versus-cat anger and not a cat that's on edge defending themselves from you.
I’ll close this section out by saying yelling or physically punishing your cat is not going to improve their behavior, if fact it could make the problem worse. Instead, use positive reinforcement for good behavior.
Step 3: Address the Problem
Once you have some idea of what the problem is, you need to take steps to address it.
If your cat is aggressive toward another animal
Aggression Toward a Dog
If you have a cat and a dog, for example, you may need to designate a room where your dog isn't allowed to go, train them to be more respectful of your cat, or keep them separated.
Aggression Toward Another Cat
With two alpha cats, it’s a good idea to have multiple food bowls and litter boxes in different locations. Also add vertical space if you don’t already have some in your home.
A cat tree or wall shelves are a great option. If you haven’t done so already, make sure your cats are spayed/neutered as it greatly reduces aggression.
“The most obvious and easily understood type of aggression between cats occurs between unneutered males. As males reach adulthood, they often begin to challenge each other for access to mates and territory.” - ASPCA
This may sound like common sense but believe me in the heat of the moment I’ve made some of the silliest and skin-costly mistakes. If your two cats are in the middle of a fight, do not, and I repeat do not, reach your arms in to scoop one up as that aggression can be redirected to you. Instead, put something between the cats to block their line of sight.
This could be a sofa pillow or if they are regularly aggressive, perhaps a cardboard box that you can easily stick between them to separate them. After they are separated, give the aggressor a break in their own safe space to decompress.
Aggression Toward an External Animal
If it's an external animal, like a stray cat or a neighbor's cat, it might be beneficial to close off a window to break their line of sight. There are also motion activated sprinklers to deter especially insistent outdoor cat visitors.
Case in Point: When we moved a few years back we started having issues with our now angel kitty, Beany. It didn’t take us long to realize that the neighbor’s cat was coming to the front door and looking in through the sidelights. We solved the issue by adding frosted tint to the windows. It still allowed the light in but obstructed any view of furry visitors.
If your cat is aggressive toward a human
In cases of overstimulation, it's very important to learn your cat’s body language and stop petting before the aggression occurs.
It’s also best to avoid using your hands as a toy during play time as your cat doesn’t know it’s not a toy when you’re typing on your computer. Young children likely won’t understand subtle body cues, so it’s best to keep them away from the kitty to avoid any bites or scratches.
“It is particularly important to supervise cats that display this type of aggression (overstimulation) when they are in the presence of young children, who often want to pet cats but miss the visual cues of impending aggression.” - Cornell Feline Health Center
For an under stimulated cat, build in some time to engage your kitty in active playtime to deplete those energy reserves. If you’re gone most of the day, investigate self-play options and automated toys.
If your fur baby is aggressive because of a big change
The key here is to be patient and give your kitty time to adapt.
Moving, rearranging the home, or making another big change can stress out a cat used to habit, and they may be agitated until they get a chance to get used to it.
Providing a space with familiar items and cozy places to hide can help your cat gain confidence as they explore the changes.
Pheromone plug-ins and sprays are a great option to soothe a stressed cat in a new or changing environment.
If you suspect your fur baby may be sick or in pain
A normally docile cat that is suddenly acting aggressive needs to be seen by a vet. Depending on how much fight is in them, this can be pretty difficult. A cat suffering from a toothache or an internal injury can be very resistant to being handled, touched, or even approached, and their distress will only get worse if you try.
Try to approach your cat during a calmer moment. If possible, have a second person ready with the carrier open. Use a towel to protect you and your fur baby as you go to grab them.
Cover their body and head with the towel as you scoop them up to put them in the carrier and ensure they can wiggle out of the towel once inside.
If you're dealing with a feral cat
First, let’s clear up some terminology that is often used interchangeably, feral vs a stray cat.
A stray cat is one that doesn’t have a house to live in, but likely came from one. A stray has been socialized and while they might be skittish, they are often willing to interact with humans.
On the other hand, a feral cat has little to no socialization and will generally see humans as predators. While they share not having a house to go home to in common with strays, they are unlikely to approach humans and instead be fearful and aggressive toward them.
While a stray cat may be interested in moving into your loving home, it's generally ill-advised to force a feral cat indoors.
If dealing with a feral for a health reason, keep them completely covered with a towel during handling and place them in a small space with a nice hiding spot until they can be treated by a vet.
Other Ways to Help Calm an Angry Kitty
If you want some assistance to help with calming down an angry kitty, there are a few things you might consider trying.
I briefly mentioned them above, Cat Pheromones are natural chemicals that cats create and use to communicate with one another. They're odorless to humans, but they convey a bunch of meanings from one cat to another.
You can purchase products that are artificial chemicals mimicking the scent of some pheromones, and they can be useful for a variety of reasons. In fact, one of the most common kinds you can find is used to help relieve anxiety and calm down aggressive cats.
Herbal remedies can help in some cases as well. Valerian root, silver vine, and even catnip are all stimulants for some cats, which you might think doesn’t sound like a good idea. The thing is after the initial effects wear off, they tend to be taken over by calming effects.
It’s important to keep in mind that not all cats are affected by herbal remedies.
Consider CBD as well. CBD oil in tincture form for cats (and dogs) is a natural, non-psychoactive supplement that may help with calming situational anxiety and aggression in some cats.
Behavioral training can help in some cases. This is especially relevant in cats that were adopted from being stray and feral and didn't get socialization as kittens. A trained behavioral specialist may be able to help you and your fur baby learn to avoid aggression.
Medication along with behavior and perhaps environmental adjustments may be an option for some cats. Talk to your vet if you suspect anxiety induced aggression to see if they think a prescription might be helpful.
And, of course, if your poor fur baby is evidently sick, your veterinarian will guide you on how to address the underlying issue.
“A cat who’s feeling sick may hold her head low and squint her eyes or hold them shut. Her ears might sit low or rotated outward, and her whiskers might be pointing downward. She may hold her head, feet and tail very close to her body, so that they’re tucked into a tight ball. Her third eyelids, which are found on the inside corners of the eyes, may be visible because they aren’t being retracted fully.” - Best Friends Animal Society
Have you ever had to deal with an aggressive or angry cat? It's not easy, is it? Tell me all about it in the comments and what worked best for you. I'd love to hear all of your stories!
K Marie Alto
K. Marie is an animal lover, wife, kitty mom, dog auntie, writer, and co-founder of Toe Beans, a proud American family-owned online boutique pet supplies store focused on the improvement of the life of furry family members via pet parent education, better products, and advocacy. She has over 20 years of experience as a pet momma. She loves sharing her personal journey and experience as a pet parent via her blog and Facebook page where she currently has more than 50K followers (@furrytoebeans) and counting :-). Read more