Understanding Your Cat’s Sudden Aggressive Behavior

by William Wilson

The day started as any other for our 10-year-old tabby P, until she spotted a bold feral strolling onto our back deck in clear view of the screen door. Agitated by the mere sight of this wandering feline, P was in a terribly unpleasant mood for the remainder of the day.

While P had a relatively mild reaction to this interloper, some cats become highly aroused at the sight of another cat in their territory, and react in a more aggressive manner. Unable to reach their intended target, they may lash out at the first “victim” who crosses their path, whether that is their feline sibling of many years or their unsuspecting human casually strolling in to greet them. This relatively common scenario is an example of a type of behavior know as redirected aggression

What Stimuli Trigger Redirected Aggression?
While the most common scenario that causes redirected aggression is when an indoor cat observes an outdoor cat, many other triggers can cause this type of aggression as well.

Cats may be surprised, or even startled, by a sudden loud noise, or as a result of observing an unfamiliar person or animal visiting their home – or for almost any seemingly innocuous (to us) reason. What distinguishes this type of aggression is the fact that the cat is agitated by an inaccessible stimuli and that misplaced agitation then becomes directed at the first available target. Often times we are absent when the original stimulus occurs and may never be able to identify the initial trigger. To us, this aggression may seem “out of the blue.”

Managing Redirected Aggression
Once the cat is aroused by the particular stimulus, he might remain in a reactive state for some time, even if the original stimulus is no longer perceivable. Careful management and handling of the cat at this point is important to help de-escalate his emotional state.

If your feline companion’s normally calm behavior suddenly and unexpectedly changes without an observable cause, a veterinary visit is always recommended. If you do observe the original stimulus and see that your cat has become aroused or frightened, do not approach him; leave him alone to calm down. It is important not to approach your cat to comfort him at this time, as he might then associate you with the scary event. Letting him settle in a quiet, darkened room is best.

If you happen upon your cats suddenly fighting, don’t get in the middle, but do try to disrupt the fight with a pillow or blanket or by making a distracting noise. Do not let them fight it out. Both cats should then be placed in separate rooms to calm down. These rooms should be free of stimuli, and preferably dark. Owners should observe the cats for a return to normal behavior (e.g., sleeping, playing) before reintroducing them. This process requires careful monitoring and patience as it may be some time before the two cats can coexist peacefully