Why is My Cat Suddenly Acting Aggressive?
Cats are well-known for their independent and aloof nature. It’s part of their mysterious and majestic presence. But what do you do when your once docile companion suddenly becomes angry or aggressive?
Understanding why your cat may have shown such an abrupt behavior change is important. Why? This could be a sign of much bigger trouble that demands your attention. There are many explanations for this type of change in demeanor, including physical pain or illness. The best solution to create harmony once again in your home is to get to the bottom of it!
In this article, we will look at the most common reasons for a cat to suddenly exhibit aggression and what you should do to help your furry best friend.
What Does Aggression Look Like in Cats?
If you are a first-time cat owner or have never encountered an aggressive cat, you may wonder what aggression looks like. Our feline friends aren’t always as outwardly friendly and affectionate as their canine counterparts, but aggression refers to behaviors that go a step further. Rather than being aloof or disinterested, an aggressive cat outwardly expresses upset, anger, and frustration toward a trigger.
Cat parents who seek help with an aggressive cat often refer to their cat biting or swatting, causing physical harm out of nowhere. But there are often other signs of trouble that are overlooked or unnoticed.
Early signs of aggression include:
- Thrashing or fast twitching tail
- Direct stare
- Dilated pupils
- Ears flattened back against the head
- Stiff or crouched posture
- Raised hackles
- Hissing, growling, or yowling
When these warning signs are ignored, a cat may feel they have no choice but to react further to protect themselves from the perceived threat or trigger. It is at this moment that a cat will swat or bite. Learning to recognize the early warning signs will help you prevent the situation from escalating to the point that someone is hurt.
How Do You Tell if a Cat is Playing or Being Aggressive?
Some cats, especially young kittens, may play in a way that is similar to or mimics the signs of aggression. This can make it harder to identify if your cat is truly upset or simply playing around. Luckily, there are a few minor differences that can help you differentiate between the two.
When a cat is being playful, they usually have their claws retracted. This means they may swat at you during play, but they aren’t scratching or causing harm with that action. The same can be said when they pounce on you – landing on you with their paws, nails retracted. If your cat is biting at your hand during play, they often have a threshold they won’t cross. They may bite hard enough that you feel some discomfort, but they aren’t trying to break the skin.
There is a grey area that shouldn’t be overlooked between play and aggression, where a cat either didn’t learn where that line exists or fails to acknowledge it. This is known as play aggression, which we will touch on later.
Why Has My Cat Suddenly Become Aggressive?
If your cat shows signs of aggression, the first step to addressing the situation is identifying the cause, especially if this is a new behavior. Here are a few of the common explanations for sudden aggression in cats:
As we briefly mentioned above, there are times when a cat is playing too rough and crosses the line into aggression. This is most often seen in cats separated from their littermates too early. When kittens are young, they often play pretty rough with their littermates, correcting one another when that play becomes too much. This is how they learn where to draw the line between the two. If a kitten doesn’t have that experience with their littermates, they might not realize they are playing too rough.
There are also situations where we accidentally teach our cat that it is okay to cross that line. If you have been playing rough with your cat and/or using your hands instead of a toy during play, you are communicating that you are okay with a rougher style of play. This may escalate to the point that your cat pushes that boundary too far.
If cats feel unsafe, they may resort to aggressive behavior to protect themselves, especially if they feel trapped or cornered. Take a moment to assess the situation – is there something your cat may be afraid of? Consider loud sounds, changes to their environment, or new smells. Cats can develop fears due to past experiences, so they may find something frightening that they were once okay with.
Stress or Anxiety
Like fear aggression, stress or anxiety-triggered aggression is a reaction to something in their environment. This is often seen when a new cat is introduced to the house too quickly without the needed transition time to adjust to one another. It can also occur if there has been a significant change in your life recently, like moving to a new house or a new job that altered your schedule.
Your cat may be trying to defend or protect their territory. The perceived threat could be a new pet or individual inside your household or even new cats in the neighborhood. Some cats will become territorial during renovations. If your cat’s behavior is territorial, they may also show signs of trying to mark their space by scratching, rubbing against the furniture, or spraying.
It is possible for a cat that once enjoyed being handled to change their mind and decide they are no longer comfortable with a specific type of touch. Sometimes, this can be tied to a particular trigger, like a cat that no longer wants a part of its body touched after recovering from an injury. There are also some cases where there is no apparent reason why a cat’s preferences have changed.
If something recently occurred to upset or startle your cat, they may lash out at someone nearby or who approaches them while they are still working through those emotions. This is especially common if the cat cannot get at the trigger, like a stray cat that can be seen through the window in your yard. In these situations, your cat isn’t upset with you – you just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Pain or Illness
When a cat feels pain or discomfort, they may respond aggressively to others to protect themselves from the situation being made worse. This can happen because of an injury or an illness that leaves the cat feeling fragile or at risk. It’s important to remember that cats are masters of hiding pain, so you may not have noticed a sign that something was wrong before their behavior changed.
Do Cats Get More Aggressive with Age?
Yes! It is not uncommon for cats to start showing aggression as they enter their senior years. You may see this happen for several reasons, most of which fall into the categories we discussed above. For example, your cat may be suffering from arthritis due to aging, causing pain and triggering pain aggression. Cats that experience hearing loss or loss of sight as they get older may feel stressed by this change, leading to aggressive behavior.
How Do You Stop Aggression in Cats?
Determining the cause of your cat’s aggression is only the first step to reaching a solution. You will also need to make changes to address this cause if you want to prevent or reduce future aggression. Here are a few steps you can take to set your cat up for success:
Make an Appointment with Your Veterinarian
One of the first things you should do anytime you experience a sudden behavior change in your cat is make an appointment with your veterinarian. If the aggression results from pain or illness, the only way to stop it is to help your cat feel better. Explain the behavior change to your vet in as much detail as possible. The more information you provide, the better – you never know what small detail could help identify the problem.
Address Any Stress Triggers
Take some time to reassess your home and lifestyle. Are there any potential stress triggers that have recently entered your cat’s life? If so, what can you do to reduce or eliminate the trigger? This could be as simple as creating a “safe place” your cat can retreat to when they feel overwhelmed by pets or children. Cats are creatures of habit. Even moving their food bowl or litterbox to a new location could lead to stress.
If you can’t address the stress trigger directly, there are options to help your cat better handle the stress, such as:
- Calming treats or supplements
- Pheromone diffusers
- Lick mats (the licking action is soothing)
- Calming spray
Try to create a calm and relaxing environment for your cat. This may mean reducing the number of people you invite over, keeping the television volume down, and keeping your own energy calm. Speak to your cat in a calm, relaxed voice.
Pay Attention to Your Cat’s Body Language
When managing your cat’s stress levels and behavior, pay careful attention to signs that they may feel anxious, fearful, stressed, or otherwise upset. If you recognize that something is starting to trigger a change in your cat, you can address the problem early to prevent it from escalating. This is particularly helpful if your cat’s aggression results from a trigger that can’t be eliminated from the home.
One situation where this is essential is when there are other pets or children in the home. Your cat may be okay with your children when calm but feel overwhelmed if they move toward them too quickly or are running around chaotically. After all, children are unpredictable. Learning how to understand the way your cat communicates that they aren’t comfortable will help you keep harmony in your home.
Play with Toys, Not Your Hands
The best way to prevent play aggression is not to teach your cat that your hands (or arms, feet, etc.) are toys. When playing with your cat, ensure that you are always using appropriate toys. Wand toys (or flirt poles) are great for interactive play with your cat. Depending on your cat's preferences, they can be used with different toys, including feathers, mice, ribbons, and more.
Most importantly – keep playing with your cat. This will provide them with a safe outlet for their energy. After all, pent-up energy and boredom can also lead to stress and anxiety, resulting in aggressive behavior.
Is There Medication for Aggressive Cats?
While medication shouldn’t be your first solution, there are situations where your vet may recommend going this route to help your cat stay calm and relaxed. In this way, it is no different than humans dealing with mental health struggles. Like humans with anxiety, anti-anxiety medications can provide much-needed relief, allowing your cat to live a happy, healthy life.
Final Thoughts – Sudden Aggression in Cats
Pay attention if your sweet and loving cat suddenly shows signs of aggression. Make an appointment with your veterinarian to ensure that your cat’s behavior isn’t the result of pain or illness. Once this explanation has been eliminated, take time to assess your cat’s environment and the possible triggers, including changes to their environment, new members of the household, or anything that could cause your cat to feel fearful or stressed.
Create a calm and relaxing environment with physical and mental enrichment opportunities, like enjoying playtime with a cat wand toy. Sudden behavior changes can often be addressed so you can return to sharing your heart and home with the loving cat you remember.
Britt Kascjak is a proud pet mom, sharing her heart (and her home) with her “pack” which includes her husband John, their 3 dogs – Daviana, Indiana, and Lucifer – and their 2 cats – Pippen and Jinx. She has been active in the animal rescue community for over 15 years, volunteering, fostering and advocating for organizations across Canada and the US. In her free time, she enjoys traveling around the country camping, hiking, and canoeing with her pets.
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