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Redirected Aggression in Cats: Vet-Reviewed Causes & How to Stop It

Written by: Ingrid King

Last Updated on April 11, 2024 by Catster Editorial Team

Angry cat hissing and screaming hiding

Redirected Aggression in Cats: Vet-Reviewed Causes & How to Stop It


Dr. Marta Vidal-Abarca Photo


Dr. Marta Vidal-Abarca

Veterinarian, BVSc GPCert (Ophthal) MRCVS

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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We recently covered petting aggression and play aggression in cats. Today, I’d like to address one other form of feline aggression, and it’s one that can be very frightening, as well as damaging, for cat guardians. This form of aggression is called redirected aggression, and it happens when a cat is frightened or aroused by an animal, event, or person but they can’t respond to this stimulus because it’s not accessible.

Unable to respond to the perceived threat, the cat attacks an irrelevant but accessible target. This may be another cat or pet in the household, or it may be a family member. These attacks happen seemingly out of the blue, and they can be fairly damaging to the victim.

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What Causes Redirected Aggresion in Cats?

The stimulus that triggers this type of aggression is often the presence of an outdoor cat, a conflict with another cat in the same household, or a loud noise. Often, redirected aggression is triggered in indoor cats when they see a strange cat outside the window. Since they consider their home their territory, the outside cat is perceived as an intruder. Other situations can include loud noises from falling objects or televisions, especially in cats that already suffer from noise phobia. With regards to episodes following conflict with other cats in the household, a fight or a high-pitch vocalization have shown to trigger redirected aggression.

This kind of attack is often described by cat guardians as coming “out of nowhere” because the trigger is sometimes not identified. However, from the cat’s perspective, there is always one. It is important to understand that these attacks are not malicious, nor are they a form of revenge from the cat. It is an abnormal way of responding to a perceived threat.

Scottish fold cat very angry and aggressive
Image Credit: Anatoliy Cherkas, Shutterstock

I’ve only experienced this once with one of my cats, and thankfully, it was an isolated incident. Feebee and I were standing by my sliding glass door looking out into the backyard. I even remember talking to him. All of a sudden, I felt his jaws clamp around my calf. I screamed – not because it was all that painful at that moment, but because I was so startled. A second ago he was sitting next to me, peacefully looking out the window. Now I saw a puffed-up, hissing little grey monster next to me. I slowly walked away, and within about 30 seconds, he calmed down and acted normal again. He had left two deep puncture wounds in my calf. I don’t remember seeing anything we hadn’t seen before, but clearly, he had. And I now know how lucky I was that he recovered so quickly. For some cats, it can take days, weeks, or even months to return to normal.

Of all the types of feline aggression, this is one of the most difficult form to deal with, because it may not always be possible to identify the trigger, and because, unlike with petting or play aggression, there’s usually no warning from the cat in terms of body language because these attacks happen so fast. It becomes especially difficult when the attack is directed at another cat in the household because the tension tends to remain at the same level and the threshold for arousal decreases.

aggressive cat
Image Credit: pixbull, Shutterstock

What to Do When Your Cat Experiences Redirected Aggression

The most important thing is to provide security for family members. You should isolate the cat and allow them to calm down. Never try to separate two fighting cats with your bare hands, and don’t yell at the cats to break up a fight, as they are already in a heightened state and will most likely react by attacking you..

If you know what triggered the aggressive episode, remove the trigger. For example, if an outside cat continues to come near your windows and upsets your cats, close the blinds, or make your yard unattractive to other cats. Safe and humane deterrent devices can be used to keep other cats out of the yard without harming them.

If you don’t know the trigger, and the episodes happen again, you’ve got your work cut out for you. Remain vigilant when you are at home, and in time, you may be able to identify the cause of redirected aggression.

The most unusual case I’ve seen was a client who lived in a small apartment with three cats who got along wonderfully until a new mattress was delivered. One of the cats became very scared during the delivery and installation, and for reasons known only to the other two cats, they turned on the scared cat. It took a few weeks of separating the cats, along with the use of Feliway and flower essences, to return harmony to the household.

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Redirected aggression is a dangerous form of feline aggression. If your cat shows any form of aggressive behavior, especially redirected aggression, first consult with your veterinarian to rule out medical or neurological issues. Once diagnosis is established, follow a treatment plan created by your vet or feline behaviorist.

From a preventative point of view, it is recommended to socialize kittens adequately to reduce the chances of behavioral problems such as this type of aggression. Adequate strategies involve familiarizing kittens to different sounds and letting them interact with unfamiliar people, other animals, and other cats.

Featured Image Credit: Josh Norem, Shutterstock

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