What Is Redirected Aggression in Cats?

When cats lash out at other animals or their humans, redirected aggression may be to blame, but positive reconditioning may help.

By: tnarik
Behavior changes could be caused by redirected aggression in a cat. By: tnarik

When Tim and I were first married, we occasionally took in feline lodgers for friends. They never stayed long, but our cats Cricket and Kilah were definitely not amused.

The odd part was, they never went after the guest cats. The sisters would always turn on each other, going into high gear with a “it’s your fault; no, it’s your fault” drama.

Their behavior struck us as kind of funny. We didn’t know then that it had a name — redirected aggression — and that there wasn’t anything funny about it. Our girls just happened to have a relatively mild case of it.

Many Cats, Many Types of Aggression

Actually, there are more types of feline aggression than you can aim a squirt bottle at. Speaking of which, you may want to watch that trigger finger. I’ve used squirt bottles to deal with less-than-desirable cat behavior, but there is now some controversy about how effective they really are.

These are just a few of the aggressive behaviors that the Cornell Feline Health Center lists:

  1. Play aggression, according to the folks at Cornell, is “usually seen in kittens that were not raised with littermates or playmates, are under-stimulated or lack appropriate play outlets.” The experts advise using noise deterrents (that is, making hissing sounds or blasting a compressed-air canister). It’s also a good idea to provide cat trees and interactive toys such as feather-tipped fishing rods.
  2. Fear aggression rears its ears-laid-back head at anything unfamiliar and/or unpleasant. It could be a strange person or animal; it could be a trip to the vet. Whatever it is, “do not console her. Kind words and petting communicate your approval of her inappropriate behavior.” And don’t show fear in front of her either.
  3. Predatory aggression is self-explanatory. If you have small “prey” animals and/or birds, don’t allow your mighty hunter near them. If the wildlife outside agitates him, then move your bird feeders and bungee-cord your trashcans.
  4. Pain-induced aggression is easy enough to understand. Handle your hurting cat gently — with extra-thick gardening gloves if necessary — and crack open the kitty treats. But if she’s still ornery, don’t pet or “poor kitty” her. Doing so encourages the behavior. Or so says Cornell — I’m not sure I agree.

Redirected Aggression in Cats

Something has set your cat off: his next-door rival, a dog or even a bird at the feeder. Agitation sets in. Unable to deal with the cat or dog outside, he turns and lashes out — at you. Or, as animal behaviorist Jim Ha puts it, he “will exhibit an appropriate behavior at an inappropriate target.”

Sometimes it’s harder to connect the dots. Ha talks about a case involving a cat, Milo, who suddenly and inexplicably began destroying curtains.

The animal behaviorist did some detective work and “discovered that another one of the cats in the house had recently been ill, had spent a night or 2 in the veterinary hospital, and had come home a day before the first curtain ‘attack.’” Milo hated going to the vet’s office — so his housemate coming home smelling like the clinic immediately set him off.

Things You Can Do

Ha used positive reconditioning — food — to deal with Milo’s behavior. The trick worked, and the cat’s anxiety was gone within days.

Other options include Feliway plug-in diffusers to relax your cat. Some cat caretakers have had luck with these, but I’m not one of them. Initially, our cats seemed to respond positively to them. After a few days, however, they’d begin spraying like crazy.

You can also try anti-anxiety medications, such as diazepam. These can, however, make your cat sluggish.

Give Peace a Chance

Leave your cat alone until he has a chance to calm down. If another cat in the house is getting the brunt of the redirected aggression, then separate them. Switch their litter boxes back and forth during this time; give them rubdowns with towels and do the same so that their scents mingle.

And never underestimate the value of play in bringing estranged cat friends back together. Break out the old fishing toy. What works for the kitten will work for the cat.

T.J. Banks

View posts by T.J. Banks
T.J. Banks is the author of several books, including Catsong, which received a Merial Human–Animal Bond Award. A contributing editor to laJoie, T.J. has also received writing awards from the Cat Writers’ Association, ByLine and The Writing Self. Her work has appeared in numerous anthologies, including Chicken Soup for the Single Parent’s Soul and A Cup of Comfort for Women in Love, and T.J. has worked as a stringer for the Associated Press, as an instructor for the Writer’s Digest School and as a columnist.

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