There are several possible causes for feline aggression. While an attack can seem unprovoked, there is almost always a reason for it. We just need to try and figure out what it is. Our article about cat aggression towards people covers possible reasons, including redirected aggression. Let's try and explore redirected aggression in cats, how to prevent it and what to do when it happens.
What is Redirected Aggression
Imagine you've had a really bad day at work. You had a conflict with a client, a co-worker, or maybe your boss. Your adrenaline is at an all-time high, you're angry and stressed out. Your entire body is physically geared towards a primordial fight-or-flight response. You leave the office and on your way out, someone bumps into you. Won't you be far more likely to lash back at them than on a good day? Or maybe just kick at an empty box out on the sidewalk? Whatever you do, you know the feeling: a wave of aggression searching for an outlet. Re-directed aggression in cats works in much the same way. A cat finds itself in a stressful situation of potential conflict, perceived or real. It could be a whiff of a strange cat's scent through the window, a dog barking frantically in the neighbor's apartment, or any other envisaged danger. The cat's entire body reacts, adrenaline preparing it for that dramatic fight-or-flight response. It's on "high alert" mode. Unaware, you casually approach your cat and reach out to pet her, only to find yourself faced with a cat from hell, back arched, hissing and spitting and possibly attacking your hand.
What happened? The cat's aggression, which had been building up in response to an external stimulus, was instantly redirected and released towards the immediate object - yourself. In all likelihood, your over-stressed cat didn't even know it was you at that moment. Her senses were screaming "danger", and she responded to the nearest stimulus that "broke the spell".
Redirected aggression can be manifested between cats or towards a person. The cat strikes pretty much at the nearest moving object, regardless of who or what it is.
Dealing with Redirected Aggression
Whatever caused your cat to attack, your response should be the same. You need to keep calm and try to soothe the cat by letting her be and not fussing over her. Give the adrenaline time to loosen its grip on her. Whatever you do, do not shout or otherwise express anger. If your cat hisses at you or shows any signs of aggression, don't try to touch her or otherwise interact with her. Look away and move away, giving her time to calm down completely. Make sure other people and pets are aware of the situation and keep their distance from the cat. Your cat can take minutes, or even hours, to regain her composure, depending on her temperament and the nature of the threat that triggered her aggression. Some cats remain "wound up" for days after a major incident.
If your cat grabs your arm, or any other body part, with its claws and/or teeth - don't panic. Just relax and remain calm. Try to look away from the cat and just relax your body to let it know you're not a threat. Yes, easier said than done, but your reactions can spell the difference between a one-time occurrence and a behavioral problem. Once the cat lets go, get away from her and give her some space. Don't attempt to touch her or pet her before you're sure she's back to her normal self. If your cat attacked another cat, read here about How To Safely Break Up A Cat Fight.
Preventing Redirected Aggression
Learn your cat's body language and pay attention to it. You can tell that your cat is feeling threatened if you see her staring at something intently, her pupils enlarged and her body tensing, possibly arching. Once that happens, remove yourself and others - human and pet alike - out of harm's way and let her cool off. Try to eliminate potential threats - and anything that may be perceived as a threat - from your cat's environment. If intact males come near your windows, make sure they get neutered and/or kept away from your home. Make sure guests do not show up with their pets when they visit you. Supervise interactions between your cats and young guests and make sure Kitty is never harassed. You know your cat best, so think ahead and try to remove potential threats ahead of time.
Remember, just because your cat attacked you does not mean she's going to do it again. Address potential threats in her environment and know what to do if your cat feels threatened, and you won't have to deal with another attack ever again.
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