This common type of aggression is the result of a cat becoming agitated by something and then lashing out the nearest human, cat or dog within reach. Redirected aggression is frequently misdiagnosed as idiopathic aggression because the cat can stay reactive for quite a while and by the time the cat parent sees the aggressive display there may be no apparent trigger visible.
What Causes Redirected Aggression in Cats?
The most frequent cause of redirected aggression occurs when a cat sees an unfamiliar cat in her yard. She may be looking out the window when she spots a feline intruder hanging out by the bird feeder in the back yard. Unable to gain access to the source of her agitation, the indoor cat becomes highly reactive. A family member may walk by to pet the cat and immediately becomes the unintended target of claws and teeth.
Check with Your Veterinarian
If your cat has suddenly become aggressive and you didn’t see the initial trigger (such as outdoor cat), it may not necessarily be redirected aggression so have your cat examined by the veterinarian to rule out any possible underlying medical cause. Don’t assume a problem is behavioral without having your cat get a clean bill of health.
Unintended Consequences for the Cats
When the unintended target of a cat’s redirected aggression is a companion cat then it can set up a cycle of ongoing aggression between the pair. The “victim” cat is taken totally by surprise and doesn’t understand why his companion has suddenly becomes aggressive. This can cause the victim to strike back defensively which only adds fuel to the fire. Now both cats don’t really know why they’re fighting; they only know that they’re both enemies at this point.
Ongoing Cycle of Aggression Between the Cats
After the initial redirected aggression episode, both cats may start posturing defensively toward each other which only continues the downward spiral. The cat parent may come home from work one day and suddenly find her two cats who were always best buddies are now growling and hissing at each other. Because the initial cause of the agitation (perhaps that outdoor cat, someone working outdoors, or any number of possible triggers) has long disappeared, the cat parent is at a loss as to why the relationship deterioration occurred.
Dealing with Redirected Aggression
First, make sure everyone stays safe. If you’re dealing with two companion cats, separate them so each one has time to settle down. Next, do what you can to address the source of the redirected aggression if the cause is known.
Time for the Cats to Chill
In my years of doing cat behavior consultations I’ve found the sooner the cats are separated, the easier it’ll be to get them back together. If they’re allowed to just keep agitating each other you’ll end up with escalating hostility that can become serious and long-term. Just gently (and safely) separate the cats. When everyone seems back to normal (not hiding or hissing and back to performing normal daily functions such as eating, playing and using the litter box) you can reintroduce them.
Reintroduction of Your Cats
If the incident just occurred and you’re able to separate the cats immediately then the reintroduction won’t take long. If, however, the incident happened days ago and the cats are still fighting with each other then the reintroduction process will have to be more gradual. The key is to give the cats a reason to like each other again and that’s done through offering meals and treats in the presence of each other.
Redirected Aggression Toward a Human Family Member
Don’t try to cuddle or comfort an agitated cat. Leave her alone to calm down. Turn the lights down, close the curtains and allow her time to hide and de-stress. If you try to comfort her you risk more aggression. In addition to the risk of you getting injured, it’ll just keep the cat’s reactivity level too high.
When your cat has calmed down you can offer food or begin a gentle, low-intensity play session with an interactive toy to change her mind-set from negative to positive.
Ongoing Redirected Aggression
If you know your cat has a pattern of becoming reactive to certain things and as a result, frequently displays redirected aggression, set up a behavior modification plan. If there’s a cat outdoors you may have to block viewing access for your indoor cat. Gradually desensitize and counter-condition your cat to noises or other triggers that cause stress. Begin at a very low level where your cat is still relatively comfortable and offer a treat. Very slowly you can begin to increase her exposure to the trigger. Offer a treat or feed her to help her learn to associate something positive with the experience.
Need More Information?
For more step-by-step information on redirected aggression or other types of aggression in cats, refer to the books by Pam Johnson-Bennett.