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Redirected Aggression in Cats

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.

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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.

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