Cats are territorial and, at times, surprisingly emotional creatures. Although sometimes disturbing for us to see, it is normal for environmental or social changes to trigger extremes in our cats’ behavior. Extreme fear may provoke an explosion of hissing (a defensive behavior), spitting, swatting and escape.

Territorially defensive cats may stalk, yowl (also known as “caterwauling”) and pounce on perceived intruders. Both fear and territorial defense may lead to visible aggression, including bites. What might cause such frightening behavior? Most often, it is the sight, smell or sounds of unfamiliar cats outdoors. In many cases, the source of aggression is never identified. Regardless of the trigger, the extreme behavioral reaction is then redirected to the nearest available target: another cat in the home, or even a member of the cat’s human family. Such redirected aggression is typically severe and explosive. In fact, owners frequently recount stories in which they were cornered in the bathroom, waiting for their furious (and confused) cat to calm down. Unfortunately, if not treated, such behavior may continue for days or even weeks. Severe redirected aggression can be a dangerous problem.

An aggressive cat should always be examined by a veterinarian to rule out general medical conditions that may contribute to such behavior.

The next steps may include temporary drug therapy to reduce the edginess contributing to the aggression. It is also helpful to separate the cat from its “victim,” whether human or feline, for several days or a week. Cats who have attacked their owners benefit from temporary confinement in a quiet place. Water and a litter box should be provided, but food should be offered only periodically, by the owner. Because redirected aggression can continue to be severe, a discussion with a feline behavior specialist is a must.