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Cat behavior — why cats hiss, bite and attack

And how to make an aggressive cat feel calm.

It seems aggressive when a cat hisses or swats at you, but anger isn't necessarily what they're communicating, Dr. Aliya McCullough, Fetch's on-staff veterinarian, says. Instead, common aggressive behaviors, like hissing, biting or attacking, are sometimes expressions of fear, anxiety, pain or an underlying illness or injury.

Cats are known for being mysterious and hiding their emotions well, but we get you want to understand your cat as much as possible. Dr. McCullough decodes what it means when cats hiss, bite or attack so you can stop this behavior and get your cat the help they may need. 

Why do cats hiss? 

Many people assume that when a cat hisses, they're expressing aggression, but that's not always the case. "It is a sign that a cat feels threatened, and it is a defensive act often used to try to defuse a situation," Dr. McCullough explains. If your cat is hissing, take them to the veterinarian to ensure they're not struggling with an underlying illness, injury or pain. 

Why is my cat biting or attacking me?

Sometimes cats bite or attack to express fear or say that they want you to stop petting them (especially if subtle signs were ignored). Biting or attacking can also be because of improper socialization, leading to inappropriate ways of playing, Dr. McCullough explains. But, cats that bite a lot and are experiencing other changes in their health could mean they're struggling with an underlying condition, including: 

  • Hyperthyroidism: symptoms include weight loss, hyperactivity, new aggressive behavior and increased appetite
  • Seizures
  • Pain or trauma: symptoms include decreased activity, lack of appetite, restlessness, limping, stiff movements or hiding
  • Cognitive decline (especially in older cats): symptoms include increased vocalizations, disorientation, change in sleeping patterns, going to the bathroom inside of the house, decreased or inconsistent appetite
  • Arthritis: symptoms include limping, hiding, not wanting to jump, decreased activity and a stiff gait
  • Dental disease: symptoms include gingivitis, tartar, mouth bleeding, decreased appetite and dropping food 

How to get a cat to stop biting or attacking

Cats' biting and attacking behavior isn't necessarily permanent, and there are some ways to get them to stop, Dr. McCullough says. Here’s what she suggests:

  • Make a game plan with your vet or your cat’s behavioral therapist.
  • If your cat starts biting while playing, ignore the behavior by ending the play session and walking away. 
  • Distract them with a wand or mouse toy or spread kibble on the floor to engage their mind.

RELATED: 5 ways cats communicate with their tails

How to calm an aggressive cat

If your cat is acting aggressive, Dr. McCullough explains tips to limit and stop this behavior: 

  • Redirect your cat’s aggression by making a loud noise to startle them. 
  • Identify what makes your cat aggressive and avoid those situations. 
  • Make sure to always reward your cat when they're showing good behavior. 
  • If you live in a family with multiple cats (we're super jealous!), separate them if things become tense and gradually re-introduce them once they're calm. 
  • Talk to your veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist about medication to manage your cat’s aggressive behavior.

What's a male cat’s behavior like when they aren't neutered? 

“Male cats that aren't neutered are more likely to roam to seek out females that aren't spayed, fight with other male cats and spray strongly scented urine,” Dr. McCullough explains. 

Female cat behavior after spaying

Don’t worry about your best friend’s behavior changing much after they’re spayed, Dr. McCullough says. When female cats are in heat, they’re usually affectionate to the point of being pushy and being spayed decreases this behavior. 

The Dig, Fetch Pet Insurance's expert-backed editorial, answers all of the questions you forget to ask your vet or are too embarrassed to ask at the dog park. We help make sure you and your best friend have more good days, but we’re there on bad days, too.

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