How to Stop Aggression in Kittens

There's a difference between playful and aggressive behavior

kitten playing with toy
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Cat aggression and cat attacks can be either predatory or play aggression, and both behaviors may look identical. These behaviors in cats range from minor to severe scratching and biting. It's highly unlikely that a scratch or bite from a house cat will be fatal, but such injuries can be painful and run the risk of infection.

There are ways to address a kitten's aggressive behavior, most of which require nothing more than a little extra attention from its owner.

Why Do Kittens and Cats Get Aggressive?

The stalking and hunting instincts of their ancestors are still very strong in modern-day house cats. Usually, a cat sees something moving in a way that provokes the instinct to attack; the cat considers the object (a hand, a foot, a small child) to be a threat or to be prey. Either way, the cat is driven to use its claws and possibly its teeth to complete the attack.

In kittens, most aggression is caused by fear or curiosity. In older cats, there may be other reasons for cat aggression and attacks, such as redirected aggression, which is when a cat lashes out at its owner because it senses something is wrong.

A kitten that is protecting its "territory" from a perceived threat or interloper (such as a small child or another animal) also may become aggressive. While normal at first, if this behavior doesn't subside within a few months, it may be time to take corrective action.

Of course, similar aggressive behavior may come from a cat protecting its kittens. An animal in pain or one that feels threatened may also lash out. But if it attacks under these circumstances, it's easily attributed to a specific cause, which is different from sustained or frequent aggressive behavior.

What Is Aggression in Kittens?

Both play aggression and predatory aggression include distinct body language.

  • Any combination of stealth, silence, alert stance, hunting postures, and lunging or springing at "prey" that moves suddenly after being still.
  • Twitching, meowing and tail swatting all are signs that an attack may be imminent.
  • Bluffing behavior, when a cat arches its back, doesn't usually lead to an outburst, but is instead one cat's way of showing another cat that it's not to be messed with.
Cat stalking in the grass
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What Triggers Cat Aggression?

Most cats who are paired together at an early age learn to coexist peacefully, with the occasional disagreement. It's the cat owners who are the most frequent targets of kittens' aggression, especially those who don't live with other cats.

  • Nearly any type of movement, from walking to picking up an object, triggers the behavior.
  • What begins as "play" can tip over into dangerous aggression, bites, and outright attacks when the kitten or cat becomes aroused. The hands and feet of pet owners are the most frequent targets.
  • Hand-raised kittens and those weaned early are more likely to engage in this type of behavior. They are known to terrorize shy cats, bully smaller kittens, and pester geriatric felines, in addition to targeting owners.
  • While less dangerous in kittens, older cats who act like predators toward small children or smaller pets can cause serious injury.

This is why it's important to train kittens out of this kind of behavior before it becomes problematic.

Kitten touching hand
Malte Schrmann / EyeEm / Getty Images

How to Stop Aggression

Before trying behavior modification techniques, it's worth a trip to the veterinarian to make sure there isn't an underlying medical condition causing a kitten's aggression. Common cat ailments such as toxoplasmosis, rabies or hyperthyroidism can make an otherwise docile and friendly cat become aggressive with little warning. A checkup to ensure your kitten's overall health should be the first step.

If your kitten gets a clean bill of health, the next step is to curb its behavior. This can take some time because cats are not social animals like dogs and don't respond the same way to aversion therapy. Prepare to be patient.

There are a number of ways you can encourage healthy, vigorous play in your kitten, but avoid aggressive play that can be harmful or result in injury.

  • Place a bell on the attack cat to give other cats in the home time to escape and so that the behavior can be interrupted and stopped.
  • Hissing from an aerosol, a water gun, citronella sprays, and other interruptions may stop an attack in progress. Experiment to find which one works best.
  • A leash and harness can be attached to the cat for control and interruption of undesirable behavior. Simply stepping on the end of the leash can stop pets in their tracks (the challenge may be getting the harness on the animal in the first place, but desperate times call for desperate measures).
  • Play interactive games with all cats to burn off energy. One tip is to move toys perpendicular to the line of sight across the cats' field of vision, rather than toward or away from them, to spark the greatest interest. Interactive play encourages confidence in shy cats so they can learn manners.
  • Create a regular routine that includes specific play times, so the cats build play time into their expected routine.
  • Spay or neuter kittens before their first birthday. This greatly reduces cat-on-cat aggression, particularly if the animals housed together are of different sexes. Sometimes even neutered male cats will bicker with each other.
  • A second kitten of the same age, size, and temperament can often provide a target and playmate and help teach a feisty kitten some bite and claw inhibition. Be sure to properly introduce the pair.