Cat Behavior Problems: Aggression Redirected

What is redirected aggression?

cats hissing at window

Redirected aggression occurs when a cat is aroused by another animal, person, or event but cannot physically access the stimulus. For example, if your cat is sitting on a windowsill and sees another cat out on the property, your cat may hiss, growl, and become very agitated, but he cannot reach that outdoor cat. He may become frustrated instead of lunging toward a person or animal in the room.

Why are my cats still fighting even though the original trigger for the redirected attack is gone?

A single redirected event involving two household cats can have a long-term effect on their relationship. First, the recipient cat experiences profound, unexpected fear and could be physically injured. Second, the arousal level of the cat that initiates a redirected attack is very high, a negative emotion. Even though the trigger stimulus has left, the negative emotion is now associated with the companion cat that was the victim of the attack. Sometimes, the recipient cat fights back, adding to the muddle by creating a fear response in the aggressor. In essence, this event becomes a big cat fight!

Cats may remain fearful for hours, days, or weeks after a redirected event. If your cat behaves aggressively toward your other cat, immediately but safely separate them. Do not reach for a cat in the middle of a physical confrontation because you might be bitten; use a heavy towel and thick gloves, or in a true emergency, spray cold water toward the cats. If your cat will not follow you to a room and cannot be safely lifted, try to guide him with a large piece of wood or posterboard as a shield to protect yourself.

"Cats may remain fearful for hours, days, or weeks after a redirected event."

Keep the cats separated for at least 12 hours. Cats tend to calm most quickly when left alone in a quiet, dark room.

When you think they are ready, introduce them with a safe barrier such as a screen door or tall child gate—if they are friendly, it may be safe to allow them to be together. If either cat hisses, growls, lunges, or runs away, separate them again and seek professional help—this is a serious situation.


How should I get my cats back together again?

Reintroductions are best done slowly, as though you were adopting a new cat. Do not attempt to reintroduce until both cats are back to normal, playing and interacting with you when you enter their respective rooms. Allow each cat time to explore the house and relax while the other is still confined. A calming pheromone (Feliway®) in each cat’s living space may be helpful. You can also rub the cats with towels and switch them from one to the other to mix their scents.

Once the cats seem back to their usual selves, begin the reintroduction. Bring the cats to a large neutral area and place a barrier between them.  Observe their reaction to each other. Ideally, they will appear friendly, perhaps rubbing each other through the gate or screen barrier. Feed them snacks and meals across the barrier. If the cats appear calm, with no hissing, growling, or staring, you may be able to remove the barrier. If they tolerate leashes, then have them leashed for safety.

"Allow each cat time to explore the house and relax while the other is still confined."

If there is any sign of fear or aggression—staring, hissing, growling, hiding, or lunging—then separate the cats. You will need to take an even slower approach. It is highly recommended that you seek the guidance of a professional behavior expert, such as a veterinary behaviorist, as redirected aggression can be very challenging to treat. Sometimes, cats are traumatized by the conflict and may benefit from medication to reduce anxiety.

A behavior modification plan will involve desensitization and counterconditioning. If the cats will eat with their dishes a few feet from the barrier, you can schedule daily re-introduction sessions at meal times. If the cats will not eat, move their dishes further apart. Take your time gradually moving the dishes closer together over several sessions. Watch for signs that the cats are ready to interact positively, such as rubbing the barrier, lightly batting each other, or sharing a toy that can be batted through the barrier.

See the handouts “Introducing New Adult Cats”, “Treated Aggression Towards Other Household Cats”, and “Introduction to Desensitization and Counterconditioning” for more information.

What should I do if I am the target of the aggression?

As described under ‘Why are my cats still fighting even though the original trigger for the redirected attack is gone?’, bring your cat to a dark, quiet room and leave him undisturbed for several hours. You may open the door slightly to slide food, water, and a litter box into the room. After about 12 hours, open the door slightly and observe your cat’s response. Bring your cat some more food and place the dish on the floor but do not approach your cat or try to interact. Wait for him to approach you in a friendly manner. You may test his interest by tossing treats or a toy. If he takes an interest and looks to you for more, he may be ready to interact.

"...bring your cat to a dark, quiet room and leave him undisturbed for several hours."

How can redirected aggression be treated?

Behavior Modification
When a trigger for a redirected attack can be identified, treatment can include desensitization and counterconditioning to the trigger. It is not always possible to replicate the trigger. Furthermore, cats that have redirected to one stimulus could redirect to a new, unexpected one. Thus, it is not possible to eliminate all risks of another aggressive conflict.

Nevertheless, it can be helpful to use behavior modification to teach a cat to engage in an alternative response in the face of an expected trigger. Cats can be taught to move to a specific location, such as a chair or cat tree. You should train this skill when your cat is very calm and gradually add distractions. Eventually, your cat will be conditioned to move to the location on cue. If your cat becomes aroused by a trigger, you may be able to cue your cat to ‘go to place’. A behavior expert can help you through this process.

For cats who are aroused mainly by external stimuli, such as other cats, it can be helpful to block your cat’s access to the windows allowing a view of them. Outdoor cat repellants, particularly motion-activated sprinklers, can deter other cats from resting near your window.

Cats that exhibit redirected aggression often experience frustration, anxiety, or arousal in multiple contexts. A veterinary behaviorist can assess your cat to determine if your cat would benefit from taking medication to address these behavioral tendencies.

Always keep a heavy towel handy in several areas of the home. A towel may protect you if your cat aggressively approaches a person or pet.