Fear aggression is the most common type of aggression in cats. A certain percentage of cats simply inherit the “shy gene” and act aggressively every time they get scared. Poor socialization can also lead to fear of aggression. The owner’s punishment will make the situation worse. Cats may develop “unfamiliar danger” fears and respond aggressively to people, places, other cats, certain noises, and even smells. They can generalize one scary experience (such as a ride to the vet) to all future rides. A “bad” incident with a long-time feline friend can sour the relationship and trigger aggression between cats.
Identifying Cat Fear Attacks
In order to train your scared cat not to be aggressive, you need to be able to identify their triggers. Scared cats quickly learn that aggressive behavior makes the scary “stuff” go away. Once the behavior is learned, they use it repeatedly to avoid triggering. Affected cats may switch from offense to defense and back again during arousal. They display a mixture of defensive physical cues (ears flattened, tail curled, crouching, and tilting) and aggressive cues (hairy, baring teeth, hissing, growling, flapping, biting, and scratching). Usually, their pupils dilate regardless of the amount of light present.
If you can identify triggers, it will be easier for you to reassure the cat and help neutralize the cat’s fearful aggression. If the cat’s fearful aggression is mild and you can avoid the triggers that make your kitty aggression, no other treatment may be needed. If this is not the case, and triggers cannot be avoided or identified, you need to work to eliminate the fear.
Consult a veterinarian
Your first step should be to schedule a veterinary examination. Sometimes aggressive behavior can indicate a cat’s health, even if it doesn’t appear to be sick. This is especially true if the cat exhibits sudden behavioral changes. If your cat has not been spayed or neutered, you may consider doing so. Physical changes may affect their behavior (by becoming less aggressive) but should be discussed with a veterinarian before making any decisions.
Learn about triggers
If your cat doesn’t have any medical problems, it’s important to figure out the cat’s tolerance level and reaction distance. For example, your kitty may be fine as long as the trigger is held six feet away, but will show fear at five feet. Avoid situations by maintaining an appropriate distance between the frightened cat and potential triggers. Then slowly decrease the distance or gently increase the trigger time to let the cat know there is no reason to be afraid. How easily you get into the trigger may depend on what the exact trigger is. Talk to your veterinarian for advice, especially if the cat’s triggers are absolutely unavoidable.
Create a safe space
Increase the number of quiet areas and hiding spots available to cats in the house. Raised perches like shelf space and hidden cubby boxes make cats feel more secure. Create an abundant house by providing plenty of toys, scratching posts, and litter boxes (at least one plus one per cat) to reduce competition with other cats.
Visual contact increases a cat’s arousal and may increase or make aggressive episodes worse. If another cat is causing stress, separate the cats with a sturdy door to calm the anxiety. Use Feliway or a similar cat pheromone product to relieve cat stress. Rescue Remedy or other floral essences can help shy and scared pets, so add a few drops to their water.
Focus on play and training
Use interactive games to build feline confidence. A beam of a fishing rod toy or a light pointer can allow the cat to play with you, but is far away and unlikely to trigger an attack. Training your cat to do tricks can build confidence and help improve your bond. You can use clicker training to communicate with and show approval to your cat. Use positive reinforcement and counter-conditioning techniques to reduce cat-to-cat aggression when the cat’s fearful aggression is focused on another cat.
Problems and Proofing Behavior
A common mistake is expecting an immediate elimination of the fear attack. If you can identify triggers, it will still take time, practice, and consistency to help your cat eliminate fear aggression. Don’t be surprised if they relapse and don’t scold your cat, as this will only make the situation worse. If fear aggression can’t be eliminated, or you’re having trouble identifying triggers, it may be time to seek professional help. A veterinarian or experienced feline behavior specialist will be able to help you and your cat.