The Best Ways to Stop a Cat From Being a Bully
How to Deal With Bully Cats and Aggressive Behavior
For those who are casual cat fans and not multiple-cat owners, you may not realize that there is a hierarchy of order within any group of cats. Each cat has a role within the cat family and within a given place.
Bullying often occurs when adding a second cat to the home. When a new animal, most notably another cat, is introduced into a household, it turns this hierarchy upside down and creates chaos while everyone reestablishes their place. Sometimes, within that situation, one of the cats becomes a bully and the other the target. The most common bullying scenarios include:
- A new cat attacking another cat
- An adult cat bullying a kitten
- A kitten bullying an adult cat
- A cat bullying a dog or puppy
- Multiple cats in the household bullying one cat
- An outdoor or stray cat bullying a household cat
There are some ways to both help the cat (or dog) being bullied and to redirect the bully cat. Below, we'll address each of these scenarios, analyze the situation, and look at ways to correct the problem. In addition, we'll address how to determine if your cats are playing or fighting, how to break up a cat fight, why it is important to spay and neuter, and how to deal with stray and feral cats.
Keep in Mind
The following advice is predicated on the idea that your cat has been spayed or neutered.
Video: The Things Cats Do
How to Stop Cat-To-Cat Aggression
I encourage you to watch the Simon's Cat video (above), as many of the problems that occur when a new cat is introduced into the home are depicted. Some of the behaviors you are observing as abnormal may actually be quite normal.
Say a new kitten is being introduced to the home. Immediately, the established cat begins hissing. He feels that he is now in competition with this new cat for:
- The litter box
Introducing a New Cat to the Home
There are ways to help minimize a cat's stress when a new cat is introduced into the home. If you help to ease the transition, you also reduce the need for either the established cat or the new cat to feel the need to bully.
Territory: Introduce Your Cats Slowly
Introduce the new cat slowly. When you first bring the new cat home, keep him or her in a separate room away from the other pets in the house. If possible, allow them to interact under a door (let them hiss, fight, and stick their paws out if they must).
- Use a Carrier: Bring the new cat out into the home in a cat carrier. Allow the other pets to sniff, interact, and even hiss. This is all part of their introduction.
- Supervise: Allow the other cat out into the house for short periods of time while you supervise. Be ready to separate and move the new cat back to its room if the situation gets too stressful.
Hissing, paw-slapping, and arching of the back are normal behaviors. Establishing a new pecking order takes time—sometimes months. I even once had an older cat that took about a year to acclimate and find his place in the home. The key is to be patient.
Food: Offer Separate Cat Food Bowls
If you think about it, most domesticated pets still have remnants of their feral ancestors. One of the resources that was the hardest to find in the wild was food. Even though the cats in your household get plenty of cat food and water, some of that territorial instinct remains. After all, in the wild, it could mean the difference between life and death.
As cats become acclimated, they may be fine with sharing a food bowl, but until then and even after the new cat is let out into the shared areas in the home, make sure to maintain separate food bowls and keep them in different parts of the house if possible. Also, consider feeding food-driven cats separately (supervise or separate into isolated rooms).
If bullying occurs while the cats are eating, put the cats in two different rooms and close the door so that they can eat in peace.
Litter Box: Provide Enough Litter Boxes or Litter Trays
Another important component with helping a new cat to get established and to prevent bullying behavior is to have enough litter boxes. When a cat uses the bathroom, he or she is at its most vulnerable. If the cat feels threatened, he may forgo the litter box and find a "safer" place to do bathroom business.
- One Litter Box per Cat Plus One: I have a cat who likes to take advantage of other cats using the litter box to pick a fight. To help alleviate this problem, I have added more litter boxes in other parts of the house.
- Create a Safe Environment: If you have a cat that is bullying other cats in the litter box and the litter box is covered, consider taking the top off, at least for a while. This allows the dominated cat to feel like he or she can see around and fend off an attack.
- Keep Them Clean: Make sure the litter boxes are cleaned at least daily to encourage use and prevent misuse.
“The rule of thumb is one litter box per cat, plus one extra.”— Jackson Galaxy, cat whisperer
How to Stop Cats From Fighting
One common myth in the cat world is that cats will "work it out." This is rarely true. Not only will the situation escalate, but your cats or pets are at risk of serious injury. Play it safe, and never use your body to break up a fight.
Methods for Stopping Bullying Behavior in Cats
Consider these alternative methods for preventing cat aggression:
- Do Not Punish: As mentioned, never get physically involved. Cat bites and scratches are serious and require medical attention. Do not use physical punishment. You will damage your relationship with your cat and cause fear; your cat may even begin to redirect on you.
- Use Diversions: If two cats are fighting and you need to break it up, startle them. Try a loud whistle, try throwing a soft towel, use a squirt bottle with water (for emergencies), or use a broom or similar object to separate or startle them without hurting them.
- Verbal Reprimand: Make sure you tell the bully cat "no" in a firm and solid voice when he or she is being dominant. Saying "no" while redirecting the cat will help the cat to learn which behaviors are acceptable and which are not.
- Spray Bottle: A simple spray bottle (like the kind you might use to water houseplants) can be an effective tool against aggressive cat behavior; the water doesn't hurt the cat. Be sure that the cat only gets a squirt of water when it is displaying the unwanted behavior. Couple this with a firm "no."
- Offer a "Safe Space": Consider employing an electronic cat door or cat flap so that the timid cat can occupy a space that is only accessible via an embedded magnet in the collar and seek refuge from the dominant cat.
For your safety and the safety of your pets, never get physically involved while breaking up a fight. Cat bites and scratches require medical attention. Never hit an animal that is misbehaving. The message they get from being hit is that their owner is a bully and is willing to hurt them. This is not a great way to establish a loving pet/owner relationship.
- Don't Change the Environment: Some people think that the social dynamic just needs to be "balanced out." Adding more animals to a hostile environment will only create further stress and dysfunction. It is best to wait for resolution and stability before changing your pets' environment.
- Use Behavior Modification: Cats may not be willing to train like dogs, but their behaviors can certainly be modified. Use cat wands, treats, and the like to distract and create a zone of neutrality—try feeding treats to both cats when they are around each other. Get them to associate something good with their shared space.
- Reduce Stress: Is there stress in your house? Construction next door? Moving? Renovation? Offer your cats a safe place. Stressful noises and events may trigger aggressive or uncharacteristic behavior. Find a quiet room for your cat if your neighbors are making noise next door. Try playing soothing music—there are cat-friendly soundtracks available. Offer secure "hidey" beds and places to seek refuge.
- Pheromones and Calming Aids: Cat pheromones may be purchased commercially. Feliway is one such brand that comes as a spray or wall plug-in and is available for multi-cat households. Some commercial pet stores offer calming, cat-friendly essential oil blends (make sure anything you purchase is cat-safe and veterinarian-approved because some essential oils are toxic). Oral prescriptions (for anxiety or mild sedation) may be beneficial in extreme cases as well. Talk to your veterinarian.
- Behavior Specialists: Consult with a qualified veterinary behaviorist or professional in the field. Often, these professionals can observe triggering issues that aren't obvious to the common cat owner. Sometimes, pain and chronic illness may feed aggressive behavior. A painful cat may feel vulnerable and try to defend itself.
- Rehoming: This is a LAST resort and should be considered if both cats are in immediate danger on a daily basis, and their quality of life is affected. Consider interviewing friends or acquaintances who are looking for an animal companion. If you are without options, consider surrendering your cat to a no-kill shelter. This decision is emotional and extremely difficult, but consider the quality of life and safety of your animals.
Video: How to Keep an Aggressive Cat Away From a Passive Cat
Scenario One: New Cat Attacking Other Cat
As you've read, there are ways to help minimize a cat's stress when adding a new cat to the home. If you help to ease the transition, you are likely to also reduce the need for either to bully.
Why Is My New Cat Attacking My Other Cat?
A confident cat will often go after a passive cat. Let's say you've done a wonderful thing and adopted a second cat, you've taken the time to introduce them slowly, but your new cat continues to go after your current cat aggresively—staring contests, stalking, hissing, growling, scratching, swatting, and blocking.
Have you provided adequate food, litter boxes, territory, and love? Practice patience and employ the above-mentioned techniques. It may take cats anywhere from a few weeks to months and even over a year to finally settle in with one another, depending on the personalities.
Scenario Two: Older Cat Bullying Kitten
So your adult cat is bullying the new kitten. This is a fairly common scenario and not one that can be predicted until the moment of introduction.
Why Is My Older Cat Bullying My Kitten?
Cats don't reach social maturity until 2–4 years of age, so your kitten is a sitting target. A proper introduction is everything, so be diligent, patient, and thorough about introducing your new kitten to your resident cats. Most of all, make sure your kitten has a safe environment to retreat to and a chance to establish itself in the home without the lingering presence of the bully. Supervised interaction is necessary to keep your kitten safe.
Scenario Three: Kitten Bullying Older Cat
Although one would think that an adult cat may be more established and dominant than a new kitten, it is not uncommon for kittens to dominate and bully adult cats. While it is often beneficial to get littermates, this is not always an option. A kitten may arrive in our lives for many reasons—we acquired a stray, felt the desire to adopt—the possibilities are endless.
Why Is My Kitten Bullying My Older Cat?
Although a bully kitten may be small compared to your adult cat, one day the kitten will catch up in size and the bullying behavior and aggression will be even more problematic. The above intervention techniques can be applied, but also consider several tips for adoption success (see below).
How to Choose the Right Cat
Adoption is a wonderful thing. You are saving a life. As a human, imagine randomly being assigned a roommate you've never met—this is exactly what your cat and household pets are experiencing. So, how do you choose the right cat for your household?
Work with adoption specialists to discuss your current cat (or dog's) personality, lifestyle, and traits. An older cat may be better paired with an older dog (and some cats may be labeled "dog-friendly" due to past living situations). A rowdy kitten may pair greatly with an energetic dog, but not do well with a senior cat. Consider your current pets' traits before making a selection based on more superficial characteristics.
Video: Cats Bullying Dogs
Scenario Four: Cat Bullying Dog or Puppy
Despite the old adage that dogs will chase cats, it's often the other way around. While it may make for a funny video, cats bullying dogs and dogs being afraid of cats actually creates a stressful situation for both animals.
Why Is My Cat Bullying My Dog?
The cat is feeling defensive (notice how some of the cats have flattened ears in the video), and the dog is scared and anxious. This is not good for either pet long-term. If you are establishing a dog-to-cat relationship, some of the advice mentioned above applies:
- Introduce them slowly. Allow the established pet to stay in the main part of the home and place the new pet in a closed room or crate. Introduce them slowly and keep the dog on a leash.
- Give them time apart. Give the cat and dog breaks from each other. While they are new, make sure that they sleep apart.
- Make sure to show both pets attention and love. When they are out together, reassure both pets with love, attention, and treats to let them know that you care about them equally.
- Discourage bullying behavior. Try to discourage bullying and domination by either pet. It is not only stressful but can lead to injury.
- Keep your cat's nails trimmed. Unless your cat is getting bullied by your dog and needs its claws for defense, cat claws can hurt, and they are especially dangerous if used near the eyes. Help your bullied dog out and keep those nails short.
Scenario Five: Bullying and Fighting in Multi-Cat Household
As always, multi-cat and multi-pet households make for an interesting dynamic. That's why it's important to socialize your pets and consider new family members that seem capable of handling the current dynamic. When looking to adopt from an animal shelter, consider littermates, bonded pairs, or cats that are housed with other cats, rather than cats that would do better in a single-pet household.
Why Are My Cats Gaining Up on One Cat?
This behavior is also known as inter-cat aggression. Again, ask yourself that important question: Have I provided enough food, litter boxes, territory, and love? Remember to offer one of each resource (cat tree, litter box, food bowl, etc.) per cat plus one extra.
Multi-Pet Households Can Work
The key to having a harmonious, multiple-pet household is patience, love, and a little bit of training. Aggressive cats can learn to stifle their behavior. After the posturing, hissing, and fighting is over, the cat may discover that he or she has a new best friend. Sometimes too, aggressive cats simply need more play or stimulation to extinguish their extra energy.
A bully cat can be a frustrating experience. Keep working with your pet and consult a vet if the behavioral issues are worrisome, a pet gets injured, or the situation does not improve.
Scenario Six: Outdoor Cat or Stray Cat Bullying Resident Cat
Unfortunately, keeping your cats indoor-only is the only way to prevent an altercation with outdoor or stray cats. The terror can still persist through the windows and via scent—stare downs and territorial marking—and even lead to spraying or redirected aggression in the house. Cat flaps and cat doors make this problem ever-more-real, as neighborhood cats entering into a cat owner's home has been well-documented with video footage.
Why Is My Cat Being Bullied by My Neighbor's Cat?
Bullying is, unfortunately, a symptom of the feline world. It's also rooted in survival. Out in the real world (outdoor-cat-life), the stakes are even higher. There is a need for territory, food, and dominance.
First and foremost, if you notice a bully cat lingering near your home and you have indoor-outdoor cats, make sure your cats are properly vaccinated. Bite wounds are the source of several infectious viruses, including FIV, FELV, and the less common but deadly rabies virus.
Try Some Natural Cat Deterrents
Cats are both curious and neophobic—that is, if they come across something new and potentially terrifying, they will avoid it at all costs. If you have an especially aggressive stray cat in the neighborhood, consider natural deterrents:
- Motion-censored spotlights or sprinklers
- Motion-activated noise deterrents (ultrasonic sound)
- Tactile and sensory deterrents (chicken wire laid flat in high-activity areas)
- Human intervention (ask your neighbor to regulate their cat's whereabouts)
Are My Cats Playing or Fighting?
This is a common question asked by cat owners. While mock-fighting is normal and is an important part of the development of any cat (these behaviors include stalking, chasing, and pouncing), it is sometimes difficult to determine whether cats are playing or fighting. In order to make that determination, let's take a look at some important clues:
- Body Language: Take a look at the cats' posture. Upright, forward-pointing ears or ears that are mildly angled back indicate general friendliness or playfulness, whereas flattened ears angled back indicate hostility, irritation, or aggression. Are claws sheathed or unsheathed? Pawing is totally normal so long as the claws aren't out, but watch out for unsheathed claws coupled with a cat that is leaning back and swiping. Also, watch out for hair standing on end (piloerection) and a burled tail—these signs indicate a hostile climate.
- Rules of Fair Play: Do your cats take turns? Starting and stopping play is normal, whereas true hostility climaxes fast and is enduring. Do your cats take turns dominating? Some biting or nibbling is totally normal so long as it is noninjurious, but biting in sensitive areas is off limits.
- Vocalization: Growling and hissing is a solid indication that things aren't friendly. Yelps may also indicate which cat is being attacked. Silence usually means that fair play is commencing.
- The Aftermath: Do your cats avoid each other after an encounter, or are the cuddling, grooming each other, and sharing the same cat food bowl shortly after? Oftentimes, hostility will persist. Play pals will typically return to their usual activities once they have tired.
Cat Communication: What Is Your Cat Saying?
Feline Social Behavior: How Do Cats Communicate?
When you have more than one cat in your house, there is a social structure. Depending on the personality of the cat and the age, the cats may seek each other's company, may ignore each other, may actively dislike each other, or may have a bully/victim relationship.
Cats are solitary creatures by nature and not pack animals, but both feral and domesticated cats have adapted to group-living. Feral colonies, for instance, may form around food sources. These colonies are considered matrilinear and consist of females and kittens, similar to a pride.
According to the International Cat Care charity, cats will generally establish a homing zone as well as hunting territory, which may overlap into neutral grounds upon which social interaction (both positive and negative) may occur. Their social structure can be much more complicated and less reflective of a hierarchy than as seen with dogs. Bonding is often dependent on blood relation between littermates, mothers, and kittens, and male cats tend to be pushed out of colonies once they reach sexual maturity and take to a more solitary life.
Cats Use Scent to Communicate
Cats rely heavily on olfactory communication and mark their territory using scent glands. Scent from urine, feces, and anal glands aid communication; unneutered male cats are notorious for "spraying" a strong, odorous, oily urine to establish territory. Pheromones (chemicals that trigger social responses) are excreted from the mouth, face, lower back, tail, and paws of the cat and are master communicators as well.
Some feline behavior specialists recommend synthetic feline pheromones for use within trouble-prone households, both for highly anxious cats and multi-cat households.
Why You Should Spay or Neuter Your Pet
If there are behavioral or bullying issues between your cats, making sure that they are fixed (spayed, neutered, or sterilized) is the first step in reducing the problem. This not only calms both pets down but is also important as a public service.
According to the ASPCA, 1.5 million shelter animals are euthanized (670,000 dogs and 860,000 cats) every year because of a lack of homes.
Allowing your pet to reproduce adds to the problem of pet overpopulation. Be a part of the solution. Here are some of the additional benefits of spaying and neutering:
- Diminished marking and spraying of cat urine outside of the litter box and around the house.
- Reduced reproductive behaviors, such as when a female cat goes into heat (yowling, vying for affection, and hyperactivity).
- Removed risk of reproductive cancers—mammary, testicular, uterine.
- Reduced roaming, escaping, and disappearances (related to reproductive behavior).
Frequently Asked Questions: What to Do About Stray or Feral Cats
Stray and feral cats are starkly different. Stray cats have either been lost or abandoned but warm up to social interaction. Feral cats, on the other hand, have not been socialized with humans and are extremely fearful. Their offspring, if not captured and socialized within a given window, will become fearful of humans as well. Stray and feral cats often either free-roam or join an established colony.
Take action accordingly and never handle a fearful cat. On the other hand, if a stray cat is friendly and seemingly healthy, has a collar, or can be scanned for a microchip, consider reuniting the cat with its owner. As for feral cats, refer to your local Trap-Neuter-Release or TNR program.
What Is Trap-Neuter-Release or TNR?
TNR programs offer a nonlethal means to lessen the feral cat population over generations. These organizations work to humanely trap feral cats, neuter them, and release them. Volunteers will then follow up and continue to monitor these feral colonies in order to watch for signs of disease and to remove kittens that may be rehabilitated and adopted out. Here are some of the benefits:
- Vaccinations and herd health management
- Tipping of ears to designate previous spaying and neutering
- A reduction in pet homelessness
- Reduced sexual behaviors (marking, fighting, and foul odor)
- Reduced feral offspring
Video: Hero House Cat Saves Boy From Dog Attack
When Is Bullying Behavior Good?
As odd as it sounds, sometimes, your cat being a bully is exactly what you need. In this case, an aggressive dog meets a bully cat, and the result is wonderful.
This cat saved its four-year-old owner from a dog attack. As the dog pulled the child off his riding toy, the cat bravely chased the dog away. In this case, the best action is rewarding the hero with some treats, a new scratching post with catnip, and lots of pets and snuggles.
This article is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional or licensed animal behaviorist. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress or questionable behavior should be seen by a veterinarian.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
Questions & Answers
We have two grown female cats and a 2-year-old male that continually attacks the females. We actually caught him trying to eat one of them one day (he had his mouth wrapped around our other cat's head). We don’t know what to do anymore. Can you help us?
He is likely still being playful even if it doesn't look like. Try clapping or spraying a water bottle when he is engaging in this behavior.Helpful 71
I adopted a new four-year-old male cat. I have five cats already that are about same age, and only one is male. The new cat bullies all of them, but is especially hard on the boy. Now, my boy cat keeps peeing everywhere even though I have six litter boxes, and he has no internal issues based on what vet says. What could be the problem?
The problem is, in a word, stress. New dynamics were introduced. The boy cat needs a place of his own (a bedroom or bathroom) and a slow reintroduction to everyone including the new cat. This is not uncommon.Helpful 49
We have two cats (three and two years old) that keep fighting. The vet says that because the one is “hunting” the other it’s trying to establish dominance. Is there a way to diminish that?
Time. Allow them to work it out and establish their positions in the home, and it will work itself out.Helpful 1
I have a four-month-old kitten that is "food bullying" my four-year-old cat. The kitten is male; the older one is female. My older cat is losing weight, and I'm not sure how to make him stop trying to steal her food. What can I do?
The kitten is still pretty young and is just learning how everything works. You need to feed them separately so that the older cat gets the food she needs. You can also try supervising during meals and redirecting the kitten to his bowl when he tries to start bothering her. He is trying to figure out how everything works right now and, at that age, they are super playful and it may appear as bullying but is more than likely just an abundance of energy and enthusiasm.Helpful 2
We have a male Siamese mixed cat. He's about three years old. We also have a 7-month-old daughter. Cinders lived with my mother-in-law until a month ago when we moved in with her. Now he will randomly attack my daughter. Is there a way to get him to stop? We don't want to get rid of him.
He's jealous. Siamese are super smart. Try to make sure you spend time with him. Maybe get him some toys and cat nip to entertain him. It will pass as the baby gets older. My Siamese did the same when my kids were babies.Helpful 14
© 2014 L C David