Why Is My Cat Mean? - Cat Info Detective

Why Is My Cat Mean?

Skye Blake-updated, white background

Welcome frustrated feline friends! Skye Blake here, sharing answers to your question… “Why is my cat mean?”

Many people think a cat who hisses, pounces, bites, or “goes nuclear” is hating them… they take it personally.

They call them everything from “jerks” to “spawn of the devil”.

paw prints coming in from a distance

But is a “mean” cat really being bad or are there other things going on?

Let’s discover more…

The information here is for general knowledge… always see your vet with questions about your cat’s individual needs. 

Who Is Skye Blake?

Skye Blake-updated, white background

Skye Blake, Cat Info Detective, is a curious cat researcher (not a veterinarian or behaviorist) who sniffs out expert, reliable sources about cats, studies their information, then passes it on to you! 

Sometimes there’s not enough evidence for easy answers, so Skye gives you all sides, explains the situation as thoroughly and clearly as possible, and links you to experts on each page.

Sources are at the bottom of each page so you can do more snooping.

Why Is My Cat Mean?

senior majestic tabby cat with paws crossed, mean

If you’ve read our pages “Behavior… Is My Cat Nuts?” and “The Territorial Cat“, you’ve gotten a good start to finding answers.

Here are the basics…

  • Cats aren’t little dogs
  • Cats are both predator and prey
  • Housecats have the same instincts as our wild cousins
wildcats lounging together
  • Those instincts are to hunt, catch, kill, eat, groom, and sleep
  • Owning territory as safety and survival
  • Territory is everything we can see, smell and hear, including vertical space.
wolf looking ahead, predator

Since we felines are prey as well as predator (middle of the food chain), the need to own territory in which we feel safe is not just important… it’s everything!

If your buddy loves to be up high on the frig, perched on door tops and curtain rods, you have a tree dweller who loves watching the world from a safe distance.

How does this help you deal with a nasty feline? Let’s start with some definitions…

Mean or Aggressive?

Mean

Tabby cat yawning or angry - closeup

What do people mean by “mean”? Is that the same as “aggression”?

When used to describe a behavior, “mean” indicates intent to do harm.

Typically, people think of behaviors like hissing, chasing, biting, and scratching as being mean.

angry, hissing cat

But people tend to project their emotions and even what they’re thinking onto animals and take our behavior personally (“anthropomorphization”).

Felines aren’t capable of being spiteful or malicious (we’re just too fabulous for that!).

Aggression

2 cats preparing to fight

“Aggression” is explained by cat behaviorists as “any behavior that harms – or at least threatens to harm – and is intended to increase the distance between the aggressor and the victim” [emphasis added].1 “Do Cats Mean to Be Mean?” by Terry Marie Curtis, DVM, S, DACVB, Decoding Your Cat, by Editors, American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Co., New York, hmhco.com, p. 145

Notice the difference between “meanness” and “aggression”… intent.

cat claws closeup

Both threaten to harm or cause actual harm, but the motivation is completely different.

Knowing the intent doesn’t make it less painful and scary when you’re on the receiving end.

So, learning the intent and warning signs enables you to take steps to prevent attacks.

Increasing Distance From the Threat

Siamese, ginger, white tabby cats fighting

If your cat is lashing out it’s an instinctive reaction to something perceived as a threat.

It’s intended to increase the distance between her and the threat.

It’s a survival instinct, nothing more.

Cats want to increase distance by running away, making the other critter run away, or disabling or killing the threat.

scared kitten meeting dog

We actually prefer to run away or make the opponent run away… fighting is a last resort.

An exception is when intact (not neutered) tomcats challenge each other and fight to establish their place in the male cat “brotherhood”.

Neutered males don’t do this behavior, which is a good reason to get your cats neutered!

The Intention Exception

hunting tabby cat

There are some aggressive behaviors that we cats do that are not intended to increase distance.

These are normal hunt and play behaviors… not a cat feeling threatened.

Cats who are hunting are usually silent… aggressive cats make noises like growling, spitting and hissing.

Siamese kittens with mother cat

Kittens or improperly socialized adult cats need some way of playing and hunting that doesn’t include your hands and feet.

They usually learn from their mother and siblings how hard they can bite and scratch… but not all cats have that advantage.

When they can’t find ways to meet the need to hunt, that energy builds into frustration, so they find new prey to stalk and kill.

person's feet

Human hands, feet and ankles do just fine, thank you very much!

You can teach your feline buddy to use appropriate hunting outlets and safe play… and have fun doing it too!

Then your hands and feet will no longer be the target.

Discover more at “Playing With Cats the Right Way!

Miscommunication

girl, child talking to, petting cat

Cats have been brought into many homes without any understanding of our needs.

People put a litter box in the garage, food and water bowls in the kitchen and expect us to be fine.

Sorry, folks, it doesn’t always work that way!

woman, cat, finger in paw

People don’t speak “cat” and frankly, we kitties don’t speak people either (ok, we do reserve the “meow” for people).

There’s the real problem… miscommunication!

How do we finally bridge that gap and understand each other?

cat sniffing a finger - training treats

The path to a happy life together is in providing healthy ways to follow our hunting and territorial instincts.

You’re making a good start because you’re here learning!

Here are some things you can do to help your cat(s) feel at home with you.

man holding kitten - veterinary medicine
  • Train everyone in your household how to “read cat”
  • Learn how to discipline the right way with positive association
cat lounging in green flower pot

Kids & Cats

boy, child, toddler petting ginger tabby cat

Children can be cute with cats and learn to be kind and respectful toward animals as well as people.

But it’s important that younger children be supervised so they don’t accidentally (or deliberately) hurt or scare your cat.

If there’s no way to escape, the situation can turn into a horrifying bloodbath quickly.

child, toddler, holding cat, dangling legs

Cat bites and even scratches are no joke… they can become infected if not properly treated.

Unfortunately, the cat will get the blame, when the real problem is that you didn’t supervise the situation.

Discover more about felines and children at “Cat Pee Problems – How to Fix Them!

Other Cats

2 cats nose to nose, facing each other

Cat relationships can be complex, even mysterious (after all, that’s part of our charm!)

We felines aren’t little dogs (hmff, perish the thought!)

There are no lifetime pack leaders and, in fact, cats often trade places within social structures, preferring to get along rather than fight.

2 tabby cats lounging on floor, one yawning

If you have more than one cat, you know that sometimes spats happen, seemingly out of the blue.

There are always quietly aggressive signals between them that people tend to miss.

Cats do things like staring, twitching tails, and flattening ears to let another cat know they need to back off and go away.

sphynx cat staring at camera

If you learn to spot these warning signs, you can head off trouble at the pass.

Redirecting the aggressor to a toy or putting something between them to block the stare are often effective at stopping a fight.

Setting up your home to include “superhighways” is a great way to help cats avoid fights.

Discover more at “How to Stop Cat Fights“.

Bully Cats

cats playing together, bully

Some cats become bullies trying to secure ownership of as much territory as possible.

They’re anxious and worried that they don’t own their territory and have to keep claiming more.

They intimidate others by staring them down, guarding litter boxes or pouncing when they walk by a doorway.

cat & kittens eating from bowls

There can be competition for resources like food, water and beds in important living areas.

The other will shrink around the bully, hugging the walls, slinking underneath and behind furniture, trying to make themselves as small as possible to avoid a fight.

A cat who’s being bullied or stalked will be hunched over, trying to be as small as possible to avoid being a target.

Crouched white kitten looking at camera

She may be sitting in her favorite spot but she’s not happy, relaxed or stretched out.

If you have a bully in the house, you’ll need to work with the aggressor and victims to get them all feeling secure and accepting each other.

Helping each one be confident in their territorial ownership and giving escape routes makes a peaceful world for everyone.

orange tabby by broken mug looking concerned

You may want to hire a behaviorist to come help you deal with the situation properly. It takes some work but is well worth it!

These videos are helpful for understanding how to deal with a bully cat…

“What is the Napoleon Cat? Is Your Cat a Bully? | Cat Daddy Dictionary, Jackson Galaxy, March 4, 2023
“Help Your Shy and Scared Cat Gain Confidence!”, Jackson Galaxy, December 17, 2022

Feline Wars – Battles to the Death

siamese, ginger cats fighting (2)

If your cats are having serious “I’m going to kill you” battles, not only does it disrupt the peace in your home, it puts everyone in danger.

If you’re trying to deal with this situation, safely separate the warring parties in different rooms where they can’t see each other and take a few breaths.

Then check “How to Stop Cat Fights” to learn why this is happening, the different types of aggression, and how you can stop it.

two kittens playing, fighting

If things are this bad and you’re considering getting rid of one or more cats, be sure you try a few things first.

Discuss the situation with your vet because there could be a medical condition that’s causing this behavior.

Then hire a behavior expert to help in your specific situation… their expertise can be a life saver for everyone.

Is Euthanasia an Option?

sad looking cat

Cats are often euthanized because of behavior problems, especially for being fearful and attacking people and other animals.

People don’t want to adopt them, and shelters don’t have the resources necessary to deal with it.

Behavior experts believe strongly that people should give their cats every chance because almost all situations can be resolved.

sad calico cat

There’s more information available for you now and there are also more behaviorists than there used to be.

Their advice is valuable when dealing with complex situations that seem to have no answers.

Pam Johnson-Bennett is a Certified Animal Behavior Consultant and a pioneer in feline behavior.

Tabby cat looking wide-eyed at camera

Here are her thoughts about euthanasia…

“In the many years I’ve been doing this, I have come across a couple of cats who had to be euthanized due to severe aggression (the cause in those cases was an untreatable medical condition). It’s not a decision to be rushed into.”

Think Like a Cat, How to Raise a Well-Adjusted Cat – Not a Sour Puss” by Pam Johnson-Bennett, Certified Animal Behavior Consultant, Penguin Books, Penguin Group (USA) Inc, New York, NY, 2000, 2011, pp. 145-6

Going Forward

cartoon signpost, this way, that way, decision

If you have a feline who’s “mean”, determine what’s causing it and don’t take it personally.

Learning how to deal with that aggression will help you restore peace for everyone.

Properly reintroducing the cats through scent before sight and playing with them both go a long way toward this goal.

It’s a process that’s well worth the results… discover more at “How Do You Do – Introducing Cats” and “Playing With Cats the Right Way!


Sources

Sources used on this website are either primary or secondary.

Primary sources are always preferable and have the most reliable information because they’re original and directly referenced.

Scientific abstracts and data are good examples of primary sources.

Secondary sources are weaker because they usually consist of opinions or articles that give no sources of their own.

However, sometimes they refer to primary sources.

When I use secondary sources, most are those with some authority, such as veterinarian or behaviorist books and articles.

List of Sources

“Bad Moods”, Chapter 13, Cat Wise by Pam Johnson-Bennett, Penguin Books, Penguin Random House LLC, New York, pp. pp. 242-257

“Do Cats Mean to Be Mean?” by Terry Marie Curtis, DVM, MS, DACVB, Decoding Your Cat, by Editors, American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Co., New York, hmhco.com, pp. 143-164

“Feline Aggression: Accepting and Managing Your Cat’s Inner Wildcat”, Chapter 7, The Cat Whisperer by Mieshelle Nagelschneider, Bantam Books, The Random House Publishing Group, New York NY, 2013, www.bantamdell.com, pp. 125-170

How to Train Your Queen Cat to Avoid Aggression” by Amy Shojai, The Spruce Pets, Updated on 03/03/19

“Hissy Spitty Kitties…”, Tiny But Mighty by Hannah Shaw, Plume, Penguin Random House LLC, penguinrandomhouse.com, pp. 148-158

“Sensory and Neural Behavior Problems”, Feline Behavior: A Guide for Veterinarians by Bonnie V. Beaver, DVM, MS, Dept. of Small Animal Medicine and Surgery, College of Veterinary Medicine, Texas A&M University, Texas, W.B. Saunders Co., Philadelphia, PA, 1980, 1992, pp. 43-47

Think Like a Cat, How to Raise a Well-Adjusted Cat – Not a Sour Puss” by Pam Johnson-Bennett, Certified Animal Behavior Consultant, Penguin Books, Penguin Group (USA) Inc, New York, NY, 2000, 2011, pp. 134-147

Total Cat Mojo“, by Jackson Galaxy with Mikel Delgado, PhD, Tarcher Perigree, Penguin Random House, LLC, penguinrandomhouse.com, New York, NY, 2017

Updated December 28, 2023

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