Why Do Cats Attack When Frightened? The Instinctive Reasons Behind Aggressive Scratching


Scratching is a natural instinctive behavior in cats that serves several important purposes. Cats have scent glands in their paws and scratching leaves both a visual mark and a scent mark on surfaces. Scratching and other marking behaviors like rubbing help cats claim their territory. Many cat owners are familiar with the destructive scratching cats can do to furniture, carpets, and more. While this can be frustrating, it’s important to understand why cats scratch. Often, destructive scratching is a sign that a cat’s needs are not being fully met.

Cats may increase scratching behaviors when feeling stressed or anxious. The act of scratching releases endorphins which have a calming effect. When a cat is confronted with a perceived threat or scary situation, their instinctive fight-or-flight response kicks in. Scratching and biting are components of the fight response. So cats may scratch defensively when scared as an instinctive reaction. By better understanding the motivations behind feline scratching, cat owners can take steps to manage and redirect scratching behaviors in a humane, cat-friendly way.

Fight or Flight Response

When cats feel threatened or scared, their instinct is to either fight or flee the situation. Scratching is often a defensive behavior when a cat goes into “fight” mode but can’t escape. According to Hartz, “Fearful cats will often attack as a defense mechanism when they can’t escape or have nowhere to hide.” The scratching is an automatic reflex when the cat feels cornered and is trying to protect itself. Cats have an innate prey drive, so anything they perceive as scary or dangerous can trigger their fight or flight response. Scratching is a way for them to try to create distance from the threat or inflict damage as a warning. Even if the trigger seems minor to us, it can provoke an intense defensive reaction in cats due to their survival instincts.

Marking Territory

When cats feel threatened or stressed, they may scratch surfaces to mark their territory and help them feel more secure. This instinctive territorial behavior serves to define their space and make it smell like home. According to Orange County, NC, cats have scent glands in their paws that release pheromones when they scratch, allowing them to leave their scent. Scratching visually marks the area as theirs, while also depositing their scent. It provides reassurance by allowing the cat to feel ownership over their environment.

Marking helps relieve anxiety since their scent implies safety, familiarity, and security. As VCA Hospitals notes, cats are unlikely to spray or mark territory in areas they use for sleeping, eating or scratching since those zones already belong to them. However, when scared, they may feel the need to re-mark these areas. Scratching overplaces they’ve scratched before is comforting. The ASPCA adds that cat-to-cat conflict often causes marking, since they feel the need to define their space when threatened.

Redirected Aggression

Cats sometimes scratch or bite when they are frustrated or scared but cannot reach the direct cause of their agitation. This is called redirected aggression or displaced aggression. For example, if your cat sees another cat outside through a window and becomes agitated, he may redirect that frustration towards you or another pet if you approach him at that moment. According to VCAA, cats often scratch people or objects in these situations as an outlet when the source of their stress is out of reach.

Displaced scratching most often occurs when a cat is feeling territorial insecurity, fear, or anxiety but cannot scratch or attack the root cause. The Purrfect Post explains that cats may scratch when frustrated if they view their territory as threatened by things like a stray cat outside or remodeling in the home. Since the direct threat is out of reach, the cat scratches or bites a nearby object or person as an outlet. This displaced scratching allows them to physically exert their stress.

Self-Calming Scratching

Cats will often scratch themselves as a way to self-soothe when feeling anxious or stressed. The repetitive motion of scratching releases endorphins that can have a calming effect. Scratching can be thought of as a kind of “feline comfort food” that makes cats feel better in the moment 1. However, excessive scratching in response to stress can lead to hair loss, wounds, and skin infections if not addressed.

Stressed cats may energetically scratch various body parts like their neck, back, or base of the tail. The action seems to relieve anxiety and tension. Pet owners may notice increased scratching when introducing changes to the home environment or schedule. Scratching more than normal could signal a cat is having trouble coping.

While scratching provides temporary relief, it is not a solution for ongoing stressors. Identifying and reducing sources of stress is the best way to curb anxious scratching. Providing more vertical scratching posts, cat trees, and places to perch up high can also help redirect the scratching impulse in a healthy way.

Sharpening Claws

One of the primary reasons cats scratch, even when scared, is to keep their claws sharp. Cats have an instinctive need to scratch objects in order to remove old layers from their claws and maintain proper claw health. According to the ASPCA, “Because cats’ claws need regular sharpening, cats have a strong desire to scratch objects to remove frayed and worn outer claws.”

Cats scratch for many reasons beyond just keeping their claws sharp, but sharpening is a key motivator. Even when a cat is frightened by something, their instinct to scratch can kick in as a means of claw maintenance. The ASPCA notes, “They scratch while stretching. They scratch to mark territory or as a threatening signal other cats. And because cats’ claws need regular sharpening, cats also scratch on appropriate objects simply to remove the dead husks from their claws.”

So when a cat is scared and scratches, it may be an instinctive grooming behavior and not necessarily aggression. The scratching action helps cats shed the old outer layers of their claws to reveal new, sharp points underneath. Keeping their claws in top condition can be a high priority, even in frightening situations. Providing suitable scratching posts and surfaces can allow cats an outlet for this natural maintenance scratching.


Cats may scratch as a way to express fear, anxiety, or unease. When a cat feels threatened, scared, or insecure in its environment, it may scratch on walls, furniture, floors, etc. as a form of communication. Scratching in these situations allows the cat to release nervous energy and emotion, while also sending a signal to others that they are uncomfortable with the circumstances. This territorial marking serves as a warning sign to potential threats and lets other animals or humans know the cat does not feel safe. Scratching due to fear is often excessive or occurs in unusual areas as an urgent attempt to regain security. Understanding scratching as communication can help identify sources of stress and allow owners to make their cat feel more relaxed through environmental modifications, routine, or confidence building.

For more information see: https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/scratching-behavior-in-cats

Breed Differences

There are certain cat breeds known to be less likely to exhibit scratching behaviors when scared. For example, according to the Quora article “Which cat breed scratches the least?” (https://www.quora.com/Which-cat-breed-scratches-the-least), breeds such as the Ragdoll, Birman, and British Shorthair are often described as less prone to scratching compared to other breeds. The mellow temperaments of these breeds may make them less reactive when frightened.

In contrast, breeds like the Siamese and Bengal are known for being more active, vocal, and prone to scratching behaviors. Their naturally energetic natures may lead to increased scratching when scared as an instinctual response. However, each individual cat’s personality plays a role as well. Proper training and redirecting scratching to acceptable surfaces can help curb unwanted scratching in any breed.

Preventing/Redirecting Scratching

There are several tips to help prevent or redirect scratching behavior in cats:

Provide scratching posts: Giving your cat appropriate scratching surfaces like posts and boards made of sisal or cardboard can help satisfy their need to scratch (Preventive Vet). Place these in areas your cat frequents.

Use catnip or treats: Rubbing catnip or treats into the scratching posts makes them more attractive to cats. Praise or give treats when your cat uses the post.

Trim the claws: Keeping your cat’s nails trimmed helps minimize damage if they do scratch furniture. Introduce trimming gradually.

Protect furniture: Use double-sided sticky tape, aluminum foil, plastic covers, or a repellent spray on furniture to deter scratching. Or place scratching posts directly in front of furniture.

Consider synthetic pheromones: Products like Feliway contain pheromones that can reduce stress and anxiety related to scratching (PAWS).

Redirect scratching: If you catch your cat scratching furniture, interrupt the behavior with a loud noise and take them to an appropriate scratching surface. Reward with praise or treats.

Provide enrichment: More playtime, climbing spaces, and activities can reduce unwanted scratching from boredom or stress.

Avoid declawing: Declawing is inhumane and can cause further behavioral issues. Redirected scratching is a more effective solution (ASPCA).


In summary, the scratching behaviors seen in cats when they are scared or startled can be attributed to several key causes. First and foremost, scratching is an instinctual reaction stemming from the fight or flight response. When frightened, cats will either try to defend themselves through aggression or escape the perceived threat. Scratching allows cats to do both by preparing to attack with claws out and by gaining traction to flee quickly.

Marking territory by scratching is another deeply ingrained feline instinct. When scared, some cats will scratch nearby objects or surfaces to visibly claim the area and warn off potential threats. Scratching when startled can also be a form of redirected aggression, as the cat transfers their negative response from the fear trigger to the physical act of clawing.

Self-calming is another factor, as the rhythmic motion of scratching helps soothe cats when they feel unsafe and anxious. Maintaining sharp claws through scratching is also important for cats in order to fully engage their hunting instincts and protect themselves. And finally, scratching communicates strong emotions and alertness to other cats in the vicinity.

Understanding the meaning behind scare-induced scratching provides crucial insight into natural cat behaviors. This knowledge allows cat owners to better meet their pet’s needs in terms of territory, introduction of new pets or people, outlets for scratching, and strategies to minimize fear and anxiety responses overall.

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