Kick the cat

Kick the cat (or kick the dog[1]) is a metaphor used to describe how a relatively high-ranking person in an organization or family displaces their frustrations by abusing a lower-ranking person, who may in turn take it out on their own subordinate.

Origin of the idiom

The term has been used at least since the 19th century.[2] According to author John Bradshaw, humans were far more cruel to cats at that time, to the extent that kicking one was not perceived to be unusual and hence entered the language as a popular idiom.[3]

The concept was reinforced in British culture by a scene in the Blackadder episode Nob and Nobility in which Edmund Blackadder kicks the cat when annoyed, and the cat bites the mouse, and the mouse bites Baldrick.

In current usage, the name envisions a scenario where an angry or frustrated employee comes home from work looking for some way to take out his anger, but the only thing present is the cat. He physically abuses it as a means of relieving his frustration, despite the cat playing no part in causing it.[4]

Workplace or family dynamics

Kicking the cat is commonly used to describe the behaviour of staff abusing coworkers or subordinates as a mechanism to relieve stress.[5] This behaviour can result in a chain reaction, where a higher-ranking member of the company abuses their subordinate, who takes it out on their own subordinate, and so on down the line. This domino effect can also be seen in family dynamics, where the father yells at the mother who yells at the older child who yells at the younger child who yells at the pet.[6]

Blaming others can lead to kicking the dog where individuals in a hierarchy blame their immediate subordinate, and this propagates down a hierarchy until the lowest rung (the "dog"). A 2009 experimental study has shown that blaming can be contagious even for uninvolved onlookers.[7]

Psychological theories

According to Psychology Today, "Anger and frustration in one part of life can lead us to lash out at innocent people (or pets) in another."[1] The technical term for this kind of behaviour is "displaced aggression".[1]

Kicking the cat is looked upon unfavourably and viewed as a sign of poor anger management.[8] According to author Steve Sonderman, "Men funnel 90 percent of their emotions through anger" and may "kick the cat" as a substitute for grief, anxiety or other emotions.[9] Psychology author Raj Persaud suggests that people "kick the cat" as a means of catharsis because they fear expressing their full emotions to the peers and colleagues.[10]

See also


  1. McGowan, Kat (1 September 2005). "Learning Not to Lash Out". Psychology Today. Retrieved 5 February 2015.
  2. "Journal of Proceedings of the ... Annual Convention of Young Men's Christian Associations of the United States and British Provinces, Volume 14". 1869: 35. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  3. Bradshaw, John (2013). Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet. Basic Books. p. 194. ISBN 978-0-465-04095-7.
  4. Glass, Lillian (1999). The Complete Idiot's Guide to Verbal Self Defense. Penguin. p. 80. ISBN 978-1-440-65074-1.
  5. Quinn, Catherine (23 July 2007). "With colleagues like these". The Guardian. Retrieved 26 November 2014.
  6. Cooney, Beth, Grumpy Ol' Dad, Sun-Sentinel, May 2, 1999. Retrieved 5 February 2015.
  7. Jeanna Bryner: Workplace Blame Is Contagious and Detrimental, LiveScience, 2010-01-19, citing the January 2010 issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.'.
  8. Whiteley, H. Ellen (1994). Understanding and Training Your Cat or Kitten. Sunstone Press. p. 147. ISBN 978-1-611-39080-3. Learn to handle anger or quit the job
  9. Sonderman, Steve (2010). Mobilizing Men for One-on-One Ministry: The Transforming Power of Authentic Friendship and Discipleship. Bethany House. p. 168. ISBN 978-1-441-21376-1.
  10. Persaud, Raj (2011). Staying Sane. Random House. ISBN 978-144-811106-0.
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