by Dr. Lindsey Workman
Feline aggression can be a frustrating situation to deal with for both owners and other pets involved. Although it would seem that cat bites would be less serious than dog bites due to their smaller size, cat bites actually have a higher risk of resulting in significant infection. In addition, fewer cats are regularly vaccinated for rabies, and outdoor cats may have increased risk of exposure to rabies. Beyond the risks involved with cat bites, people can also acquire “cat scratch fever” from transmission of the bacteria Bartonella following cat scratches. This can result in a local sore, infection in the lymph nodes, fever, headache, and can even spread to other areas of the body in people with compromised immune systems.
Signs of aggression in cats can include staring, tail flicking, puffing of the tail, dilated pupils, flattening of the ears, hissing, growling, spitting, blocking access to resources or locations, swatting, scratching, and biting. The cause of aggression in cats can include fear, play, dominance, petting related, redirected, and medical causes including pain, thyroid disease, and neurologic disease.
As creatures of routine, cats often experience fear in new environments or situations. A single negative experience with a particular person, other pet, or location may lead to fear-related aggression in a cat.
Play related aggression may be displayed as inadvertently hurting a person or other pet during overly rambunctious play or stalking and pouncing on a person or other pet. Play related aggression may develop due to inadequate socialization as a kitten, promotion of inappropriate play by owners, or overall lack of stimulation.
Dominance related aggression in cats will often be directed at other cats in the household and may include controlling access to specific resources such as food, water, litterboxes, toys, and resting places.
Petting related aggression in cats may be due to an overall hypersensitivity to touch or pain in specific areas of the body.
Redirected aggression occurs when a cat is in an agitated state and displays aggression towards someone other than the inciting cause of the agitation. Abnormal sounds, smells, or noises may agitate the cat, but the aggression is directed at a person or other pet that attempts to interact with this cat when they are in this agitated state. Finally, various medical conditions may cause a cat to become aggressive including an overactive thyroid gland, neurologic disease, or pain from arthritis, gastrointestinal disease, dental disease, or urinary tract disease.
Understanding the underlying cause of your cat’s aggression will help your veterinarian to determine a treatment plan for the aggression. Your veterinarian will want to do a thorough physical exam looking for signs of pain, basic bloodwork and urinalysis, and thyroid testing. Once medical causes have been ruled out or treated, a thorough history relating to the nature of the aggression is important.
It is important to consider any recent changes or traumatic events that happened prior to the aggression, in what situations the cat displays aggression, and who the aggression is directed at. It is also important to closely examine the interactions between pets as another pet may be displaying less overt signs of aggression such as blocking access to the litterbox while the perceived aggressive cat is reacting to this situation. Cats displaying aggression towards other pets should be separated with a slow reintroduction involving counter-conditioning to create a positive association between the pets. The individuals involved can be placed on opposite sides of a door when being fed/given treats or in separate, small kennels when eating that are gradually brought closer together as they learn to associate a positive thing such as eating with the presence of the other pet. Any signs of aggression during this reintroduction should be interrupted to prevent escalation.
For a cat displaying aggression due to fear, triggers should be identified and either avoided if possible or the cat counter-conditioned to create a positive association with this trigger. It is also important for fearful cats to have plenty of hiding and safe spots that they can escape to if needed. If a particular cat is instigating most fights, a belled collar can be placed on that cat to provide warning to other pets when they are approaching.
Cats that are displaying play related aggression should be provided with ample sources of play to provide adequate stimulation. Owners should avoid play with their hands and feet as this can promote play related aggression towards people. Toys such as laser pointers and feather wands can allow an owner to play with their kitty while keeping the cat a safe distance away from the owner’s hands and feet. If a cat does display aggression towards an owner during play, it should not be rewarded with continued play but rather the cat should be ignored until they can play nicely.
Many cats display aggression related to being petted or handled. The owner may need to change the duration, style, or area of body that they pet if the cat shows a particular preference. The owner can also try counter-conditioning in which the pet receives treats during petting to create a positive association. At any sign of agitation, the owner should stop petting or handling the cat.
In addition to behavioral management, cats displaying aggression may benefit from pheromone therapy such as Feliway. Feliway is a synthetic feline facial pheromone that has a calming effect on most cats. Some cats may also benefit from anti-anxiety medications that can be prescribed by your veterinarian.
Perhaps one of the most important aspects to remember is to avoid punishment of an aggressive cat as this will often worsen the cat’s anxiety and fear causing an overall worsening of the situation. In the event of an aggressive situation, it is best to interrupt the behavior and separate/isolate the cat for at least 1 hour. Blankets, pillows, or squirt bottles will often be needed to safely interrupt the behavior or herd the cat to an isolated room.
If your cat is displaying aggressive behavior, the first step in successfully treating this behavioral problem is contacting your veterinarian. Aspen Ridge Animal Hospital is a certified Cat Friendly Practice that can help you make a plan to overcome your kitty’s aggressive behavior.
Dr. Lindsey Workman appears courtesy of Aspen Ridge Animal Hospital in Lakeside. For more information about this health topic or others, please call (928) 537-5000.