Helping owners handle aggressive cats - Veterinary Medicine
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Helping owners handle aggressive cats
Managing a hissing, spitting, or growling cat is no veterinarian's idea of an easy case. But helping owners uncover the source of their cats' aggression and treating the problem behaviors can improve both patients' and clients' quality of life.


Treatment. Counterconditioning and desensitization—which involve gradual, controlled exposure to triggering stimuli—can be used to successfully treat cats that are afraid of people or other animals. These techniques involve repeatedly exposing a cat to the fear-eliciting stimulus at a distance from which the cat is aware of the stimulus but is not close enough to show a fear response. The cat is given a highly desirable reinforcer, such as food, whenever it sees the stimulus. Very slowly, over weeks to months, the stimulus is gradually brought closer to the pet.

Food is often used for counterconditioning during training. It can be a powerful tool to overcome fear if special treats are withheld at all times except during exposure training. To create a positive association with the stimulus, the owner should offer highly palatable food when the cat is just far enough from the fear-eliciting stimulus to be relaxed. For example, if the fear-inducing stimulus is a young woman approaching the cat and the threshold for an anxious response is 10 ft, then the woman should approach within 15 ft of the cat. If the cat shows no sign of anxiety, then the owner should give the cat a tasty food treat (e.g. cooked meat, fish, freeze-dried treats, semimoist cat food). Gradually, over the course of many exposures, the young woman should come closer and closer to the cat. Patience is particularly important since the training must proceed slowly.

Some owners begin training by having a visitor extend his or her hand with a food treat toward the pet's face. Since the food reward is initially not strong enough to overcome the proximity of the fearful stimulus, this method usually doesn't work. In fact, it usually makes things worse. But asking visitors to be quiet, move slowly, avoid eye contact, and ignore the cat as they casually toss treats to it is a simple technique that can be successful in most homes.

Table 2. Drugs and Dosages Commonly Used for Behavior Problems in Cats
An open wire crate may be helpful in training because it allows an owner to expose a cat to the sight, sound, and odor of a stimulus without the cat's escaping or causing harm. The person or animal that elicits the fear response must be gradually exposed to the cat during many repetitions, never getting close enough to elicit fear or anxiety. A body halter and leash may also be used if tolerated by the pet. Punishment must be avoided since it will likely increase a cat's fear and escalate the aggressive behavior.4

Medication such as paroxetine, fluoxetine, buspirone, alprazolam, or lorazepam (Table 2) may be helpful in reducing fear and anxiety to a level low enough to allow behavior modification to begin. Diazepam has been used to treat fear-induced aggression in cats,5 but it should be used with caution—if at all—since it has been associated with fatal hepatopathy in rare cases.6

Play aggression

The most common type of aggressive behavior cats exhibit toward family members is play aggression.7 Young cats or kittens are most frequently presented for this problem. Kitten play typically involves elements of predation (stalking, chasing, attacking, catching, biting), exploration, and investigation. Play objects are often swatted, pounced on, and bitten. Sometimes, the cat will arch its back and hop sideways toward the play object. Bites are usually inhibited and swatting tends to be done with retracted claws, but serious injuries can occur during uninhibited play. Unlike other forms of feline aggression, vocalizations during play aggression are rare. The lack of hissing, growling, and screaming usually differentiates this behavior from more serious types of aggression.


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