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.


Play aggression is likely when a kitten is the only pet in the home and the family is away most of the day. Most kittens engage their peers in rough and tumble play. When feline playmates are not available, kittens are likely to engage people in similar activities. Damage is usually minimal, but injuries may be serious if a family member has fragile skin, is immunocompromised, or takes an anticoagulant or if the play attacks are directed toward the face. Owners often contribute to the problem by playing with kittens in a way that encourages attacks on hands or feet. Although some young male cats can be wild and frightening to family members, play aggression usually has a favorable prognosis.

Treatment. Play aggression is one of the few behavior problems for which a second pet may be recommended. A second cat of the same age and temperament will usually satisfy the first cat's need for active play, and it is important that the cat have an acceptable outlet for this normal behavior.

Tell the owner to stop engaging the cat in rough play. Playing with the cat should involve tossing or dangling toys for the cat to chase and catch—all chase and attack behaviors should be directed away from the owner. Interactive toys that dispense treats or catnip may help.

Owners should avoid punishment such as yelling, thumping, or swatting cats since these may cause pets to either fear the owners or engage in rougher play. A blast of air from a compressed air can directed over a cat's head or a water gun or a sharp noise directed at the cat may discourage problem behaviors. Aversive techniques should always be matched to the individual cat's temperament, and nothing should be used that causes fear or a strong avoidance response.

Problems with other cats in the home occur when the object of play is another cat that is passive, weak, fearful, or old and can't tolerate the young cat's playful behavior. Initially, the cats should be separated unless a family member is supervising. The owner should provide lots of appropriate toys and playtime to help satisfy the young cat's need for play. During the separation period, the young cat should be taught by using food lures to come on command. Just before allowing the young cat into the room with the victim cat, the owner should exercise the young cat vigorously. Whenever the victim moves and the young cat orients toward it, the young cat should be called for a treat. The owner should never yell at the young cat to try to stop it from going after the victim cat because this will further stress the victim cat, which is already anxious. A water gun can be used to discourage the young cat's exuberant play directed toward the victim cat without further stressing the victim cat. Sometimes the victim cat becomes so stressed that it hides, housesoils, or becomes anorectic. In that case, giving medication (paroxetine, fluoxetine, buspirone, alprazolam, lorazepam [Table 2]) to the victim cat may help reduce its fear. Using the synthetic pheromone Feliway (Ceva Santé Animale) in the environment may also help. In time, the cats should be allowed to spend more time together unsupervised.

Redirected aggression

This type of aggression—probably the most dangerous—can result in frightening, vicious, and damaging attacks. It occurs when a cat is stimulated to an aggressive state of arousal and directs its aggression toward a person or animal that was not the cause of the arousal.8 Intermale, territorial, and fear-induced are the types of aggression that are likely to be redirected.7

The attack usually occurs when a person or animal approaches or touches the aroused cat. Male cats are more likely to show this type of aggression.9 Stimuli for aggressive arousal include the sight, sound, or odor of another animal; unusual noises; or unfamiliar people or environments. The aroused cat may exhibit growling, yowling, nervous pacing, piloerection, tail lashing, dilated pupils, and a fixed gaze directed toward the arousal stimulus. One common scenario is that of a cat sitting in a window and becoming aroused after seeing or hearing another cat. When someone attempts to pet the cat, pick it up, or nudge it away from the window, it attacks. Another scenario involves an indoor cat that escapes to the yard and is frightened by another animal or the unfamiliar environment. If the arousal level is high enough, the cat may bite when the owner tries to pick it up to take it indoors.


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