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. Instruct the family to never absentmindedly pet the cat. Desensitization and counterconditioning should be attempted only when the cat voluntarily approaches. The threshold for the bite behavior must be determined, and petting should stop well before the threshold is reached. For example, if a cat always tolerates five seconds of petting but may bite after that time, then petting sessions should initially be three or four seconds. If the cat shows no sign of anxiety or aggression, it should be offered a tasty food treat. The owner should consistently say "good kitty" or some similar phrase every time the cat takes the treat. To encourage the cat's participation in the petting sessions, the sessions should be held just before feeding time and food treats should be withheld except during training. If the sessions take place on an owner's lap, the cat should not be restrained and should be allowed or encouraged to jump down (a treat can be tossed to the floor if necessary) as soon as each session is complete.

Sessions with the cat in someone's lap or next to someone on the sofa should be frequent, and, gradually, the length of the petting sessions should be increased. With time, the cat will learn to tolerate longer and longer petting sessions in anticipation of a food reward. Eventually, the treats can be phased out, and the cue words good kitty can be used without food to promote a relaxed state.

Territorial aggression

Many species engage in territorial aggression to expel or keep out other animals from a discrete, protected area, which helps preserve area resources for the resident or the resident social group. It is a common type of aggression in male and female cats, although it is particularly noticeable in male cats during the breeding season.1 Intrusion into a cat's indoor or outdoor home territory can trigger this type of behavior. Territorial aggression typically does not involve the threat rituals observed in intermale aggression.10

A typical territorial problem occurs when a new cat is brought into the home and the resident cat becomes aggressive toward it. The resident cat focuses intently on the intruder and may take a slow, steady approach as it stalks, or it may immediately attack the new cat. Some cats relentlessly pursue and attack a newcomer. Defensive displays by the new pet may include hissing, growling, yowling, and piloerection. This response often increases the resident cat's arousal and aggression.

Cats may also exhibit territorial or fear aggression toward visitors. Differentiate these two types of aggression by asking the owner about the cat's response to visitors. A territorially aggressive cat is bolder and typically approaches or lunges at a visitor. The lunging may be accompanied by piloerection, growling, and hissing, and batting with forepaws or biting may occur even if the visitor stands still or moves away. A fearful cat generally growls and hisses from a hiding place at a distance and only bites if approached, crowded, or handled. Identifying the aggression type is important because fear-induced aggression has a safer prognosis than territorial aggression does. The arousal caused by territorial aggression accounts for a high percentage of redirected aggression incidents.

False territorial aggression may occur when a cat returns home from a veterinary hospital or groomer. If the cat acts or smells differently than it did when it left the house, another resident cat may show signs of territorial aggression (or fear-induced aggression) until it recognizes its roommate, which may take a few hours to several days or more. The treatment is the same as for territorial aggression related to introducing a new pet.

Treatment. Systematic desensitization and counterconditioning exercises are used to treat territorial aggression.11 For conditioning to begin, the cats need to be able to see each other at a distance yet remain calm. In some cases, administering fluoxetine or paroxetine may reduce the arousal response so that behavior modification can be initiated.12,13 It may take two to four weeks for these medications to become effective. Progestins are rarely recommended because serious side effects are associated with them. Feliway can be helpful in calming some cats.

Behavior modification requires immense patience. Because treating territorial aggression is difficult and potentially dangerous to visitors or another cat, it may be more prudent to confine the cat when people visit and to avoid adopting another cat.


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