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. It is best to avoid handling a cat when it is in pain. However, that is not always practical, especially when medications must be given or physical therapy needs to be performed. Thus, the approach must be to control the cat to reduce danger to the handler but to minimize the cat's discomfort. In some cases, analgesics may be helpful.

Habituation, desensitization, and counterconditioning exercises to increase a cat's tolerance for being handled may be of benefit as a preventive. Handling exercises performed with a kitten may help raise its threshold for pain-elicited aggression. These exercises can be performed at feeding time. To begin, instruct owners to gently handle all parts of the cat's body while it is being hand-fed. As days go by, the owner should increase the intensity and variety of handling; for example, grooming and claw trimming can be done during these exercises. Although the effects of all painful stimuli cannot be anticipated, a cat that is trained to be relaxed during handling that includes claw trimming and teeth brushing will also be more likely to tolerate handling when it is in pain.


Some cats exhibit learned aggression when an aggressive display successfully removes the source of fear, pain, or territorial intrusion, the behavior is reinforced, and the cat learns to use aggression in future encounters.

Another category of aggression is pathophysiologic, which includes aggressive behaviors that are not typical for domestic cats. Neurologic disorders stemming from conditions such as infections, trauma, or parasite infestations can lead to abnormal behaviors. Aggression due to psychomotor seizures is another rare type of pathophysiologic aggression.

Finally, idiopathic aggression is a catchall for aggressive displays that appear to be unpredictable and for which the underlying cause is unknown. However, most cases in this category probably have a legitimate etiology, but the pertinent information has not yet been elucidated. Cases of redirected aggression or fear-related aggression that resulted from circumstances the owner did not observe are likely to end up in this category. Instruct owners to always be cautious around a cat that behaves aggressively because of an unknown stimulus. Unpredictability increases the danger posed by the cat, and euthanasia should be considered for any cat that is unpredictably aggressive, especially when aggressive arousal typically results in attacks and injuries.


While initiating long-term treatment, owners can take steps to immediately reduce injuries. These steps include regularly trimming aggressive cats' nails, applying Soft Paws (Soft Paws), or having the aggressor cat wear a belled collar during the treatment period. Remember these measures may help reduce injuries, but they don't alter a cat's motivation.

Wayne L. Hunthausen, DVM
Editors' note: Dr. Hunthausen is a technical consultant for Farnam Companies, Inc., which distributes Feliway.

Wayne L. Hunthausen, DVM
Animal Behavior Consultations
Westwood Animal Hospital
4820 Rainbow Blvd.
Westwood, KS 66205

Dr. Hunthausen lectured on this topic at the 2006 CVC East. His paper originally appeared in the conference proceedings.


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