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AGGRESSION BY CATS TOWARDS PEOPLE
CAUSES OF AGGRESSIVE BEHAVIOR BY CATS TOWARDS PEOPLE
~ Veterinary behavior specialists have classified aggressive behavior by cats into several categories; these categories are very briefly described here.
~ In our experience, most cats that behave aggressively towards people are simultaneously in two or more of the following categories. We believe it is still very helpful to consider which categories of aggressive behavior a particular cat falls in, though, because this will usually help us choose which of the treatment methods represent the best choices; it will also give us a better idea of the likelihood of the treatments working. When we examine a cat who is behaving aggressively, and consult with the owner, categorizing the behavior is one of the important things we attempt to do.
~ AGGRESSION DUE TO LACK OF SOCIALIZATION: Cats that do not have positive contact with people prior to 7 weeks old are unlikely to ever be very sociable pets. Positive contact with people still shapes their behavior until about 4 months old, so there is still an opportunity to influence the behavior of a kitten that is taken into a home at 8 or 12 weeks old.
~ PLAY-RELATED AGGRESSION 1: Social play peaks very early in a kitten’s life; it is replaced by predatory behavior by 10 to 12 weeks of age and social fighting by 14 weeks of age. Kittens that do not have the opportunity to progress naturally through these stages are unlikely to ever play properly.
~ PLAY-RELATED AGGRESSION 2: Some well-intentioned owners play with their cats, but do so in a way that ultimately provokes aggressive behavior. Please see our article on how to play with a cat.
~ FEAR-INDUCED OR DEFENSIVE AGGRESSION
~ PETTING-INDUCED AGGRESSION: A very common problem; please see our article on this topic.
~ PAIN-INDUCED OR IRRITABLE AGGRESSION:: Physical pain (for example, arthritis) and chronic treatments can provoke aggression.
~ MATERNAL AGGRESSION
~ TERRITORIAL AGGRESSION and STATUS-RELATED AGGRESSION: It is unclear whether or not this truly occurs between cats and people.
~ REDIRECTED AGGRESSION: A stimulus that has nothing to do with the human victim raises the cat’s level of agitation to the “boiling point”; when the cat does not have the opportunity to lash out at this stimulus, it turns to the convenient human victim. AGGRESSION BETWEEN CATS IN THE HOME is a problem that occasionally turns into redirected aggression.
~ IDIOPATHIC AGGRESSION: Unprovoked, unpredictable aggressive behavior that has no apparent causes.
EXPECTATIONS / OUTCOME OF THE PROBLEM
~ In most cases of feline aggressive behavior towards people, the best we can hope to do is manage the problem to some degree. It is unwise to ever think that the problem can be cured.
~ To have any hope of any level of positive outcome, it is absolutely essential that the cat be confined as part of the treatment plan.
~ If the cat cannot be confined, or if the cat can be confined but this, along with use of some of the following treatment options, does not help to significantly relieve the aggressive behavior, then euthanasia is often the most humane option.
~ It may seem startling, cruel, or unfair for us to mention euthanasia as a humane alternative, but consider: placing a cat with this type of behavior problem in a new home, or with a rescue organization, is completely unfair to the new owners or the rescue organization. Someone could be seriously injured.
ONE ESSENTIAL PART OF THE TREATMENT PLAN: CONFINEMENT
~ It is absolutely essential that the cat be confined. The safety of people is the most important consideration, and it cannot be assured without confining the cat.
~ The more often attacks are repeated, the more often the cat even starts to feel a little aggressive, the more often attacks will occur, and the more unmanageable the problem will become. It is self-rewarding behavior that escalates; the increase is more rapid and more severe if some mode of successful treatment does not occur.
~ Set up a very comfortable room for the pet (litter, food, water, cat condo, etc), and do not feel guilty about confining it - this step is essential. Employ as many of the following strategies as possible with the cat in confinement first, before trying them with the cat out of confinement.
~ The size of the cat’s haven is not necessarily important; if all that can be managed is a very small space, it is still often worth a try.
~ The cat is not allowed out of confinement for any amount of time unless the owner can absolutely keep all of the people and pets that are interacting with it safe.
~ At first, the goal may be to eventually confine the cat less and less, but we have found that some cats are happier in comfortable confinement than they are out of it. In these cases, it is appropriate to continue the confinement indefinitely.
~ In some uncommon cases it has been possible for pet owners we have worked with to convert the pet into an outdoor-only cat. This can be a reasonable option if the owner has an out-building, for example, a barn, that can serve as the cat’s haven.
ADDITIONAL TREATMENT OPTIONS
~ The cat should not be allowed to sleep with the owners. The pet should have its own place to sleep, ideally confined to comfortable quarters.
~ If the cat is quietly stalking its victims, put a collar with a bell on it.
~ Try to identify any triggers that provoke the cat’s aggressive behavior (noises, animals seen outside the house through the windows, etc), and remove or avoid them, or isolate the cat from them.
~ Some triggers of aggressive behavior are obscure. Consider whether the victims have a certain scent (soap, perfume, baby powder or lotion, menstruation), are wearing particular items of clothing, are in particular locations in the home, etc.
~ Clicker-train the cat. Or better yet, use finger snapping instead of a clicker. A finger snap = a treat. Repeat this hundreds of times, so that the cat learns that a finger snap means a treat. Then a finger snap can be used as a distraction. In the best case scenario, this will actually change the cat’s demeanor from a neutral or negative one to a positive one. Young children may be able to participate, but this must always occur with parental supervision.
~ Use pheromone diffusers and spray throughout the cat’s home. This is not homeopathy or holistic medicine; this is real medicine that actually works well for some cats. The veterinary product Feliway (we keep this in stock) is the most effective pheromone.
~ Bad behavior is sometimes due to a health problem. A physical exam, with an office consultation and any diagnostic tests indicated by the exam are an essential part of the treatment plan.
~ At YVC, we have found that medication is almost always a worthwhile part of the behavior modification process. The medication we almost always start with is fluoxetine (Prozac), because it is very safe, and often effective. It is a once daily oral dose that can be prepared as a tiny tablet, a regular capsule, a flavored liquid, or a chewable tablet. It can be given directly by mouth or in food or a treat. It will not reliably work as a transdermal. Occasionally there is mild sedation but this side effect goes away as the cat develops a tolerance for the medication. It is relatively inexpensive. It is continued indefinitely. If fluoxetine does not help, we usually recommend trying another medication because, again, medication is a almost always a very helpful part of the treatment plan.
Yarmouth Veterinary Center
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