Pet Behavior Problems: Feline Aggression

by Norman Haber, DVM  

Dr. Haber practices at Cedarbrook Animal Hospital, Sicklerville, NJ

Cats are often referred to the veterinarian or even given up to shelters because of aggressive behavior. Cats and even young kittens may bite, scratch, or pounce, often without obvious provocation, and this can be very upsetting to their human family. The reasons for this behavior may be as simple as rough play or a strange cat coming too close to the cat’s territory, or it may be caused by a medical problem. The solution depends on the cause.

We received a frantic call from Mrs. Johnson last week. Max, her gentle, affectionate, six-year-old male neutered cat had suddenly and violently bitten her when she tried to pick him up. Just two days later we received a second disturbing call: Mrs. Malone wanted to know if we could find a home for Tiffany, her eight-month-old recently spayed female cat. Tiffany was stalking and biting family members and Mrs. Malone was concerned for her young children.

Tiffany, Mrs. Malone’s cat, is a classic example of play-related aggression. Play aggression has been reported to be the most common type of aggressive behavior exhibited by cats toward people. Playfully aggressive cats such as Tiffany stalk or wait for a person moving nearby, then pounce, grasp, and bite the person’s hands or feet. Tiffany would leap out from under the furniture as family members passed by. She was a young kitten in a single cat household, typical of play-aggressive cats. Fortunately, treatment of play-aggression has a high success rate.

Treatment consists of both punishing overly aggressive play and finding an acceptable outlet for play. Punishment should come in the form of some type of noise distraction such as foghorns or alarms that can be carried around to sound as soon as the problem behavior occurs. The punishment needs to be immediate and the cat cannot know from where it comes. For this reason, spray bottles are not as good as foghorns. If possible, the Malones should set up situations and apply consistent adverse stimuli to Tiffany. Once Tiffany stops attacking, she can be rewarded with small pieces of shrimp or other food rewards. An acceptable outlet for play should be provided in the form of various toys such as commercial cat toys, ping pong balls, walnuts, fishing rod toys and simple boxes with holes. In a single cat home with a young play-aggressive cat, a companion cat of approximately the same age may fulfill the need for a playmate. Raising two kittens together may prevent the problem from developing in the first place.

Max: Returning to our earlier phone call regarding Max’s sudden unprovoked attack on Mrs. Johnson, some detective work was needed to determine the cause. Mrs. Johnson was sure that Max had rabies or some other disease of the brain. A complete physical and neurological exam of Max proved to be normal, but further questioning revealed that Max had been spending a lot of time at the front window where a new stray cat had been recently seen. The mere presence of this new cat had stimulated Max to an aggressive state of arousal and, unable to get outside to attack the intruder, Max had redirected his aggression to Mrs. Johnson. This type of aggression can be very dangerous for the person who is attacked because, unlike play-aggression where the bites are usually inhibited, redirect aggression can result in serious bite wounds. These cats are very aroused, vocalize, have their hair standing, tail twitching, pupils dilated and are quite agitated.

If a person recognizes these signs, it is important for them to avoid touching the cat. If possible, these cats should be wrapped in a towel, moved to a dark room and kept isolated until they calm down. It may be necessary to keep the cat in a room with food and a litter box for several days.

Mrs. Johnson remedied the situation by trapping and removing the stray cat from her yard. Since strays are attracted to bird baths and feeders, ridding the yard of them may lessen the chances of strays visiting your house. Alternately, the indoor cat can be denied access to the window and the blinds can be kept down.

Both Tiffany and Max were fortunate cases in that their aggression was controlled, but other cases of feline aggression toward people may be more severe and unpredictable. In these cases, it would be wise for the owner to consult with an animal behavior specialist.