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Cat Aggression
Toward People

Cat Aggression
Toward Owners


 Cat Behavior Library  

Cat Aggression Toward People Treatment

The aggressive attack itself (biting and scratching) is not diagnostic. It is the events surrounding the attack that help determine the cause and solution to cat aggression.

Petting Aggression:  

If the cat is not painful, or haughty or erotic, the theory holds that the cat reaches a threshold at which certain types of petting start out nice, but when a threshold is reached, instead of merely walking away, this personality type feels it necessary to communicate via aggression. If this is the case, follow these steps:

1) Begin to observe for pre-attack signs like a tail or skin twitch, ear flick, of subtle quick muscle quivers.
2) Try to pay attention to where on the cat's body petting results in this response.
3) Attempt to determine how long the petting can occur before the cat becomes aggressive.
4) If any of these signs can be determined, and after any medical problem is corrected, start a program designed to gradually and slowly stretch these limits.
5) Stay under the threshold, and when you think the attack might be close, give a food treat, or put the cat off your lap. Otherwise, follow the instructions for status aggression.

Steps To Treating A Case Of Feline Aggression Toward Humans

Regardless of Diagnosis:

1) Temporarily (2-4 weeks) avoid the circumstances where you can predict the aggression will occur. (i.e. temporarily stop playing with string, holding on lap, stroking a certain way, picking up, etc.)
2) Have the pet examined, including neurological exam, blood, urine and fecal exam. (Take a fecal sample with you to the veterinarian.)
3) Do not engage in physical play or punishment involving personally touching the cat.
4) Use the giving or withholding of attention and intermittent food rewards to reward or punish desirable behavior (i.e. only give affection for feline calm relaxed postures.)
5) Give positive commands such as "Come", "Down", or "Up", then give attention or food ifor a positive response. Ignore or withhold food if there is a lack of response.
6) No verbal scolding, yelling unless being stalked or attacked.

If Status (Dominant) Aggression is Suspected:  Also do this…

  • Discuss with your veterinarian if behavior medication is indicated as part of the program. (E.g. Amitriptyline or Clomipramine.)
  • Don't be permissive and give the cat anything it wants. (Don't act like a servant.)Give 2 meals a day at a predetermined time and make the cat "Come". (Give a tidbit, then back away and say, "Come!".)
  • Do petting and stroking while the cat is eating, unless this results in aggression. Think of it as the cat is trading willingness to be petted for access to food. Either hold the bowl or the food directly.
  • Consider having the cat wear a harness and drag a 10 foot nylon leash inside the house. (Housecats only.) This gives you the opportunity to catch the cat at will, and increases your status. Most importantly, it allows you to hold the cat away from you if it becomes aggressive.
  • Keep some kitty treats near your favorite chair, and call the cat up on your lap. If she (or he) comes, praise and give a kitty treat. Ignore her if she refuses. If she jumps up without asking, (she is controlling the interaction), move and call her to you in the new location. Now you are back in control.
  • Once the cat is relaxed in your lap, begin "Dominance Petting". Noted behaviorist
    R. K. Anderson
    gives this description of Feline Dominance Petting as follows: "Hold the cat on your lap parallel with your legs, in a controlled position with the head pointing toward the knees. Then stroke (pet) with each hand, starting at the corners of the lips and continuing back over the head, ears, neck and shoulders to show dominance and leadership for two or three minutes. Do this, two or three times a day for several seeks and then intermittently several days each week".

If the Fear Aggression is directed toward a specific person, follow these steps:

  • Determine the distance where the cat becomes tense and acts nervous. Then the target (attacked) person stays beyond that distance at first and avoids all eye contact. If that person needs to move past the cat, just calmly do so and completely ignore the cat. If the cat attacks, use yelling and stamping.
  • The owner (non-attacked) person should also ignore the cat to increase the cat's desire for companionship. Gradually only the target person gives any attention, or feeds the cat.
  • This feeding might need to go quite slowly. At first, throw a food bit across the room. If the cat refuses it, try withholding food for 8-12 hours before the test. If the cat does accept the food, gradually throw the food closer. If the cat acts nervous, you are going too fast. Gradually hand feed the cat, and if relaxed, stroke with the other hand while feeding.
  • If fear aggression is suspected, the goal is for the cat to see people as non-threatening, reliable, and as an opportunity to get food and affection.
If the case does not respond, and you are confident it is a fear response, talk to your veterinarian regarding anti-anxiety medication.

Fear vs. Status Aggression:

Observable Sign Fearful Status Comments
Vocal Signal Hissing Growling Cat: "Go Away!" vs. "I'm gonna get you!"
Ears relative to head Flattened Forward I look small, vs. I look big.
Will the cat accept being petted over head and neck. (dominance areas) Relaxed Reluctant Builds confidence if insecure. Challenges position if dominant.
Stare Down. (The being who looks away first is subordinate.) Short or none Long. Will try to win. The one who looks away first is subordinate.
Eye pupils before aggression Dilated Dilated A cue to avoid the current situation
New person approaches Hides Relaxed You're more relaxed when you're in charge.
Common body posture Tense Relaxed
Accept hand fed food Reluctant Relaxed

Drug Therapy in Feline Aggression

Consider Before Prescribing Drugs: Comments
Health Physical, Blood, Urine and fecal tests before starting drugs.
Diagnosis More likely to use if aggression can be lessened.
Doctor-patient-client relationship Human drug abuse potential? Good follow-up and record keeping?
Drug availability Most drugs must be scripted.
Efficacy of medication for this diagnosis Some conditions respond better than others.
Environmental considerations Allowed outdoors? Possible fall? Can family give meds?
Danger to the client If aggression is a problem, how will administration occur?
Drug Selection: Depending on situation: Oxazepam, Amitriptyline, Clomipramine, or Acepromazine

Unacceptable punishment is any that involve any part of a human body touching any part of the cat's body (e.g. spanking, kicking, shaking, and scruffing). Acceptable interruptions are using a squirt gun, water sprayer, or shaking a "shaker can" (aluminum soda can with 10 to 20 pennies or pebbles inside, taped shut) Best is the cat does not realize YOU are doing the INTERRUPTING. These are all counterproductive unless used within seconds of the aggressive act.

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