Sunday, February 16, 2014

Feline Aggression Part 3: How to Resolve Aggression Towards Humans

by Amanda L. Maus DVM
Catalina Pet Hospital

Tucson, AZ

Obtaining a new cat with aggressive tendencies or having your established cat develop aggressive tendencies towards humans can be frustrating as well as a potential safety hazard.   People typically respond in one of two ways: yell at the cat or try to console the cat.  Do not attempt to soothe the cat with petting or touch!!  Your best course of action is to leave the cat alone for awhile.  During that time, figure out what triggers the aggression: certain noises, type of play, petting, restraint/handling, or redirected anger/frustration.  Also, consider how severe the aggression has become and when it started.

Things to think about:
  • Does your cat become combative after hearing noises outside, such as a stray cat meowing?
  • Does your cat resent being held?
  • Does your cat seemingly become grumpy out of nowhere when petted?
  • Does your cat stalk you from underneath furniture or around corners?
  • Does your cat hide and hiss when approached?
  • Does your cat swat at you or actually scratch the skin?
  • Does your cat bite you and leave bleeding wounds?
  • Has your cat been showing symptoms of arthritis, weight loss, trouble eating, or an infection?
  • Does your cat have adequate escape routes around the house where the aggression occurs?

Some cats just prefer less affection than other cats.  Certain cats prefer to only be petted when they approach you, not the other way around.  Other cats do not like being picked up or held, whether that be correctly or incorrectly.  All cats prefer to have an available escape route or hiding place in case something scares them or they just want to be left alone.  Most cats have the desire and drive to have play time to release their predator instincts.  Certain medical diseases and conditions can cause a cat to become grumpy and act aggressively, especially if disturbed.

Regardless of the cause of your cat acting aggressively towards humans, you can apply some of the solutions selected in the aggression between cats blog from last week.  Make sure that there are enough safe zones for hiding and high up perches. Also, consider purchasing feline pheromone sprays or plug ins that can help calm cats. You can discuss with your veterinarian about purchasing prescription foods meant to calm stressed out cats. Make sure your cats are receiving adequate, vigorous play time (10 - 15 minutes) to provide a release for their prey drive instincts. You can have your cats play out their natural instincts before meal times.  The cat is thoroughly tired out by a serious play session with wand or fishing rod type toys with their preferred "prey" attached to the toy. After they have sufficiently "killed" the prey, they are rewarded with eating.  In addition, make sure your cat has quiet areas where they can rest, eat, drink, and use the litter box in peace. 

For the aggressive cat who tends to stalk or sneak up on the human, purchase a collar with a bell so that their presence is known before they appear.  That way, they can be distracted and taken out of the predator mindset before they attack.  Interruption can be done with a startling noise and then a toy can be thrown for the cat to chase in order to replace the aggressive behavior.

For other types of play aggression, never use your hands to wrestle with your cat.  Always use toys that create distance between your hands and the cat, such as: a fishing rod toy, laser pointer, balls or mice that can be thrown, treat dispenser toys, etc.

For the cat who attacks when petted, certain approaches can be implemented.  One is to only pet the cat around the chin and top of the head around the ears.  Some cats have no patience for petting along the length of their body.  Another approach is to not go to the cat and begin a petting session.  Instead, wait for the cat to come to you for attention first.  Use positive reinforcement with treats to reward the cat at short intervals while they are accepting the petting nicely.  If at any time the cat starts showing any sign of aggravation: tail swishing, ears back, etc, stop petting the cat immediately.  If the cat still continues aggressive behavior, stand up and walk away from the cat. 

Remember, your veterinarian is a valuable asset for diagnosing diseases that may cause aggression as well as for giving advice about treating behavioral cat aggression.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Feline Aggression Part 2: How to Resolve Aggression Between Cats

by Amanda L. Maus DVM
Catalina Pet Hospital

Tucson, AZ

Most cat owners with multiple cats expect some rough play between their cats - playing chase, wrestling, etc.  What can be frightening is when one cat is obviously the victim, who spends most of their time hiding or hissing and in severe cases, not eating or not using the litterbox.  Typically intercat aggression is either transferred/redirected aggression, play aggression, or territorial aggression. 

For mild or severe cases of aggression, evaluate your home to make sure that there are enough safe zones for hiding and high up perches.  Also, consider purchasing feline pheromone sprays or plugins that can help calm cats.  You can discuss with your veterinarian about purchasing prescription foods meant to calm stressed cats.  Make sure your cats are receiving adequate, vigorous play time to provide a release for their prey drive instincts.  One scenario is to have the cats play out their natural instincts before meal times. Both cats are thoroughly tired out by a vigorous play session with wand or fishing rod type toys with their preferred "prey" attached to the toy. After they have sufficiently "killed" the prey, they are rewarded with eating.

Mild aggression
Anytime you are worried that the victim cat may be harmed, you should separate the cats when you are not available to directly supervise their interactions.  When you are home, you can use favorite food rewards for the cats tolerating each other's presence.  The victim should be be calm enough to eat without hissing and the aggressor should eat without growling.  In day to day life, if there are early signs of aggression, usually calling the aggressive cat's name or shaking a treat bag is enough distraction to prevent the fight from starting. 

Severe aggression
In cases where you have already witnessed harm come to the victim or the victim spends most of their time hiding or not eating, you should definitely separate the cats when you are not around.  The victim cat should be free to move about the house and the aggressor is blocked off into a bedroom or other small room with their own food, water, and litterbox. 
In severe cases, it may takes months for full reintroduction to occur.  You can attempt reintroduction with the cats in separate carriers.  Starting with the carriers far apart, favorite food rewards are used to reinforce calmness.  Over time, the distance between carriers is reduced.  An alternative is to feed the cats on opposite sides of a solid door so they associate each other's smell with something positive.  A baby gate or screen door can be gradually introduced so that the cats see as well as smell each other while eating. 
After reintroduction, if signs of aggression recur, you can use the above tips for distraction or you may need to squirt the aggressive cat with water or use a loud sound, such as clapping hands or using a compressed air canister. In some cases, prescription medication is needed to help "keep the peace". 

Next week, we will look at resolving aggression towards humans.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Feline Aggression Part 1: Why is My Cat Aggressive?

by Amanda L. Maus DVM
Catalina Pet Hospital

Tucson, AZ

Feline aggression is an important cat topic since it can greatly affect relationships and cause tension in the household. 

Signs of aggression in order from mild to serious:
  • Ears pointed back or flattened to head
  • Tail tip twitching or whole tail swishing
  • Hissing
  • Growling or Yowling
  • Swatting or charging
  • Scratching or biting
In order to decide what type of aggression the cat has, there a few observations that need to be made. First, determine whether the cat is acting aggressive towards other pets or towards humans in the home.  Second, correlate what happens right before the aggression behaviors happen.  Third, observe and note which signs of aggression are displayed by the cat.

Types of aggression:
  • Transferred/Redirected
  • Petting
  • Play
  • Disease/Pain
  • Fear/Stress
  • Territorial
  • Improper handling
Transferred or redirected aggression occurs when a cat is agitated by an object, animal, or human, that the cat can only see, hear, or smell but cannot directly access due to a door or some other barrier.  The cat then needs an outlet for the provocation and acts aggressive towards the nearest object, human, or animal.

Petting aggression can seem spontaneous and confusing to pet owners.  Often the cat initiated the attention and does enjoy the petting for awhile, until suddenly the cat starts scratching or biting instead of just leaving when they were done receiving attention.

Play aggression is most common in kittens but can extend into adulthood.  Bottle raised or single kittens are more likely to do this due to lack of feedback from their mother or littermates.  Normal kittens may act combative if they are not provided with enough dedicated playtime or appropriate toys.  Rough play involving hands can lead also to this behavior.

Certain diseases such as infections or those that affect the thyroid or brain may cause aggression. Any source of pain like an injury, arthritis, or dental disease can also lead to aggression.

Fear aggression happens in situations involving foreign or offensive noises, smells, environments, humans, or animals.  A cat's upbringing, history of previous trauma, and even genetics can contribute to the cat's reactions.

Although territorial aggression can be caused by not having a cat spayed or neutered, for most households, it happens when a new cat is introduced to a home where cats already exist.  For established cats, it can happen after one of the cats is gone from the home and comes back smelling like a veterinarian's office or groomer.

Improper handling can also cause aggression.  Cats do not respond well to rough handling or being disturbed where they are sleeping or resting.  When picking up a cat, improper technique that causes a cat to not feel supported is also not well tolerated.  Many cats do not allow petting of the stomach area or around the legs/feet.

Next week, we will discover how to address and treat different types of feline aggression.