The Tiger in Your Waiting Room: Understanding Feline Aggression
Jill Sackman, DVM, DACVS, PhD
By nature cats prefer not to fight! Domestic cats are solitary hunters. Social behaviors have evolved in cats to avoid conflict; this strategy is very different from humans and dogs. Once cats are aroused, they have very poor skills for resolving conflict, unlike dogs.
Passive avoidance is a cat’s first response to an uncomfortable situation; just leave the room. Setting a household up for peaceful feline living includes enriching the environment with an abundance of toys, resting places, litter boxes, food and water bowls distributed throughout the house; there is no need for anyone to fight over anything.
When dealing with feline behavioral health, always ask, “Am I meeting the needs of this animal based upon his/her behavioral evolution and natural needs?” The answer is often “no.” Many home environments are sterile and non-stimulating for cats. Treatment of aggression in cats frequently includes environmental enrichment, providing opportunities for cats to exercise their predatory behavior with acceptable toys, etc.
To ensure healthy behavior and treatment for many forms of aggression in cats, it is important to first look at the home environment. Start by making the cat’s indoor space more like a natural space. Suggestions include visual stimulation with fish tanks, bird feeders out side windows, even robotic prey-like toys (www.Hexbugs.com). Add perches and cat trees; introduce novel toys (wand toys are particularly interesting); and satisfy the predatory need of cats. Hunting instincts can be satisfied by putting dry food in puzzle feeder balls or tubes instead of dishes.
Reading Feline Body Language
Unfortunately, humans don’t often do a great job reading feline body language in order to de-escalate a stressed or aggressive cat. Understanding feline body language can help with avoiding conflict, its escalation and aggression.
Cats use a combination of visual, olfactory and audible communication to communicate and to avoid confrontation. Threatening feline body postures include hissing, piloerection, arching of the back and side presentation. Ear position is also a helpful stress barometer. Cats that are restricted in movement (i.e. cages, transport boxes) may choose to fight when unable to flee. The ability to get away, hide under something or jump up high can influence the expression of the aggressive responses.
The most frequent basis for aggression from cats to people revolves around fear, anxiety, frustration and misdirected predatory behavior. Fearful cats learn that aggressive stances are effective at maintaining distance between them and people, and the behavior can evolve to a preemptive strategy. Repeated unpleasant interactions in a veterinary hospital contribute to the development of negative behavior in these cats.
Play-based aggression may arise from predatory play, which is an integral part of feline behavior and learning. Treatment is focused on finding outlets for play and directing the cat toward appropriate activities and toys. Playing with hands should be discouraged.
Redirected aggression occurs when a cat faces an agitating circumstance and is unable to vent aggression. Stimuli include loud noises, odor of another cat, unfamiliar people or environments and pain. Agitated cats should be placed in a darkened room with food, water and litter box and left there with the door closed. If the aggression was directed at another unsuspecting feline, very SLOW reintroduction must be done.
Punishment is contraindicated in all cases as this will lead to a worsening of the behavior. Medication may be warranted and may include pheromones, nutraceuticals and drugs such as fluoxetine. Always evaluate the cat for medical problems first, followed by evaluation of the home environment before turning to medication.