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Monday, October 7, 2013

Resolving aggression in cats can take time, and identifying the root of the behavior is the first step

Many of my pet sitting clients are felines, and that is very telling.

Cats, by and large, do better in their own environment in their human's absence, as opposed to being boarded. That's not surprising: Cats, though personable and connected to their family, are often more centered around their environment as opposed to their people.

Over the years, I've seen some cats that are unwaveringly friendly — almost dog-like — and that can be due in part to natural characteristics of their breed, or simply part of who they are.

Some, I find, may prefer to have their basic needs met, a little lap or play time, a quick ear scratch and not much else.

Others are uncompromisingly aloof, and will go out of their way to make themselves scarce. A small percentage of those cats will become aggressive should they be approached, so I always take care to be respectful of their personal space, for their own well-being, and mine.

If you've ever had an encounter with an aggressive cat, you know what I mean. Quite honestly, I find a hot-tempered cat more daunting to deal with than a dog, because of the unpredictability, not to mention the damage that sharp claws and teeth can inflict.

Aggression is a term that isn't often attached to cats, but when it's there, it can seriously upset a household, and in some cases, is grounds for relinquishment because a family doesn't feel that they have another option.

Encompassing a broad range of behaviors, feline aggression can manifest from warnings like swatting, hissing and growling to much more serious manifestations that can cause physical harm, and these behaviors stem from different motivators.

Two things are certain: It's important that it's addressed, and situations that facilitate it should be minimized or avoided, and, secondly, punishment is counterproductive.

First, it's important to understand there are different types of aggression. Whether it stems from being cranky as a result of having an illness, injury or source of pain that has yet to be identified, under-socialization as a kitten, fearfulness or a status- or territorial-related cause (think multi-cat households), knowing the source can help you employ an approach that offers the right solution to address the behavior, safely and effectively.

Redirected aggression and aggression from a cat after it initiates physical contact with you can be confusing and especially daunting to encounter, because this aggression can seem to come out of nowhere. But no matter the cause, there are signs that indicate an elevation of behavioral arousal that means there is trouble ahead.

Signs include:

  • Tail twitching
  • Vocalization
  • Dilated eyes
  • Flattened ears
  • A stiff posture

The first step in identifying the cause of your cat's aggression is to keep track of what's happening. Keep a journal daily and observe the day-to-day events — even small details can yield helpful clues and identify patterns. Here are some things to consider:

  • What kind of stimuli seem to be triggering?
  • Are there specific cats that tend to be a target of the unwanted behavior?
  • Are there feral or free-roaming cats around the home?
  • Is your cat sufficiently stimulated? Is there enough environmental enrichment, like toys that invite play, foraging toys, cat trees?
  • What changes have occurred in the household recently? (Remember what I said about cats being more connected to their environment than people?)
  • Does your cat have enough personal space?

Taking this information and talking about it with your pet's veterinarian is key. An underlying illness or pain (dental pain is often overlooked by owners) is common, especially if the behavior seems to appear out of nowhere. Once a cause of that nature is ruled out, then the next obvious step is to dialogue with your vet about the patterns and triggers that you've noticed.

From there, you can put a plan of action in place to help quell the angst that this sort of thing  can bring, and understand how to best maintain peace in your household.

Kelly Moffat, DVM, DACVB, medical director at VCA Mesa Animal Hospital and a behavior consultant wrote an excellent piece on the topic of feline aggression, and she offers more in-depth insight for cat owners and clinicians alike. Click here to read more from Clinician's Brief.

Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.

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