Feline Aggression - Overview

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Key Points

  • In general cats try to escape or avoid conflict and fighting is usually the 'last resort' defence strategy.
  • It is essential to determine the motivation for aggressive behaviour and whether it is normal feline behaviour or abnormal aggression.
  • The most common motivational causes of aggression from cats to people include fear, anxiety, frustration and misdirection of predatory instinct.
  • The most critical aspect of managing aggressive cats is therefore to enable the cat to manage its fear in a non-aggressive way.

Introduction

The cat’s primary defence strategy is to escape or avoid conflict. Cats do not possess the same repertoire of appeasement behaviours to halt or modulate intra-specific aggression as are seen in dogs, so physical confrontation at close quarters is likely to escalate quickly and result in serious injury to both parties. To avoid such situations, cats use distance increasing and maintaining behaviours, such as body postures, vocal signals and scent marks. If escape is impossible, then cats will often freeze and deliver a range of threatening behaviours, including postural and vocal signals, designed to repel or hold the threat at bay. Meanwhile, the cat will re-evaluate its opportunities for escape. Attacks may be sudden and brief, and again aimed at repelling the threat so as to re-open an opportunity for escape. Cats will most often become aggressive when conflict is over a survival resource (including territory) or when escape from conflict is impossible; such as when the animal is debilitated or confined. However, if a cat has repeated experience of sustained threat or punishment when it attempts to escape, then it may learn to shift to an offensive pattern of aggression instead of escape. Aggression is most likely to be sustained when a cat is defending territory from an intruder.

Aggressive Signals

Feline aggressive signalling shares some similarities with other species; for example, staring eye contact, and body postures that attempt to make the individual look larger and more threatening by increasing its apparent stature (piloerection, sideways body arched posture). A cat may alternatively attempt to reduce the threat it poses by flattening onto the ground and adopting a self-defensive posture. Whole body postures are a reliable indicator of the cat’s attitude to a situation but because it takes tome to shift from one body posture to another, they therefore do not indicate the moment-by-moment shift in the cat’s reaction. For this it is better to look at facial signals such as head and ear position, and other expressions involving the mouth and eyes.

Important warning signs include:

  • Tail twitching and thrashing
  • Flattening or backward rotation of the ears
  • Stiffening of the shoulders and legs
  • Mydriasis
  • Vocalisation (e.g. hissing and spitting)

It is very important that owners do not attempt to soothe or calm a cat when it is showing this behaviour (they must not pick the cat up, for example). Cats that are frozen in a self-defensive crouch are very close to launching an attack if provoked. It is best to break eyes contact, move away and allow the cat to settle.

In dogs there is a recognisable continuum of escalating aggressive signalling behaviours, starting with body tension and moving up through changes in eye contact, growling, snarling and ultimately leading to a bite if the signal recipient does not respond appropriately. A failure to deliver signals in this manner, for example jumping from body tension to a bite, is regarded as evidence of impulsivity in dogs, and is commonly associated with problems such as owner-directed aggression in dogs. The same gradual escalation is not as apparent in cats, as their behaviour has evolved to avoid face to face confrontation. So, transition from a defensive posture to an attack may be very sudden. It is therefore very important to be able to read and appropriately respond to changes in facial signalling that indicate the cat’s increasing sense of vulnerability which may precede an aggressive outburst.

Classification

Aggression is a normal feature of the feline behavioural repertoire and the term ‘aggressive’ should not be used to define a cat’s personality; all cats have the capacity to display aggressive behaviour, dependent on circumstances. There have been various attempts to categorise forms of feline aggression, but without any common agreement. The most appropriate approach is to characterise the behaviour according to its objective, and emotional motivation, such as fear, anxiety, or frustration. Then to identify the targets of aggression (such as people or animals), including the specific details of high probability targets (such as age, or appearance). Aggression may be linked to context and triggering events or stimuli, which also need to be detailed in the history. By identifying motivation, target and eliciting circumstances it is not only possible to classify aggression but also make meaningful predictions about risk and prognosis.

History Taking

Inter-cat aggression presents a particular problem because many of the aggressive incidents are not directly observed by the owner or may be misinterpreted when they are. Observation of the cat during the consultation is unlikely to be useful, and a house visit is more appropriate as this also enables an assessment of the living conditions of the animal. Consultations can also be augmented with video footage of the cat’s normal behaviour in its own surroundings, but it is not acceptable for clients to stage aggressive events for the purpose of making a diagnosis since this involves a serious risk of injury.

Important Aspects of History Taking

  • Historical description of aggressive incidents (starting with the first that the owner can remember). Details of each incident should include location, persons/animals present, context, time, and target of the aggression.
  • The cat’s body posture and facial expression before, during, and after each incident give strong indications of its emotional state and intent.
  • The victim’s response before, during, and after each event should be recorded.
  • Relationship between cat and other animals in the household (allorubbing, allogrooming, play, aggression, fear-avoidance).
  • List of all situations in which low level aggression behaviour is seen (hissing, spitting, growling, eye contact, body posture).
  • List of stimuli/events that elicit fear or anxiety.
  • Contexts in which aggression is seen.

Prevalence

Within the general feline population house soiling and spraying are considered to be amongst the most common major problems, with aggression featuring far less than it does in the dog.

However, few properly constructed surveys of the prevalence of aggression in domestic cats have been carried out.

In a study by Ramos and Mills, looking at owner reports of aggression in cats in Brazil, human-directed aggression was seen in a number of situations, such as when stroking a cat or playing games with it [1]. The overall prevalence of aggression was 49.5%, which is much higher than previously observed. For example, in a previous UK study only 13% of cats were found to show aggression towards people [2]. This study found that 48% of cats showed aggression to other cats. In a Spanish study, which collected data from 451 veterinary practices, aggression towards people ranked 4th in frequency, and aggression toward other cats 5th. Inappropriate urination and defecation (which included spray marking) ranked first, with excessive scratching and vocalisation ranking 2nd and 3rd respectively[3]. In a retrospective survey of referrals to a specialist behavioural referral centre in Spain, the same group found that aggression was the most frequent reason for referral[4]. Figures from the annual report (2003) of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors (APBC) showed that 23% of referred feline cases involved aggression towards other cats, making it the second most commonly referred problem after indoor marking (25% of cases). A further 13% of the reported feline cases involved aggression towards people. This data is taken from a referral population, and therefore does not reflect the actual prevalence of aggression.

Due to differences in data collection and source between the studies which are available, it is difficult to evaluate the actual prevalence of feline aggression problems. Referral populations are unrepresentative of the general population, as are veterinary reports.

It is likely that the prevalence of aggression is high, but that aggression cases are under presented. This may due to owner tolerance and adaptation to their pet's behaviour; they may handle the cat less if it shows aggression when stroked, for example. Also, aggression between cats will often occur outside the home, with the only indication that is has occurred being injures to the pet.

Risk

Feline aggression is also often regarded as less serious than canine aggression, and as a consequence cases may not be referred until they have become serious. Unfortunately such an approach is not only detrimental to prognosis but also increases the risk of injury, so it is important for owners to understand how serious the consequences of feline aggression can be. Physical injury to people or animals and zoonotic infections are a very real danger since the cat is equipped with weapons in the form of claws and teeth. When feline aggression is targeted toward people, the danger it poses should never be underestimated. When the victims are children or elderly people with frail skin it is important to emphasise to owners that the potential injuries from cats are serious. The rate of bacterial contamination in cat bites is several times that in the dog, because bite punctures tend to be deep and a majority of cats harbour Pasteurella multocida and other pathogens in their mouths. Only 25% of dog bites contain Pasteurella multocida, compared to 50-74% of cat bites. Other bacteria may also be present, including Staphylococcus aureus. This means that all cat bites that cause skin penetration or bleeding should be treated medically without delay. A course of antibiotics and anti-tetanus may be required.

References

  1. Ramos, D., Mills, D.A. (2009) Human directed aggression in Brazilian domestic cats: owner reported prevalence, contexts and risk factors. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery. 11. 835-841.
  2. Bradshaw, J.W.S., Casey, R.A., MacDonald, J.M. (2000) The occurrence of unwanted behaviour in the cat pet population. In: Proceedings of the Companion Animal Behaviour Therapy Study Group Study Day; Birmingham, England.
  3. Fatjo, J., Ruiz-de-la-Torre, J.L., Manteca, X. (2006) The epidemiology of behavioural problems in dogs and cats: a survey of veterinary practitioners. Animal Welfare. 15, 179-185
  4. Amat, M., Ruiz-de-la-Torre, J.L., Fatjo, J., Mariotti, V.M., van Wijk, S., Manteca, X. (2009) Potential risk factors associated with feline behaviour problems. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 121, 134-139.

Also see:

Feline Aggression Towards Cats
Feline Aggression Towards People




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