Frustration-Related Feline Aggression Towards People

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Key Points

  • Give the cat control over access to resources and activities (food, outdoor access etc).
  • Provide automatic and activity feeders.
  • Avoid all games that involve the cat interacting directly with hands and feet.
  • Substitute play for cuddles and tactile interactions.
  • Use fishing toys and other toys that focus play away from the owner.
  • End games with the cat getting a small amount of food.
  • Provide a wide range of environmental enrichment including a regularly changed collection of lightweight toys for object play.
  • Avoid picking the cat up, as this removes control and can trigger aggression, especially when the cat is put back down again.

Introduction

Frustration results when a situation fails to produce an outcome that is line with the individual’s expectations. It is believed that frustration has the same emotional basis as fear. Frustration also evokes the same kinds of behavioural responses as fear, including escape and aggression. Being more cognitively complex, humans perceive frustration differently from fear because we are able to rationalise the circumstances leading up to the emotional response.

Expectations are conditioned by previous experience, with the strongest emphasis on experience gained during the sensitive period. Anecdotally, there is an association between hand rearing and frustration-related aggression. During weaning, mothers progressively withhold an increasing proportion of milk, leaving the offspring frustrated and driven to seek other sources of food. Hand fed kittens are often fed to satiation, so that this early experience of frustration does not occur. This type of feeding may lead to inappropriate expectations about feeding and human contact.

Investigation

Frustration occurs when an anticipated event does not happen or fails to meet the individual’s expectations. For example when the owner fails to provide food on demand, or will not let a cat outside, or a person tries to walk away from a cat when it expects a social interaction to continue. Often the aggression is not an isolated behaviour and the cat also displays other frustration-related behaviours, such as excessive vocalisation or indoor marking in situations where it appears to be thwarted by circumstance. Frustration-related aggression may be made worse if motivation is abnormally increased by illness. For example, in cats that are suffering from polyphagia due to hyperthyroidism or diabetes mellitus. There is also usually a history of hand rearing or a pattern of regular reinforcement of demanding behaviour throughout the cat’s life.

Episodes of frustration related aggression may occur at times of day when the cat is at its most active, which can include the early hours of the morning when the cat is awake and the owner is asleep. In these situations typically the cat may attack the owner if it is unable to get outside.

Treatment

A fundamental problem for affected cats is that access to important resources is controlled by the owner, who is often inconsistent. Most cats will not willingly tolerate having to wait for access to food or to gain access to different areas of their territory, but they are able to cope with this frustration. Cats with a low tolerance for frustration may react aggressively.

The cat should be given back control over resource access, and the owner should avoid involvement in the provision of the resources and activities the cat requires. For example, the cat should be given ad-lib food access to food, resting and latrine locations, as well as independent indoor-outdoor access. The cat's environment should be enriched so that all behavioural needs are satisfied.

Since handling is often a trigger for frustration, play should be substituted for tactile interactions such as cuddling. Some cats become frustrated when play ceases abruptly, so all play should involve fishing toys, laser pointers and other devices that distance the owner from the play. Hand and foot movements should be minimised so that play does not become directed onto the owner. If possible, play should end with some kind of consummatory act, such as the toy leading the cat to a pile of favourite food treats. This simulates a normal end to predatory behaviour. The owner can then leave the context and put away the toy whilst the cat consumes the food.

Medication

Although not confirmed by controlled studies, the use of SSRI medications, such as fluoxetine, have anecdotally been found to reduce frustration related aggression in some cases.

Prognosis

Prognosis depends on the severity of the attacks and whether at-risk individuals are present. It is absolutely essential to make a detailed list of individual attacks so that their pattern and severity may be properly appraised. Cats with frustration-related aggression require ongoing management and, unless handled appropriately, there will be a risk of biting and clawing in the future. The severity of attacks varies greatly, with some cats inflicting multiple deeply penetrating bite and scratch wounds and others only inflicting minor injuries. Severe attacks can sometimes occur even when the victim is resting or sleeping so that avoidance is impossible unless the cat is excluded from human contact at certain times. In some instances, the bites may be directed at the face and neck, which increases the risk considerably. However, the character of the attacks is usually quite consistent in each individual case so a prognosis and risk assessment may be provided. If the character of the attacks is predictable and preventable and they are of low intensity, then the prognosis is good. If the attacks are severe, and at-risk individuals (children, elderly, infirm) are involved then the prognosis is poor.




The creation of this content was made possible by Ceva Santé Animale as part of the feline behaviour project. Ceva logo.jpg


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