Aggression in cats toward people is a serious problem. Beside the pain, a cat’s teeth and claws may harbor organisms that cause serious disease. Scratches may causes cat scratch fever, a condition caused by the organism Bartonella henselae. Cats also often have several bacteria in their mouths including Staphylococcus sp, Streptococcus sp., Moraxella and Pasturella multocida that can cause infection. The worst infections are usually caused by Pasturella multocida which means ‘many deaths’ in Latin. Immediate medical care and antibiotic therapy is recommended for all bites.
Unfortunately, the reason for feline aggression can be hard to diagnose. Cats, like humans, have complex personalities with different emotional triggers. Feline aggression is broken down into categories based upon the inciting cause. The categories are: Misdirected Play-Related Aggression, Petting-Related Aggression, Redirected Aggression and Fear-Based Aggression. In the future, another form of aggression based on frustration may be added to the list.
In young cats, most aggression is a form a misdirected-play aggression. Kittens like to attack anything that moves, especially feet under blankets. To combat this, the kitten must be given a positive outlet for their energy. Interactive toys like a feather wand allow the kitten and human to play together.
Petting-related aggression occurs when the cat becomes over stimulated from petting. To prevent this, limit petting to the face and stop when tail twitching starts. Also, the cat must be evaluated by a veterinarian for a medial condition called hyperethesia syndrome that can have similar clinical signs.
Redirected aggression occurs when something upsets a cat but circumstances prevent the cat from engaging the thing that upset it. This is common when indoor cats notice a stranger cat through a window. The indoor cat becomes aroused and then takes their aggression out on the humans or other animals inside the house. To avoid injury, never interact with an aroused cat. Gently guide it into a dark room with food, water and a litter box then leave it alone until the cat is back to normal.
The last type of aggression is based on fear. Cats with fear based aggression attack first and ask questions later. They have learned that a good offense is the best defense. Most of these cats were poorly socialized as kittens and/or suffered a traumatic experience early in life. Punishment usually makes this type of aggression worse.
Successful treatment of feline aggression requires a thorough history, physical examination and environmental evaluation. The history taking starts with obvious questions as to where and when the aggression take place. In addition, it is important to determine what occurred right before the aggression. Did strangers enter the house? Was there an unexpected noise? Was the cat trapped in a corner or did the cat seek out a specific person? The next step in the history is to note how the cat acted before, during and after the episode paying special attention to the cat’s facial expressions and tail activity. Videos of the aggressive episodes are helpful in answering these questions. Keeping a behavior log that records the above information is a huge help in documenting patterns of behavior.
Once the history is finished, the cat needs a thorough physical examination. Many cats suffer from osteoarthritis of their backs and legs just like humans. A cat may bite because it hurts when picked up or petted. Kidney disease, pancreatitis and hyperthyroidism which are common in older cats can make them feel bad and grumpy. Since cats are good at hiding their illnesses, routine blood and urinalysis as well as X-rays are performed to rule out a medical reason for aggression. Cats are just like humans … it’s hard to be nice when feeling bad.
If the results of the physical exam and testing are within normal limits and the history is consistent with aggression, the final step in working up aggression is performing an evaluation of the cat’s environment. Does the cat live alone or have roommates? Is the cat kept strictly indoors or allowed to go outside in an enclosed space? What kind of toys are available? How much exercise does the cat get? Does the cat have high resting places as well as low? Are the food bowls and litter boxes placed in an area with escape routes? Again, video of the cat in their home is helpful in assessing the environment.
Diagnosing the cause and then implementing a treatment plan for aggression can be challenging. The upcoming blogs will go into more detail on the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of each type of aggression.
-‘Cat Scratch Fever’ www.cdc.gov/healthypets/diseases/cat-scratch.html.
-Horwitz, Debra F. ‘Feline Aggression Toward People’ Australian Veterinary Association Proceedings 2012, VIN.com.
-Thomas, Nicole & Brook, Itzhak. ‘Animal Bite-Associated Infections’ Expert Rev Ant Infect Thor. 2011;9(2):215-226.