Fearful or defensive aggression occurs when a frightened cat attacks the human who caused their fear. A cat with fearful aggression has adopted “the best defense is a good offense” motto to deal with their anxiety. The aggression may be directed toward strangers, family members or both. This kind of aggression occurs when a cat can’t escape from a fearful situation. The trapped cat assumes a crouched position with their ears flattened against their head and their hair standing on end to look bigger. They hiss, spit and growl warning people to stay away or suffer the consequences. Ignoring these warning signs results in painful bites and scratches. After being attacked, the human leaves the cat alone which is exactly what it wanted in the first place. The cat learns to be aggressive in order to make the scary person leave.
The first step in dealing with fearful aggression is a thorough history. Was the cat properly socialized as a kitten? Does the cat have any medical problems like osteoarthritis that makes it feel vulnerable? Who does the cat attack? When and where do the attacks take place? How does the victim and also the owner (if not the victim) react? What kind of punishments, if any are used? How often do the attacks occur? In my experience, harsh physical punishment makes this kind of aggression worse because it intensifies the fear. Great care must be taken to avoid punishing a fearful animal of any kind.
Once a thorough history is taken, the next step is a physical exam looking for health issues. The veterinarian will look for dental disease, osteoarthritis and other conditions that cause pain. They will also check the cat’s hearing and vision that can make the cat feel more vulnerable leading to fear. The last step is blood work and a complete urinalysis to look for other diseases such as hyperthyroidism, pancreatitis, inflammatory bowel disease, kidney disease and liver disease which are common in older cats. All health issues including painful dental disease must be addressed before moving onto behavioral therapy.
Treatment for fearful or defensive aggression is based on counter-conditioning and desensitization of the cat to the person(s) it fears. Here are the steps for dealing with fear-based aggression toward a family member:
Step One: Keep the cat away from the person(s) it fears. when the scary person leaves every time the cat hisses, the cat learns to hiss and growl when they see the person they fear. Stop the interaction to stop reinforcing the bad behavior. Step Two: Reward the cat for calm behavior. When the cat is relaxing, give it a tasty treat. Teach it that good things happen when the cat is relaxed. For cats who are not food motivated, try playing instead. Use a fake mouse or feathers on a long string for distance. Step Three: Introduce the person it fears. Have the scary human toss treats to the cat from a distance to avoid triggering the cat’s fear. The person should speak in soft tones, move slowly and refrain from staring to avoid scaring the cat. Step Four: Slowly reduce the distance between the cat and the person it fears. Watch the cat closely for signs of fear and back off immediately. Signs of fear include dilated pupils, flat ears, raised hair, hissing or growling. Step Five: Pet the cat. When the cat is comfortable eating in the presence of the scary person, they should gently pet the cat. If the cat keeps eating, they are in a relaxed state and the petting may continue. If the cat stops eating, stop the interaction immediately.
If the cat is afraid of visitors, place a harness on the cat or put it in a carrier to keep the guest safe then follow the same steps. If the family is unwilling or unable to follow this protocol, the cat should be confined to their safe room whenever visitors are present.
Most cats with fear-based aggression will respond well to behavior therapy. In rare circumstances psychotropic medications are needed. Since these medications have many unwanted side effects, they are only used in extreme cases.
-Horwitz, Debra. ‘Feline Aggression Toward People’ Australian Veterinary Association Proceedings 2012, AVA2012, VIN.