Frustration-related aggression is a form of aggression that occurs when a cat is blocked from getting what it wants. I diagnosed it for the first time in my own cat, Genevieve. I met this adorable little furball while working at a friend’s clinic. A woman approached the counter carrying a cardboard box. Inside lay a kitten missing one of its back legs. She said she found it behind a dumpster and wanted it euthanized. When I opened the box, I saw a newborn kitten covered in blood and dirt. A bloody stump was all that was left of her right back leg. I hypothesized that the placenta had stuck to her back leg. The queen probably chewed her foot off in an effort to clean up her baby. I could not euthanize Genny just because she was missing a leg.
Genny grew into a beautiful but spoiled cat. When she wanted something like food or attention, she would not take ‘no’ for an answer. If she didn’t get her way, her tail would start to twitch, her eyes narrowed and she would nip. If that didn’t work, she resorted to a full on bite. Of course, she only did this behavior with the her human family members. My friends thought she was a wonderful cat.
Frustration-based aggression is a subject of debate among veterinary behaviorists. So far, no diagnostic criteria have been established for this type of aggression. Dr. Horwitz, a veterinary behaviorist, makes the following observations that fit what I see clinically. First, the cat seems to be trying to control the behavior of people to their own advantage. Second, the aggression is usually directed toward people the cat knows. And third, the behavior occurs when the cat is denied something it wants or expects.
Frustration-related aggression seems to occur most often in hand-reared cats and demanding cats. In my experience, not getting food or attention are the most common triggers. Another reported trigger is when a cat is denied access to a favorite place, i.e. the outdoors, special room, bed, perch or cat tree.
Treatment is based on avoiding situations that cause frustration-based aggression by controlling the environment and teaching the cat to work for things it wants. This sounds simple in theory but can be challenging to put into practice. The first step in controlling the environment is to identify the situations that trigger the aggression. I recommend a diary that includes feeding schedule, litter box usage, sleep times, active times and any unusual occurrences such as house guests or repairmen as well as attacks. Include when, where and how the cat was acting before the attack took place. After a week or two, the diary looking for things that trigger the behavior. Once the trigger is identified, remove it from the environment. For example, many attacks occur in the kitchen about an hour before feeding. The hungry cat follows their caregiver around demanding food. When the demands are ignored, the cat escalates their demands to the next level by biting. To prevent this, I recommend an automatic feeder. Set the feeder up in a room away from the caregiver. The hungry cat will smell the food and vent their frustration on the feeder.
The second part of treatment is teaching the cat to work for things it wants. This involves teaching the cat to perform a specified behavior before being rewarded. There are many behaviors that cats can learn but I find the most useful is target. The cat is taught to touch a soft ball(the target) on the end of a wand in exchange for a reward like dolphins who jump out of the water to touch a buoy for a fish. Once the cat understands, ask it to follow the wand a short distance before touching. Slowly increase the distance the cat follows until it can be lead into a different room, away from the situation that causes frustration-related aggression.
In addition to the specific treatments listed above, I recommend more exercise for cats with frustration-related aggression. In veterinary college, I was taught that tired animals don’t get into trouble. Exercise burns energy and reduces the desire to control the environment. Use the target technique to exercise the cat by asking it to run and jump as it follows the wand. Set up on obstacle course to make it more fun. Also provide fun things to enrich the cat’s environment including multiple places to rest and play. Cat trees, window perches, cat friendly videos, enclosed outdoor porches and sound tracks are a few examples.
The most important thing to remember about frustration-related aggression is that negative reinforcement does not help. In fact, in my experience, punishment will make the behavior worse. Learn to recognize the signs of frustration in the cat and then follow the steps outlined above to stop it from escalating.
-Horwitz, Debra. ‘Feline Aggression Toward People’ Australian Veterinary Association Proceedings 2012, AVA2012, VIN.