Diagnosing and treating human-directed aggression in cats (Proceedings)


Human-directed aggression in cats can include the following: play, fear, petting Intolerance, status related, redirected, and sexual.

Human-directed aggression

  • Play

  • Fear

  • Petting Intolerance

  • Status related

  • Redirected

  • Sexual

Play Aggression

  • More likely in young cats

  • Very common problem

  • Usually, but not necessarily directed to moving stimuli

  • May be directed to only to some members of the household

  • Cat approaches victim

  • Crouches waiting

  • Stalk

  • Chase

  • Tail twitching

  • Focused stare

History and Management?

  • Using hands or feet to play with the cat

  • Inadequate opportunity for acceptable play

Play Aggression:

  • Ears forward, not back

  • Does not assume stiff-legged walking toward victim

  • Often referred to as "vicious"

  • Serious injury may happen to the victim, even though this is play

  • Deep bite wounds

  • Serious scratches

  • Can be very frightening to victim

Play Aggression-Treatment

  • Avoid situations that elicit the behavior

  • Enter via a different door

  • Don't wear particular clothes that appear to elicit play aggression

  • Shut cat in own room during particular times and situations when problem is likely to be worse.

  • Redirect play

  • Have balls, paper wads, etc. readily available to distract cat when it appears to be in a playful mood

  • Provide DAILY opportunities for acceptable play

  • Drag string

  • Roll balls

  • Toss paper wads

  • Set out paper grocery bags

  • Feathers

  • "Fishing Rod"

  • Trees

  • Other cats to play with

  • Punishment

  • Consistent

  • Immediate

  • Appropriate

  • Punish inappropriate play

  • Water pistol

  • Water sprayer

  • Air horn


  • +++Appropriate Play

  • ---Unacceptable Play


  • Generally not indicated

  • This is a management problem

  • If aggression severe and accompanied by high arousal, a TCA or SSRI may be useful.

Fear Aggression

  • Ears back

  • Body lowered

  • Tail lowered

  • Avoids person or persons

  • Aggression occurs when approached, reached for or groomed

History of poor socialization or feral living may predispose

  • Can occur in any cat

  • Any age

  • Any breed

  • Either sex

  • Neutered or Intact

  • Classical Conditioning

Classical Conditioning

Unconditioned Stimulus (US) Fruit bowl crashing on floor beside cat, pieces of fruit and broken bowl probably strike cat---->Unconditioned Response (UR) FEAR

Neutral Stimulus (NS) Owner + US----->Unconditioned Response (UR) FEAR

NS becomes a Conditioned Stimulus (CS) Owner----> Conditioned Response (CR) FEAR

Cat now runs away from owner

  • Becomes aggressive, with fear signaling, if owner attempts to touch or pick up

  • Stimulus Discrimination: Cat is only afraid of the owner who was present during the incident

Stimulus Generalization: Cat is afraid of all people

  • May develop suddenly or slowly for unknown reasons

  • Genetic predisposition to respond intensely to even mildly fear-inducing events

  • Early experience may have same consequence

  • Event may occur which owner is unaware of, e.g. something frightens the cat and maintains fright until the owner gets home. Cat remains frightened of other (identifiable or unidentifiable stimuli) and owner

Fear Aggression-Treatment

  • Desensitization

  • Counter-conditioning

DS & CC: Individualize for the cat

  • Drag string

  • Good with cats that like to chase the string or whatever is on it.

  • Begin at whatever distance is necessary for the cat to pursue.

  • Gradually shorten string over many days.

Roll ball

  • Again, good with cats that like to chase rolling balls

  • Roll ball to whatever distance is necessary for the cat to chase it

Treats: Thrown or laid out

  • For cats that are less motivated by play and more motivated by food

  • Have very tasty treat that can be gently tossed.

  • Sit or stand and toss to suitable distance

  • Some cats will like the play aspect of tossing paired with food motivation

  • Lay out trail to near person

Sit near food bowls

  • Often the only method to use in early taming of feral cats

  • When cat is hungry, place bowl of highly palatable food out

  • Sit quietly as far away as is necessary for the cat to approach and eat

  • Gradually sit closer and closer

If the cat is only afraid of certain people

  • Have person who can handle the cat play with it and/or give it treats while a person the cat is afraid of sits quietly nearby.

  • Over time, the person the cat is afraid of gradually comes closer.

Fear Aggression- Treatment

Clomipramine HCl (Anafranil®, Clomicalmä)

0.25-0.5mg/kg q24h

Fluoxetine HCl (Prozac®)

0.5-1.0 mg/kg q24h

Paroxetine HCl Paxil®

0.5-1.0 mg/kg q24h

Sertraline (Zoloft ®)

0.5-1.0 mg/kg q24h

Petting Intolerance

  • If owner initiates petting, cat is aggressive

  • After a certain amount of petting, cat becomes aggressive

  • Occurs in both males and females

  • Etiology is controversial

  • May be status related

  • Cats primarily groom each other on the head and neck

Petting Intolerance-Treatment

  • Pet only or predominantly on the head and neck.

  • Species specific behavior

  • Preaggression cues:

Watch for preaggression cues

Owner may not realize they're happening until you point them out

Tail twitching

Low growling

Skin twitching


Owner vs. cat initiating petting

May need to restrict petting to cat initiated petting.

Evaluate complete Owner X Cat interaction

  • Owner X Cat interactions

  • Time limit:

» Is there a time period that the cat will typically tolerate petting?

» Stop BEFORE that threshold


  • Cat starts showing preaggression cues as early as 30 seconds

  • Never pet for more than 20-25 seconds


  • If owner really wants tactile contact with a lap cat they need

  • A different cat

  • A stuffed cat

Petting Intolerance-Treatment

Same medications as for fear aggression

Status (Dominance) Related

  • Appears to be uncommon in cats, but does occur

  • Show dominance displays to one or more persons

Dominance Display

  • Status-related

  • Medication

  • SSRI

  • TCA

  • Progestins

  • Owner control resources

  • Punishment of ritual dominance display

Redirected Aggression

  • Occurs during interference in situations which have caused the cat to become aroused.

  • Cat fight

  • Dog aggressive to cat

Redirected Aggression-Treatment

  • Avoid interfering in situations that cause arousal

  • Treat primary problem

Sexual Aggression

Cat mounts owner's limb, grabs skin, initiates pelvic thrusting, growls

Sexual Aggression-Treatment

  • Punishment

  • Before cat mounts limb!

  • Squirt or use other punisher when cat first focuses on limb

  • SRI

  • Progestin Therapy

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