The lioness behind the chair: human-directed aggression in cats (Proceedings)


Play aggression is a common problem and more likely in young cats.

Human-directed aggression: a selected list 

  • 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

  • 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

  • Combine

  • +++Appropriate Play

  • ---Unacceptable Play



  • Generally not indicated

  • This is a management problem

  • If aggression is 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

  • 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.

  • Clomipramine HCl 0.25-0.5mg/kg q24h

  • Fluoxetine HCl 0.5-1.0 mg/kg q24h

  • Paroxetine HCl 0.5-1.0 mg/kg q24h

  • Sertraline 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

  • Mydriasis



Owner vs. Cat initiating petting

  • May need to restrict petting to cat initiated petting.

  • Evaluate complete Owner X Cat interaction


Time limit

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

  • Stop BEFORE that threshold

  • Example:

  •  Cat starts showing preaggression cues as early as 30 seconds

  • Never pet for more than 20-25 seconds

  • Petting Intolerance-Treatment


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

  • Medications as listed above if the cat is easily aroused.


Status (dominance) related

  • Appears to be very rare in cats, but does occur

  • Show dominance displays to one or more persons

  • Refer


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

  • Redirection or Punishment

  • Before cat mounts limb!

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

  • SRI=Decreased Libido?         

  • Refer to a specialist
Related Videos
Related Content
© 2024 MJH Life Sciences

All rights reserved.