Weird and wonderful: 5 tips for handling feline aggression

December 18, 2018
Lisa Radosta, DVM, DACVB
Lisa Radosta, DVM, DACVB

Dr. Radosta is the owner of Florida Veterinary Behavior Service in West Palm Beach, Florida. She completed a residency in behavioral medicine at University of Pennsylvania where she received two national research awards. She has authored textbook chapters; writes a column for the Palm Beach Post and podcasts CE for VetGirl. She has published research papers on thyroid disease and clinician client communication and has lectured across the country and internationally. She is the behavior section editor for Small Animal Advances in Medicine and Surgery, sits on the American Animal Hospital Association Behavior Management Guidelines Task Force and the Fear Free Advisory Board.

The veterinary team plays a key role in helping de-escalate battles cats wage against their owners and other pets in the household.

Ask owners to describe a cat's body language during episodes of aggression toward people or other cats. Feline aggression, whether toward other animals or people, can send veterinary team members scrambling for solutions in textbooks and from peers. However, this problem doesn't have to be mysterious. Here are some simple tips for feline aggression disorders that can help your team help cats and their owners.

1. Make the history count

The first step in a feline aggression evaluation is to assist the doctor in getting an accurate history, including the cat's age when the aggression started, progression of the problem, and any risk to the public. Next you'll help determine if the behavior is normal or abnormal. Normal behaviors can often be treated with behavior modification alone, but abnormal behaviors often involve fear, arousal or anxiety. In these cases, the doctor will want to consider medication and environmental changes along with behavior modification.

2. Help describe the problem

Many veterinarians think that if they can't offer a specific psychiatric diagnosis, they can't treat feline aggression or other behavior problems in general practice. Not true-and this is where you can help. Have the owner describe the cat's body language when it's being aggressive and show you videos or even photos. The doctor can then use that description to make a treatment plan that works toward the desired outcome. For example:

Instead of this official diagnosis …

Treatment can be based on this descriptive diagnosis

  • Play-related aggression
  • Aggression with stalking and play body postures
  • Fear-related aggression
  • Aggression with dilated pupils, piloerection, lowered tail, attempts to flee or fight

Other common diagnoses are:

  • Defensive aggression
  • Predatory aggression
  • Petting-induced aggression
  • Irritable aggression
  • Redirected aggression.

3. Consider medical causes

Often if a veterinary team can fix a cat's constipation, dental pain, back pain or urinary tract infection, the behavior problem goes away. Pain and discomfort can increase irritability, and cats don't always display clear clinical signs when there's a medical problem. The doctor will rely on the veterinary nurse to perform screenings, conduct initial tests, and collect urine and blood samples, then the doctor will examine each cat thoroughly for pain, discomfort or diseases of other body systems.

4. Apply the Band-Aids first

Band-Aid treatments can give the owner and the pet some immediate relief. And the veterinary team is essential in educating the cat owner about these strategies and teaching them how to use them at home.

One of the most important Band-Aids to reach for is environmental enrichment. Assume the patient's environment is underenriched-that the cat's natural instincts and innate drives have no outlet that's acceptable to the owner. But it proper enrichment is provided, most feline behavioral disorders will respond at least in part. We're not talking about a basket of toys here; we're talking about MEMO: multimodal environmental modification. Technicians are best equipped to talk to clients about toys, show pictures and videos, and offer handouts on enrichment (browse your options at dvm360.com/behaviorhandouts, and find more information on enrichment at flvetbehavior.com and indoorpet.osu.edu).

Other feline aggression Band-Aids include:

  • Separation of fighting pets.
  • Separation of aggressive animals from their victims.
  • Quick-acting medications and supplements (technicians can teach owners how to administer).
  • Safety recommendations.

5. Ask this very important question

Tell owners to be honest with you (no judgment!), and ask, “Are you so frustrated you might euthanize or give away your cat?” If the answer is yes, the Band-Aids listed above become even more important. Feline problems that interrupt the cat owner's sleep are especially problematic-it's hard for clients to be clear-headed when they're operating on limited shuteye. Let them know that confinement at night is an acceptable option. The cat may not love it, but it will adjust and be OK.

Remember, aggression cases can be challenging, so follow-up with the veterinary team is essential. Technicians are perfectly positioned to check in with clients over time to assess how treatment is going and, with the doctor's input, adjust the plan as necessary.

Dr. Lisa Radosta owns Florida Veterinary Behavior Service West Palm Beach, Florida. This article is adapted from a session she conducted at the Fetch dvm360 conferences.