Dealing with an Aggressive Pet

By Emily Hoppmann, DVM

A dog may become aggressive for a variety of reasons. Determining the reason for aggression is the key to modifying this behavior long term. Above all, the dominant point in handling aggressive animals is to not be hurt and not to cause your cat any anxiety or stress. Punishment, negative stimulus, or any other “scare tactics” make the aggressive pet even more anxious and defensive and are totally counterproductive. Your approach should be a calm, soothing one that first and foremost does not put any additional stress on your relationship with your pet or your cat – while keeping in mind that you do not want to put yourself at risk for serious injury.

The most common reasons cats may become aggressive are territory protection (from either another animal or person), defense (of themselves or their property), or pain. Cats also may become aggressive due to “petting intolerance” or as an attention seeking behavior. Symptoms of petting intolerance include biting, scratching, or growling at the time of petting or when petting ceases. The most important change to make when interacting with your cat is to only pet/scratch the head. Do not do full body pets, rub her belly, etc. even if this is something that has never directly resulted in biting – it is still not a normal way for an owner to show affection for their cat. It can led to re- enforcing an already “abnormal” relationship.

I do not believe in punishment at all. I use positive reinforcement to train for a “good attitude” and “time-out” (removing yourself, a toy, the position on the couch – anything that the cat views as positive) when bad behavior occurs. It is essential to send a clear message every time and to stay consistent and quick to react any time biting occurs. Cats can’t learn appropriate vs not appropriate behavior unless the biting results in a loss of something that the cat desires within the first 20 seconds. In most situations, what your cat wants more than anything is you and your attention. You have to keep in mind that any interaction at all (through body, voice, etc.) is viewed as attention by your cat.

Training that biting will not be tolerated by using “time-out” it may mean having to pick up your cat and move her to another area that is less desirable while she is still in “attack” mode. The safest way to do this is using a large blanket/towel to wrap around your cat, creating a “burrito like” wrap by rolling the towel snugly around the cat. If your cat starts to struggle or become more aggressive or stressed due to this, discontinue right away. The goal is more to create a safe zone, where you are safe and your cat feels secure.

In all these situations, it is essential to move calmly and deliberately. Remain aware of the pet’s possible biting or scratching, but try to be as soothing and reassuring as possible. Many animals sense tension and respond to it with further aggression, so this feedback cycle should be avoided as much as possible.

Punishment does not work with any form of aggression; however, positive reinforcement of appropriate behavior does. When an animal is compliant where previously it was aggressive under the same circumstances or with the same triggering events, you should offer a treat and praise.

Cats may become aggressive while playing (with people or toys, etc.). The pet may stalk, jump on people or pets, or stare at the target while the tail twitches. This form of aggression must be discouraged and interrupted, which is best done by not engaging (that is, by ignoring it). When the same situation arises but the pet is not aggressive, be sure to offer lavish praise and a treat every time. This way, over time, the pet can come to the conclusion that it is advantageous to avoid the aggression. Providing large areas for exercise, toys for distraction, and consistent, positive reinforcement when the acceptable actions are occurring is strongly encouraged.

Identifying, handling, and treating aggression can be a very time-consuming and emotionally intense task. Aggression is usually a learned behavior that can be corrected, or at least a behavior that is strengthened or triggered by elements around the animal that can be reduced or controlled to avoid triggering aggression. Identifying the source of aggression should be a prime goal, and understanding the source can be complex.

Unfortunately, an animal that is aggressive can always be aggressive again if the same triggers occur. With time, aggression evolves, as does an animal’s environment. Young children grow up and may better understand what not to do that makes an animal aggressive; and animals themselves may mature and change in behavior, although this change may be for the better or for the worse in terms of aggression, depending at least in part on your ability and consistency at controlling triggering factors. Early intervention reduces the risk of human injury or self-injury of the pet and helps you understand

What are the circumstances where a simple punishment should help to correct aggressive behavior? None. Punishment increases the heightened anxiety, stimulation, and/or provocation that all make aggression worse. Punishment is the ultimate wrong approach to aggression. Rather, calm, consistent handling and steps taken to identify what starts the aggressive behavior have the greatest success.

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