Fear Aggression in Cats
When talking about an aggressive pet we tend to assume we’re talking about a dog who barks, growls, lunges at, or even attacks, other dogs, on-or-off leash. This is especially problematic at dog parks and when walking your own or someone else’s dog around the block. I’ve lost track of how many times an owner has given me a list of neighborhood dogs their dog does not like and therefore should be avoided. With some dogs this can include every dog in the community.
But not many animal caregivers expect to hear about an aggressive cat, unless that is, they’ve seen a couple of episodes of the reality show “My Cat From Hell.” Such cats do exist and can be very dangerous because their bites and scratches can create real medical emergencies. In fact, I’ve been hospitalized twice with serious cat bites on my hands that required round-the-clock antibiotics. The biggest concern with bites to the hand is that joints can become infected. Left untreated, a cat-bite victim could even lose a joint.
There are two types of animal aggression: fear aggression and re-directed aggression. With fear aggression the fearful cat becomes aggressive NOT in an attempt to hurt you. Rather Mr. or Mrs. kitty is protecting herself or himself from a perceived threat. This form of aggression is an automatic reaction by the brain to a stimulus of fear. The fear could be the result of rough handling by shelter volunteers when the cat was a kitten, or to relentless bullying by a household’s children, dog, or immature adults.
Since it is not that common, however, I never expect to be caring for an aggressive cat unless the owner warns me in advance that their cat is aggressive towards outsiders. Underlying this sense of fear is a territorial instinct that is exacerbated by the presence of a stranger.
In the case of a cat named “The Dude,” a very large and unfriendly gray kitty, his owner told me, “Boy do I have a cat for you!” She did not, however, go on to say that The Dude would actually try to attack me. But that’s exactly what happened. After tending to the cat’s food, water, and litter box needs I sat down in the living room. My rule is to never force myself on a cat. I wait for them come to me. And sure enough, The Dude did come to me, sat down in front of me, and stared with dilated pupils and a whipping tail. In the blink of an eye The Dude sprang toward my lap with paws and claws extended. Fortunately I was wearing long pants and managed to back out the front door unscathed. The Dude felt threatened by my presence in what he considered to be his turf. He clearly wanted me gone.
Another cat parent warned me about the family’s feral, small-framed West Virginia rescue kitty who was innocuously named “Baby Kitty.” This little spitfire came after me every chance she got, hissing and spitting, ears flattened sideways against her head. Although she couldn’t have weighed more than six pounds, this cat was weaponized with an arsenal of claws and teeth. In fact, it took me so long to get past her that I couldn’t get to the alarm keypad in the master bedroom fast enough to disarm the alarm. When the alarm company called to make sure everything was okay (and to ask for the password), I’m not sure they believed me when I told them how I’d triggered the alarm. I know the local police department got a chuckle out of the situation when two officers showed up at the front door.
Most recently I had a new cat client whose owner neglected to tell me about their 13-year-old cat’s behavioral issues. Therefore, when the cat wrapped himself around my left ankle one day and started tearing my flesh with his back feet and claws (which I collectively refer to as “kickers”), I was stunned. As was the case with Baby Kitty, “Diniro” prevented me from disarming the alarm so I again found myself explaining to a disbelieving alarm company and local police that the cat was responsible.
Diniro’s family had recently moved from Miami to Marco Island so not only was Diniro in a new house, he also had a new pet sitter. Our first gig together was a 12-day stretch while his parents travelled overseas. Diniro’s owners seemed anxious about leaving him and the household’s other cat, a gorgeous white and black longhaired cat named “Pesci,” so I paid two visits to the home in hopes that the two felines would be familiar with me when I showed up to tend to their daily needs.
There was nothing warm and fuzzy about Diniro during those two, pre-departure visits; his body language screamed DANGER - HARD HAT AREA. His pupils were dilated, his stance was crouched, his ears were lowered, and he was whipping his stub of a tail rapidly from side-to-side. Since his owner was present during these visits, however, Diniro reluctantly let me pet him. I assumed that he would gradually warm up to me, just as hundreds of shy cats before him had done.
When confronted with danger or fear mammals resort to one of two behaviors: fight or flight. Diniro’s early kitten experience programmed him to fight whereas the other cat in the household - Pesci - chose flight. Diniro most likely had a bad experience with humans while at the humane society. In Pesci’s case she simply lacked the socialization that needs to take place during a kitten’s critical experiential ages of two-to-seven weeks. This made her shy vs. aggressive so she hid behind the bathtub vs. stalking me around the house.
I was baffled enough by Baby Kitty’s, The Dude’s, and Diniro’s aggression that I googled feline aggression in search of a solution. Apparently I had needed to create a positive response to my presence in order to combat Diniro’s fear aggression. This could have been achieved by giving him a handful of treats as soon as I came through the front door.
After Diniro and Pesci’s parents returned home I learned that it had taken their pet sitter in Miami five years to earn Diniro’s trust! I also learned that I was not the only one who’d been injured by Diniro. I did, however, have the honor of being the one he’d inflicted the most physical damage on! His family apologized profusely for the injuries and worried that I’d never take care of him again. I said that I would; I view conquering Diniro’s fear of strangers to be a challenge akin to summiting Mt. Everest!
If you have a cat you suspect is suffering from fear aggression your first step should be to schedule an appointment with your veterinarian to make sure an underlying medical condition is not responsible for your cat's bad behavior. Fear aggression is a complex problem and very hard to remedy. You may want to consider consulting your veterinarian about finding a feline behavioralist to help you and your cat manage this issue. Although desensitization and counter-conditioning ala Pavlov are the most effective ways to change your cat's emotional response to fear, it will be nearly impossible to extinguish his or her aggressive response. For the benefit of your cat you should look into using calming diffusers, Rescue Remedy drops, or calming collars. I've tried all three and had the best results with calming collars. Your vet may even recommend medication to ease your cat's fear and dull his or her response. It is unlikely that either you or your cat is happy with the situation.