How to Curb Aggression in Cats and Dogs

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Author: Tracy Reis, DVM

There is a range of behavior in cats and dogs that can be classified as aggression. They may be aggressive to other animals of their own species (cat on cat or dog on dog), between species (dog on cat), or directed at humans, which is the most serious.

Cat aggression is the second most common reason why owners seek out a pet behaviorist. Often, cat aggression is seen as less serious than dog aggression because cats don’t actively pursue people like dogs do. Fights between cats rarely result in death, but can cause infection, most often in the form of abscesses. This can become a considerable expense for veterinary treatment if it is repetitive.

Aggressive behavior in cats can be classified as: between cats, territorial, play, redirected, petting-induced, pain-induced, maternal, idiopathic (unknown cause) and predatory. Regardless of the type of aggression exhibited, it is important for the owner to pay close attention to any clues as to what may upset their cat. When and where did it happen? What were the circumstances leading up to the behavior? Who was the pet aggressive toward? This may provide some insight into the aggressive behavior.

The aggressive behavior can exhibit itself in two forms: offensive posture and defensive posture. 

  • Offensive posture – stiff legs, tail stiff and straight, upright ears, hackles up, direct stare, constricted pupils, directly facing or moving toward the opponent, possible howling, growling or yowling.
  • Defensive posture – crouching, head tucked in, tail wrapped around the body, ears flattened, turning sideways to the opponent, hissing or spitting, possible quick strikes with front paws, claws out.

Do not attempt to handle your cat if any of these signs are present or you risk getting bitten or scratched, both of which can cause infection, sometimes serious.

In dogs, aggression can be exhibited by many different behaviors. Usually a dog will give a warning before attacking, but sometimes the time between the warning and a bite can be fast, so the owner doesn’t see it coming.

As with cats, there are several types of aggression in dogs, including: territorial, protective, possessive, fear, defensive, social, frustration-elicited, redirected, pain-elicited, sex-related, and predatory. It is important to determine whether the aggression is directed at family members, strangers or other animals.

Up to 70% of dogs have been shown to demonstrate unfriendly behavior toward strangers. This behavior is also prevalent toward unfamiliar dogs. The most dangerous dogs are those that are aggressive toward children, especially those in the household. These dogs are the hardest to treat, and have the highest risk for concern, as trust can be difficult to establish if a child has been bitten.

If you decide to treat your aggressive dog, there are several risk factors to consider such as size, age, bite history, predictability, targets, triggers, and ease of motivating your dog.

You may seek the help of a trainer to evaluate the problem, and there are many good ones available in most major cities. They will generally come to your home to evaluate your pet in its own environment. There are also veterinary behaviorists for the most severe cases.

There are natural treatments available which can be of great help in relaxing your pet, thus helping to remove anxious behavior, aggression and excessive barking.

Homeopathic remedies that contain ingredients such as Scullateria, Chamomille, Arsenica Alba, Belladonna and Hep Sulphur can all help by calming the nervous system. They work in different ways on the nervous system and can give great results.

Always seek professional help from your veterinarian if your pet is not responding to alternative treatments for the protection of yourself and your pet.

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