Common behavioral problems seen in feline practice (Proceedings)

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Common behavioral problems seen in feline practice (Proceedings)

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Apr 01, 2009

Aggression

Of the various behavioral issues, this may be the least common but the most worrisome to owners. Aggressive cats can be a danger to other pets in the household or to the humans themselves.

Aggression toward humans in the household can occur for a variety of reasons, and determining the reason can help to curb the behavior in the future. If the cat is intact, it can be sexual aggression. Other forms include play behavior, fear induced aggression, redirection from something else that is bothering the cat, or physical intolerance, such as occurs when cats become aggressive after being petted.

Play aggression is usually an issue with younger cats, but can occur in older cats as well. Play is a normal, healthy, and necessary behavior, and in most cases the cat needs to be taught proper boundaries for play. Cats who are play aggressive will hide and stalk their owners, might bite and scratch legs and ankles as the human is walking by, or crouch and pounce at the owner. These cats normally seem very happy – the ears are forward, the tail is active, they do not seem defensive. Cats who demonstrate these behaviors are rarely satisfied with a fuzzy mouse on the floor that doesn't move. Interactive play can help reduce the frequency or eliminate the unwanted behavior. A key to redirecting play aggression is to recognize the initial clues the cat gives that he is about to engage in the attack behavior. The cat may be crouching, stalking, or twitching the tail as the human is about to walk by. If these behaviors are seen, the cat can be redirected to a different target, such as a toy on a string, a foil ball that is thrown, or other interactive toy that keeps vulnerable human parts away from the dangerous parts of the cat. Unfortunately, there are times when the human may be caught off guard and be attacked. This is one of the few times that punishment may actually be indicated. For punishment to work for a behavioral problem, it has to be immediate (within several seconds), and consistent. Many people advocate water pistols to interrupt the cat's behavior, and that will work with some cats. Other cats, however, think that this is a really cool game, too. Air horns can be used to effectively stop the behavior, but may be too loud for some. They key for the punishment is to stop the behavior but absolutely not create a fear response.

Once the owner is aware that the behavior may occur, he or she can take steps to prevent it. Avoiding things that seem to excite the cat is key. For example, if the owner realizes that every night when she comes home the cat is waiting to pounce on her from the top of the washer, she could come in through a different door. Alternatively, she could come in prepared with toys to throw or have other interaction with the cat. Over time, this behavior can be retrained to happen not as the owner walks in the door, but at a specified time of the owner's choosing. The cat can look forward to that predictable time of play, and the unwanted aggressive behavior can be minimized. Rewarding good behavior should never be ignored.