Feline Redirected Aggression
World Small Animal Veterinary Association World Congress Proceedings, 2001
Niwako Ogata

There are various types of aggressive behavior in cats as in dogs. One of the most difficult types of aggression for owners to understand is called “redirected aggression.” In this form of aggression, a cat generally attacks the closest object, often a family member or a cat in the same household, when it is frightened or excessively aroused by a stimulus that is inaccessible. The most common stimuli leading to redirected aggression are the presence of another cat, high-pitched noises, visitors in a house, a dog, an unusual odor, and being outdoors unexpectedly.(1) Although there may be some controversy as to whether redirected aggression is a motivation for aggression, (2) in wild or laboratory settings it is a well-recognized phenomenon and is considered a normal behavior.(1) Redirected aggression often breaks the bond between the aggressive cat and family members or other cats because they are not the direct cause of the problem and the wounds of the aggressive attack are often severe. Therefore, the key to preventing the destruction of the bond is to make an accurate diagnosis and to provide treatment advice based on the typical behavior and response of cats.

It is known that animals have specific responses to deal with threats: Flight, Fight, Freeze, and Appeasement.(3) Each species has different responses, but “Flight” takes priority over others in cats. When this response is obstructed, many cats panic or get so aroused that they lose control. This may be because they believe that they cannot escape from the threats. The cat then attacks the nearest object with piloerection and dilated pupils, which is called a panic response. By this time, the aggressor is highly aroused but not toward the original stimulus because the original cause is unavailable. The attack is surprising to the victims of the aggression since they appear to have been attacked for no apparent reason. In response, the victim fights back with defensive or fear aggression. It is important to know that the victim’s response turns redirected aggression into fear aggression between the aggressor and the owner or victim cat and may be accompanied by defecation, urination, or vocalization as physiological signs.

Generally speaking, the owner can usually identify the trigger for the fear-related aggression such as unfamiliar people or a physical exam by a veterinarian. However, there is another form of fear-related aggression that arises out of redirected aggression and its cause or trigger is a family member or a cat. Since there is no obvious reason for the aggression, this is very confusing to the owners. Because of this lack of understanding, most owners, unfortunately, try to give a treat or pet the cat to calm its aggression. Some owners still believe a cat is similar to a small dog and try to apply the same treatments, such as physical or verbal reprimands or the use of a water gun. These techniques further provoke the fear response of the cat and are not recommended.(4)

The following three points are common factors in redirected aggression:

1. It can take a long period, even a few months, to recover its composure. The stronger the trigger for a level of arousal or stimulus, the longer it takes to recover.

2. If a cat keeps living in the same environment as the location of the event, the tension stays at the same level and the threshold for fear and arousal will be lowered. As a result, the trigger may be likely to be generalized to anything in the environment.

3. Repeated exposure to the stimulus, which provokes the emotional response, consciously or unconsciously, reinforces the panic response and its prognosis becomes poor.

Considering these points, the treatment will be to:

1. First of all, ensure enough security for family members by confining or isolating the cat, because its threshold for fear and aggression is low.

2. Provide consistent desensitization and counter conditioning to the original trigger (if it can be identified) and to the environment of the event and or the triggers of the secondary fear response.

3. Use antianxiety drugs (e.g., Clomipramne, Amitriptyline, Buspirone, Fluoxetine) if it is possible to medicate the cat. However, it is generally more difficult to medicate an aggressive nervous cat.(5)

Treatment of redirected aggression is difficult because the stimulus for the aggression is unavailable and most owners do not have appropriate information about feline normal behavior. To prevent disruption of the cat and owner bond, it is important for veterinarians to advise the owners about normal feline behavior and how to deal with redirected aggression.


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Niwako Ogata

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