Aggressive Cats: Diagnosis and Management
World Small Animal Veterinary Association World Congress Proceedings, 2005
Claude Beata, DVM, Behaviorist GFNVS, DECBVM-CA

Cats are not dogs! Even if it is obvious, we have to keep it in mind when we are looking at behavior disorders. Every hurried transposition, every extrapolation can lead to misunderstandings and failures in treatments.

Ethological basis

Three main points can trigger aggressive--or agonistic--reactions in cats: development, territory organization, and the double status: predator and prey.

Special features of feline development

It is faster than the development of the dog.

Socialization of the cat (and we could discuss whether it is a true socialization or familiarization) depends on two related points: the quality of mother's socialization and the duration of mothering. It is easy to differentiate two kinds of kittens according to the result of the suspension test. The vet can softly take the kitten by the skin of the neck and observe what happens. If the kitten stays quiet, in the foetal position, we can think that this animal had long lasting and good relationships with his mother. On the other hand, if the cat is spitting and meowing in a hyperextension position, we can fear a bad development.

Lack of contact between the mother and the kitten will not allow setting up correct autocontrols. The mother plays a main educative role when she regulates the excess of violence of the kitten by giving slaps on their muzzle or scratching their belly. As a vet, to prevent hyper aggressiveness in these kittens raised as babies, we must explain that slaps and scratches, when made in an adequate way are necessary during the development of the kitten.


Cats are territorial animals. Structure of the territory is a main point for the balance of the cat's behavior.

Activity fields linked by invariant pathways set up the territory. These different fields are marked out by both visual and olfactory (including pheromones) signals. Most of cats can tolerate or look for other cats or human beings in specific areas.

When facial marks disappear, the related loss of organization of the territory increases the anxiety and can trigger aggressiveness. The practitioner must be aware of that to prevent the confusion between the territorial aggressiveness of a non socialized cats (this one does not tolerate anybody) and irritation-related aggression exhibited by cats living in a changed territory.

Territory must provide true or false preys. Cats need to play, to observe and to hunt. They need to find small amounts of food very often.

Double status: predator and prey

Cats are small predators who can be a prey himself. Thus, the range of possible behaviors is very wide and he can switch in a snap from fleeing to attacking. Survival can be the result of brutal changes in strategy. Even if we provide them security, cats have kept this ability in their new surroundings to change very quickly their mood and their behavior. Lack of hierarchy

Finally, it is very important to keep in mind that there is no hierarchy, even in cat colonies. Relationships can be based on strength, but violence is not dominance. Many people think that they have a dominant cat and they try to submit him. They can mistake the classical submissive position in dogs and the same position in cats which is not a submissive posture but the prelude of an attack. Laying down on their side, four paws with claws and a mouth with teeth are ready to fight.

Classification of aggressions

Before treating or even giving a diagnosis, we must know and recognize different patterns of aggressions.

Predatory aggression

Hunting blind, patience and jumping on the back of the prey set up the predatory aggression that we can also recognize on owners hands or feet.

Irritation related aggression

Spacing out aggression

Hissings, controlled paw slaps, false runs, with ears lying down on the rear of the skull are seen in that king of agonistic behavior.

Breaking off aggression

The cats falls on his side, exhibits the claws, growls and bites without control if the contact goes on.

Fear aggression

Autonomous signs such as diarrhea, vomiting and bites and scratches without control are present. Fear aggression, in an ethological point of view can be seen only when there is no escape route.

Territorial aggression

Cats walk the enemy back to the limits with lateral runs. He can spray some urine drops on the opponent and scratch his back. This pattern can be seen also in households.

Aggression and nosography

Aggressive sequences exist often in disorders with hyposocialization and/or lack of autocontrols.

So, hypersensitive-hyperactive cats (HsHa syndrome) hurt people when playing because they control neither their claws nor their teeth.

Deprivation syndromes, mainly with social phobias present many patterns of aggression such as irritation-related, breaking-off or spacing-out aggressions.

Any anxious disorder with intermittent anxiety as functional status can show irritation-related or fear aggressions.

Restricted space related anxiety are also rich in irritation-related but also in predatory aggressions.

Treatment of cat aggressiveness

We'll study the different kinds of aggressiveness according to the ethological basis we have seen . All treatments are based upon three main points:

 Drugs (in some cases) when neurotransmission needs to be fixed such as in severe development disorders.

 Setting up a relevant territory with two main axis:

 Using synthetic or natural pheromones to mark out in a correct way the different fields and build an appeasing territory.

 Physical and spatial organization of the environment to protect, for instance, the isolation field.

 Behavior modifications based upon cats observation and using their communication rules or fulfilling their fundamental need.


Let's underline that drugs are not always necessary but they are often useful and our job is to provide the best chance to our client. Anyway two reasons can prevent us for prescribing:

 Behavior and territory modifications can be sufficient.

 Because of the little number of specific feline drugs, sometimes giving the drug to the cat is just impossible. In other cases, giving the pill is so stressful that the benefit of the treatment is destroyed.

Drugs are elected according to the main symptoms (and not according to the diagnosis) because the symptoms are linked to neurotransmitters and in a quite simple but efficient model we can choose the right drug starting from the signs.

In case of aggressiveness, the first will of the practitioner is to decrease the danger and to control the motor activity.

Strict serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI) are often the best choice to control aggression. There is no specific veterinary SSRI (not yet) and their galenic form is not always adapted. Fluoxetine (Prozac ND) is today a good choice because of the hydrodispersible galenic form. At a dosage between 1 and 2 mg/kg SID we can predict a quick improvement in the control of bites and scratches.

Serotonin Norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors can also be effective. Clomipramine today exists with a veterinary patent (Clomicalm ND). Studies underline that above 1mg/kg, dysuria might occur. Recommended dosage is between 0.25 mg/kg and 0.50 mg/kg SID. Clomipramine decreases anxiety.

B-Monoamine Oxidase Inhibitor (B-MAOI) are very interesting in case or fear aggressions. Results are not quick and owners must know that they will have at least 15 days to wait to see the first effect. Selegilin Chlorhydrate (Anipryl) is useful at a dosage of 1mg/kg SID. That drug should have been the best choice in many anxious disorders when cats are not too dangerous but its galenic form is often a barrier. It's a pity because we can observe many positive effects and no side effects. Selegiline enhances exploratory activity and thus allows a real cure of bad socialization by opening a new critical period when the cat is able to familiarize new people.

Sedative neuroleptics (phenothiazine-acepromazine-) are counter-indicated because they trigger confusion and enhance the danger. More they inhibit any memorization and forbid to set up any therapy.

Mood regulators (carbamazepine) are counter-indicated because of its dramatic emetic effect.

Setting up the territory

Pheromonotherapy is a good first move in any feline aggressive behavior even it won't be sufficient as soon as we can observe an instrumentalization (shortening with loss of appetitive phase) of the sequence.

 Allomarking pheromone (F4 fraction of facial pheromonal complex of the cat) is useful in case of lack of socialization or lack of tolerance to strangers contact. It increases the probability for an individual, conspecific or not to be accepted.

 As soon as anxiety signs are present, the use of synthetic analog of F3 fraction (Feliway ND) is interesting. It decreases the anxiety and thus the risk of aggression. Diffusers are a very practical way of treating.

An isolation field must be protected to allow the cat to escape from who he wants when he wants. Enrichment is also necessary with toys, hidden food to stimulate hunting and searching behaviors. This decreases dramatically the predatory aggressions.

Food access must be free or at least very frequent to decrease irritation-related aggressions, often observed just before the hour of the meal.

Behavior modifications

They must be based on cat's ethogram.

Physical punishments always increase anxiety and prevent any improvement. They must be avoided. As there is no dominance, any punishment with the goal to submit cats are wrong and worsen the prognosis and the danger. Only little snaps on the muzzle and scratching the belly can be used on uncontrolled kittens. In case of predatory aggression, spray therapy can be relevant. The owner has to use a device to spray water on the cat at the beginning of the sequence, when the cat just thinks of attacking. The spray device makes a noise just as a hissing cat and most of cats don't like water.


Building a therapy on these three axis allows the practitioner to treat cases which had before euthanasia as only outcome. We must study further to understand better the ethology of our domestic cat and we must improve the galenic form of the drugs that can help the treatment of severe aggressiveness.

Speaker Information
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Claude Beata, DVM, Behaviorist GNFVS, ECVBM-CA Charter Diplomate

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