Aggression is a common behavior problem in pet cats, but management strategies, supplements and medications, and simple behavior modification steps can help improve our chances of restoring successful relationships within the home.
Aggression is directed at human family members:
- Avoid verbal and physical punishment—punishment is typically associated with the person doing the punishing and not the unwanted behavior, so punishment usually escalates the cat’s aggression instead of helping it.
- Avoid physical interactions like picking the cat up, as this is a common trigger for fear-based aggression.
- Keep petting sessions brief and focus under the chin and around the whiskers, which is where cats typically groom each other.
- Avoid interacting with your cat when she is aroused (ie. sees another cat outside, just returned home from veterinary visit). She may need to be lured into a closed room until she’s calmed down.
- Increase play with interactive feeders and hunting toys. Cats quickly lose interest when they’re unable to capture, kill, and eat when “hunting”, so keep each play session limited to 5-10 minutes, and consider switching toys midway through play sessions to increase interest in continued play. Play and hunting opportunities, especially with feeder toys that dispense food, can replace missing predatory behaviors and reduce incidences of aggression.
Aggression is directed at visitors:
- Avoid interactions by confining the cat into a room or floor of the house without access to the visitor.
Aggression is directed at other cats in the home:
- Reduce interactions by setting up separate areas with separate resources for each cat. Feed in separate rooms and offer water dishes, litter boxes, scratching posts, and climbing towers in separate locations.
- Consider physically separating the cats with 2 stacked baby gates or closed doors.
Aggression is stemming from presence of cats outside:
- Make your yard less attractive to other cats—don’t leave food or water out, take down bird feeders. Consider using a motion-activated sprinkler system to discourage other cats from visiting your yard.
- Cover or use frosted privacy film over windows or block access to rooms with windows to reduce visibility of other cats.
Medications can also be used to reduce fear, stress, anxiety, and agitation as a secondary step. Aggression is a strategy cats can use when scared, so addressing the underlying scared feelings can sometimes help reduce a cat’s urge to behave aggressively. There are no FDA-approved medications for aggression in cats, but many options have worked well for individual cats:
- Feliway diffusers or spray contains a replicated cat pheromone that has been shown to reduce conflict between cats. These should be used where the cats spend most of their resting time.
- Anxitane contains the natural anxiety supplement, L-theanine (the calming amino acid in green tea), has been shown to reduce signs of anxiety and fear. L-theanine is also available in Royal Canin’s Calm diet and Hill’s c/d Urinary Stress diet.
- Zylkene contains the milk protein, alpha-casozepine, which is used in the body to produce the “happy” neurotransmitter, serotonin. Studies have found reduced fear, anxiety, and stress when cats are supplemented with alpha-casozepine. It’s also included in Royal Canin’s Calm diet, and Hilll’s c/d Urinary Stress diet contains a casein protein as well.
- Medications that increase serotonin levels, like fluoxetine, clomipramine, amitriptyline, trazodone, and the medication gabapentin have anecdotal stories of success, but unfortunately, we have no studies supporting the use of these medications for treatment of aggression in cats.
- In cases of frequent or unpredictable aggression, a daily medication like fluoxetine may be useful.
- When aggression is infrequent and predictable, trazodone or gabapentin before the triggering event works well for many cats.
- Some kitties do best with a daily medication plus second medication for higher stress events (like veterinary visits).
Behavior modification is our third step for addressing aggressive behaviors in cat. Easy steps can include:
- Increasing the cat’s territory
- Scheduled play sessions that occur at a consistent time every day
- Feeder toys like the NoBowl system or puzzle feeders
- Hunting toys
- Cats can also be trained to go to a target location on cue to help safely redirect them when becoming aroused.
Additional challenges to consider:
- Keeping everyone safe is considerably more difficult when there are children, elderly, or cognitively impaired family members.
- Administering supplements or medications can be stressful for both the cat and the family.
- One study found worse chance of improvement between aggressive cats if the first introduction between them was unfriendly or aggressive.
- Behavior change is gradual—it generally takes weeks to months to reach an acceptable outcome, and many families struggle with patience and diligence required to address aggression issues.
Information adapted from Feline Aggression, Amy L. Pike, DVM, DACVB, Clinician’s Brief, Jan/Feb 2021.