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Aggressive behaviors in domestic cats (Felis catus)

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Abstract: Aggressive behaviors in domestic cats
(Felis catus). Behavioral issues of cats include:
furniture scratching, aggression, anxiety, over-sti-
mulation, exaggerated vocalizations and excreting
outside the litter box. Among these, aggression
– both passive and active – is the most common-
ly encountered problem. Aggressive behavior is
a complex phenomenon, dependent on both gene-
tic and environmental factors. Among the factors
leading to agonistic behavior two categories are
distinguished: psychobiological factors (which
include biochemical and physiological processes,
disposition and mood, emotional reactions, motor
actions and vegetative reactions) and environmen-
tal factors (such as incorrect socialization, unfrien-
dly surroundings or irresponsible animal owners).
The most widespread type of aggression in cats
reared in groups is linked to the desire to gain and
maintain their territory. Another type of agoni-
stic behavior is one born out of fear, exhibited by
cats in a crisis situation once there is no escape
route, and the animal is certain it has to ght to
survive. This behavior differs from others in that
aggression is here the last resort and not the rst
response to a disturbing situation. Another source
of aggression may be anxiety caused by a sudden
change in the environment, the presence of people
and other animals. An interesting type of aggres-
sion linked to the natural hunting sequence of cats
is aggression during play, which especially affects
cats during adolescence. While working with an
aggressive animal, a caregiver has a range of diffe-
rent mitigating and calming measures at hand, but
their proper selection requires experience and coo-
peration with a veterinarian and a behaviorist).
Key words: domestic cats, aggression, behavior
INTRODUCTION
Aggressive behavior is a complex phe-
nomenon, dependent on both genetic and
environmental factors. Among the fac-
tors conducive to aggression two main
categories are distinguished. The first
group are psychobiological factors which
include biochemical and physiological
processes, disposition and mood, emo-
tional reactions, motor actions and vege-
tative reactions. The second category are
environmental factors, such as incorrect
socialization, unfriendly surroundings or
irresponsible animal owners (Petrynka
et al. 2004). All behaviors that result
in any other individual being forced to
maintain their distance in psychological,
physical or social sense can be consid-
ered aggressive (Eibl-Eibesfeld 1990).
O’Hearem (2009) defines aggression as
“attacks, attempted attacks or threats to
attack”. This definition emphasizes that
aggression is the behavior of one living
creature towards another, and that this
behavior does not necessarily have to
involve the desire to do harm.
Research on the evolution of mam-
mals shows that cats – despite being the
most popular domestic animals in the
world (Turner and Bateson 2000) – still
remain wild in nature and full of secrets.
Domestic cats, despite thousands of
Annals of Warsaw University of Life Sciences – SGGW
Animal Science No 57 (2), 2018: 143–150
(Ann. Warsaw Univ. of Life Sci. – SGGW, Anim. Sci. 57 (2), 2018)
DOI 10.22630/AAS.2018.57.2.14
Aggressive behaviors in domestic cats (Felis catus)
WERONIKA PENAR, CZESŁAW KLOCEK
Faculty of Animal Breeding and Biology, Agricultural University in Krakow
144 W. Penar, Cz. Klocek
years of living together with humans,
continue to be great hunters, have not
become dependent on food supplied by
people and are famous for their love of
freedom.
The results of multiple studies con-
ducted show that cats, in contrast to
dogs, have been only partially domesti-
cated (Overall et al. 2005, Warren 2014).
The DNA comparison of domesticated
and wild cats (Felis silvestris lybica)
shows that the only differences exist
in the genes responsible for coat color,
submission instinct and attachment to
humans (Warren 2014). Slight changes
were noted also in some anatomic fea-
tures – e.g. decrease in size of both the
pituitary gland and the adrenal gland
(Fogle 2008). Incomplete domestica-
tion of cats, their independence and
self-sufficiency historically gave rise
to suspicion, lack of understanding and
sometimes even hatred among the human
population (Turner and Bateson 2000).
Each feline kept at home needs an indi-
vidual approach, empathy and for their
needs to be met by the caregiver. Lack
of opportunity to express natural instinct
and behaviors can lead to anxiety and
aggravation of behavioral problems (Da
Graca Pereira et al. 2014).
Behavioral issues of cats include:
furniture scratching, aggression, anxiety,
over-stimulation, exaggerated vocaliza-
tions and excretion outside the litter box
(Jongman 2007). Among these, aggres-
sion – both passive and active – is the
most commonly encountered problem
(Strickler and Shull 2014). The objec-
tives of this study were to identify dif-
ferent type of aggression, and to obtain
descriptive information on methods used
to prevent the occurrence of aggression.
TYPES OF AGGRESSION
Instances of active aggression are dif-
ficult to overlook. Aggressive cats hiss,
spit, growl, and ultimately attack. Openly
agonistic behavior is very often planned
– the aggressor is capable of waiting pa-
tiently and attacking the other cat when
the animal is least prepared to defend
itself. Unfortunately, passive forms of
agonistic behavior are often dismissed
and ignored. These behaviors consist
in one animal observing the other cat
with a look that prevents the latter from
approaching the food bowl, litter box or
its bed. A cat that is a victim of passive
aggression will increasingly withdraw
from active life. Subjected to continuous
state of tension and stress, the feline may
eventually fall into apathy. The most
common diseases caused by stress are
diseases of the urinary tract and diabetes.
Furthermore, such a frustrated cat may
begin to manifest different stereotypes or
compulsive behaviors: excessive licking
of fur, often even to topical baldness
(McCobb et al. 2005).
Threats and aggression can be either
offensive or defensive. Offensive aggres-
sion occurs when a subject is feeling the
need to be assertive in a certain situation
– e.g. when facing another cat or guard-
ing an object. Cat who is feeling asser-
tive will likely have ears facing forward,
fur standing and tail stiffing towards the
ground. Animal being offensive will
stare directly at its target with constricted
pupils, possibly moving it, most likely
growling or yowling. Defensive aggres-
sion occurs when an animal is attempting
to protect itself from an attack it believes
it cannot escape. Defensive postures
include crouching with the legs pulled
Aggressive behaviors in domestic cats... 145
in under the body, laying the ears back,
tucking the tail, and possibly rolling
slightly to the side (Case 2009).
Levine (2005) points out that the
domestic cat (Felis catus) belongs to the
most aggressive species in the world.
Aggressive behaviors increase the chance
of survival of a given individual, and
ensure safe upbringing of the young. All
felines are, through their genetic makeup
conditioned to aggressive behaviors.
This characteristic sometimes does not
find sufficient understanding among
owners, and the cats end up on the
streets, are relinquished to shelters, tem-
porary homes and in the worst case are
subjected to euthanasia. However, with
correct identification of the source of
aggression by a good behaviorist/animal
psychologist the undesirable behaviors
of the felines can in fact be mastered, and
specific preventive actions can be taken
for the future (Crowell-Davis et al. 2011,
Moesta et al. 2011).
The most widespread type of aggres-
sion in cats kept in groups is aggres-
sion linked to their desire to gain and
maintain territory (Houpt 1998). Such
agonistic behavior may be more pro-
nounced if another animal is introduced
into the home (Hart and Hart 2014). It is
a priority for every cat to have their own
territory. The territory of a free-roaming
cat consists of several zones (or fields)
that overlap each other. One section of
the territory is known as the cat’s home
range – this is where the cat hunts for
food and explores. The cat’s home range
(sometimes called family range) can be
shared with other individuals, although
its central part belongs only to the single
animal. The other parts of the territory
are in fact “no man’s land”, i.e. their area
is occupied by other species of animals,
including dogs (Ellis 2009). In cats kept
in homes, following this division of the
territory is not so simple, thus cats have
to settle for a substitute that is effec-
tively confined by the home’s four walls.
There is a linear correlation between the
number of cats living in a given space
and the frequency of instances of aggres-
sive behavior (Hart and Hart 2014).
A special type of territorial aggres-
sion is aggression directed at an indi-
vidual that has been away from home
for a long time. It is a set of agonistic
behaviors when a cat is facing a familiar
member of the social group, and some-
times even a well-liked one, but for some
reason that animal is “unrecognizable”.
Such practice is often observed between
cats after one returns from a veterinarian,
from an exhibition or after being used as
a stud cat (Kmecová et al. 2003). Behav-
iors associated with territorial aggression
begin with mutual evaluation of oppo-
nents, exchange of scents, establishing
eye contact and assumption of appropri-
ate body posture. If none of the individu-
als retreats after such show, this leads
to aggression and a fight occurs. Cats
generally avoid fighting. Instead, they
will rely on vocal and postural threats to
challenge foes and appeasement to back
down from stronger opponents. This
safety mechanism is common among
predatory species. Not only because it is
dangerous to fight, but it is also time and
energy consuming (Crowell-Davis et al.
2003).
When fights between cats are fre-
quent, and are associated with serious
bodily injury, the agonistic cats should
be isolated from one another. In such a
situation, an artificial barrier should be
146 W. Penar, Cz. Klocek
created that would separate the cats, or
the animals should be kept in separate
enclosures or rooms equipped with a litter
box, access to water and food (Bradshaw
2014). Similarly as in the case of intro-
ducing a new individual to a feline social
group, caretakers should allow the cats
to get acquainted once again and let them
build a new model for their relationship.
It is important to ensure the cats can still
indirectly exchange scents during the
period of isolation (Levine et al. 2005).
It is recommended to release the felines
alternately for a longer time. After some
time, one should start letting the animals
out at the same time, preferably during
the feeding time. This will allow them to
associate the presence of the other indi-
vidual with a positive signal. However, it
should be remembered that the distance
between the cats at the first meetings after
being separated should be large enough
that they cannot communicate with each
other (Moesta et al. 2011). In case of any
symptoms of aggression emerging once
more, re-isolation is necessary (Brad-
shaw 2014).
In the case of just incidental, short
conflicts, it is better to abstain from
intervention. Cats living in one place
must establish a hierarchy for them-
selves. It is also worth remembering
that social groups formed by cats are
based around dynamically developing
relationships, which means that small
clashes or conflicts within them are
normal (Biegańska-Hendryk 2017). It
may happen that aggression between two
animals intensifies at a specific time of
the day (Bradshaw 2014), or takes place
only in a very specific location. In such
situations, the best solution is to separate
the cats in question during this most
turbulent time of day, and not to allow
them into places that trigger unwanted
behaviors.
In some cases, a cat with highly devel-
oped territorial tendencies will attack
people who came to visit the owner. If
a cat exhibits such behavior, the only
method to deal with the issue is to isolate
the cat whenever guests are present, and
to not allow it to behave aggressively. It
is recommended that the cat be slowly
accustomed to unknown people visit-
ing the house. The animal should be on
a leash or in a transporter during such
initial visits. The guest can also offer the
animal a treat to consolidate a positive
association with the visit in the feline
mind (Bradshaw 2014). Subtype of
aggressive behavior connected with
territoriality is maternal aggression.
Aggressive behaviour directed at other
animals is common and expected from
female cat because she has to protect
their young at all times.
Another type of aggression, often
confused with territorial aggression, is
aggression stemming from fear. This
type of behavior is exhibited by cats in
a crisis situation once there is no escape
route, and the animal is certain it has to
fight to survive. This behavior differs
from other types of aggression listed in
that the combative behavior is here the
last resort and not the first response to
a disturbing situation. The source of
aggression may be anxiety caused by
some sudden change in the environment
(Levine et al. 2005), the presence of
people (Crowell-Davis et al. 2011) and
other animals. Recognition of this type of
aggression is possible due to close obser-
vation of the animal’s body language.
A frightened cat hisses and spits, sits in
Aggressive behaviors in domestic cats... 147
a crouched position, puffs up its fur and
lays down its ears flat against the head
(Mertens 1991, Schwartz 2005). Work-
ing with such a cat, one should never
discipline it for anxiety behavior. During
an attack of fear, it is recommended to
stay at a safe distance from the feline in
question. Ignoring the animal and leav-
ing it alone will allow it to quickly calm
down and make a less panicked, more
realistic threat assessment (Schwartz
2005). It is worth trying to get the animal
used to the stimulus causing fear. Such
desensitization occurs when a cat is
exposed to a fear-inciting stimulus, but
at such intensity that the reaction does
not occur (Crowell-Davis et al. 1997).
When the animal is calm and relaxed
when exposed to a given intensity of the
aversive stimulus, its intensity can be
gradually increased – step by step, with
care not to introduce too strong a stimu-
lus that would cause fear and make the
animal retreat. With this approach, both
the processes of habituation and instru-
mental (operant) extinguishing – jointly
responsible for reducing the intensity of
the reaction – run in parallel (O’Hearem
2009). If a cat is very stressed, after con-
sultation with a veterinarian it is recom-
mended to use anxiolytic and sedative
drugs (Hart and Hart 2014).
The next category of aggressive
behavior encountered by cat owners is
redirected aggression. It often occurs
when a cat cannot turn its anger, excite-
ment or fear at the real source of its
arousal, for example a strange cat pass-
ing by the window outside. Because the
“real” enemy is unobtainable, the cat will
redirect the attack at another cat that is
within reach. Cats unload their frustration
in a similar manner – a situation in which
cat A, scolded by cat B, turns instead on
cat C, an individual that is submissive
and withdrawn (the lowest in the hierar-
chy) is quite common (Bradshaw 2014).
Importantly, the object of such redirected
aggression caused by frustration may be
another cat, another animal (e.g. a dog)
or even a human.
Yet another type of aggression is play-
associated aggression, often exhibiting
elements that normally form part of the
cat’s hunting sequence. It may happen
that cats deliberately attack human feet
and hands like they would a mouse.
The most agonistic, predatory play is
observed in young cats between the
onset of sexual maturation and the age
of two years, in the so-called period of
psychological adolescence (Curtis et al.
2003). Such behavior may be influenced
by various factors, including too early
separation from the dam and siblings.
Young kittens should stay together with
their dam in a family unit until about
12 weeks of age (Senczi et al. 2016).
Living in a group, kittens are able to
acquire skills useful in the future during
hunting and social interactions (Crowell-
-Davis 2007). As they play together under
the watchful eye of their mother, young
cats learn how to use teeth and claws so
as not to harm their siblings (Curtis et
al. 2003). Another reason for aggressive
play may be inappropriate behavior of the
caregiver. Sudden, violent movements
are not advisable, as they can provoke
a cat to attack (Mertens 1991). It should
be remembered that poorly designed
session of play that does not end with
completion of the hunting sequence can
increase the cat’s frustration, and thus
lead to aggressive behavior. It is best to
use appropriate toys whey playing with
148 W. Penar, Cz. Klocek
cats, ones attached to strings or poles,
known as rods, to keep the animal away
from the owner’s hands (Crowell-Davis
2007). If the cat has already learned to
(play) hunt the caretakers, their task will
be to create unpleasant associations with
the act of aggression using a loud sound,
a spray-bottle or a diffuser. In difficult
cases, consultation with a behaviorist
and a veterinarian is recommended to
establish a treatment program for the
animal (Amat et al. 2009).
Aggressive behaviors may also occur
as a reaction to disease or pain (Camps et
al. 2015). If a cat suffers from pain, even
the normal, casual touch of the owner
might be very unpleasant – and the
animal will instinctively respond with
aggression. If the diagnosis of the under-
lying cause is quick and the disease is
curable, aggression disappears together
with the disease symptoms. When diag-
nosing aggressive behaviors, it should be
remembered that health issues may also
exacerbate aggression the primary cause
of which is not related to health. Accu-
rate veterinary examination is an impor-
tant element in developing the treatment
optimal for a given animal.
SUMMARY
Aggressive behaviors of felines are
a complex issue, as they may be caused
be a number of factors occurring simul-
taneously and overlapping. An important
role in preventing the development of
a habit of aggression in cats is played
by cat–human communication and
mutual understanding. It is advisable
to use specific, unchanging signals and
to use stimuli that engage all senses of
the animal (Hart and Hart 2014). Im-
portantly, all caregivers should acquire
and broaden their knowledge about
function and significance of different
feline sensory organs, as well as body
language and behavior of the domestic
cat. With this foundation, they should be
able to understand the needs of a given
animal and create a stronger relationship
(Salman et al. 2000). When working
with an aggressive animal, a caregiver
has a range of different mitigating and
calming measures, but their proper selec-
tion requires experience and cooperation
with a veterinarian and a behaviorist
(Biegańska-Hendryk 2017). Lack of
sufficient knowledge about the causes
of aggression in animals may lead to the
problem getting worse.
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Streszczenie: Zachowania agresywne u kota do-
mowego (Felis catus). Wśród problemów beha-
wioralnych kotów wymienia się: drapanie mebli,
agresję, stany lękowe, nadmierne pobudzenie,
przesadną wokalizację i wydalanie poza kuwetą,
z których to właśnie agresja, zarówno bierna, jak
i czynna są spotykane najczęściej. Zachowania
agresywne są zjawiskiem złożonym, uzależnio-
nym zarówno od czynników genetycznych, jak
i środowiskowych. Wśród czynników prowadzą-
cych do agresji można wyróżnić czynniki psycho-
biologiczne, do których zaliczyć można: przebieg
procesów fizjologicznych, usposobienie i nastrój,
reakcje emocjonalne, akty motoryczne oraz reak-
cje wegetatywne, oraz czynniki środowiskowe, ta-
kie jak: błędna socjalizacja, nieprzyjazne otoczenie
czy nieodpowiedzialni właściciele zwierząt. Naj-
częstszym typem agresji u kotów utrzymywanych
w grupach, jest chęć zdobycia i utrzymania swoje-
go terytorium. Innym typem agresji, jest agresja ze
strachu którą przejawia kot „przyparty do muru”,
gdy nie widzi już możliwości ucieczki, i w swoim
mniemaniu walczy o życie. Ten sposób zachowa-
nia różni się od innych tym, że jest on ostatnim,
a nie pierwszym elementem odpowiedzi na nie-
pokojącą sytuację. Źródłem agresji może być lęk
spowodowany nagłą zmianą w otoczeniu, obec-
nością ludzi i innych zwierząt. Ciekawym typem
agresji, powiązanej z łańcuchem łowieckim, jest
agresja podczas zabawy, która dotyczy zwłaszcza
kotów w okresie dorastania. W przypadku pra-
cy ze zwierzęciem agresywnym opiekun ma do
dyspozycji wiele różnych środków łagodzących
i uspakajających, jednak ich prawidłowy dobór
wymaga doświadczenia i współpracy z lekarzem
weterynarii i behawiorystą.
Słowa kluczowe: kot domowy, agresja, behawior
MS received 02.02.2018
MS accepted 05.04.2018
Authors’ address:
Weronika Penar
Wydział Hodowli i Biologii Zwierząt
Uniwersytet Rolniczy im. Hugona Kołłątaja
w Krakowie
al. Mickiewicza 24/28, 30-059 Kraków
Poland
e-mail: weronika.penar@gmail.com
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Over the last decade or so, cats have moved into the position as the most common companion animal. The reasons are fairly obvious: they are known for being fastidious in eliminative behaviour - no necessity to take them on walks for elimination; they cuddle up next to us as we sit on the sofa; they can welcome visitors and they can even take care of the occasional vermin problem, should one arise. Cats have become ever more intimate family members, and they are an important source of emotional support for human family members. They provide ‘affection and unconditional love’ (Zasloff & Kidd, 1994). This is important for people who are depressed or isolated from others, those with special needs such as those restricted to a bed, and those caring for another person in a demanding role such as caring for a relative with Alzheimer’s (Hart et al., 2006). The onset of a behaviour problem that interferes with the emotional support role of an otherwise loving cat, or even makes the cat intolerable to keep in the home, is particularly tragic. Fortunately, many behaviour problems that put the human-animal bond aspect of a companion cat at risk can be resolved or even prevented. The most serious of the problems is house soiling and this constitutes the most frequent category of behavioural problems in cats for which cat experts are consulted. Problems centring around aggressive behaviour are not as frequent as with dogs, but can become serious at times. A common problem for many cat owners is furniture scratching. Cats are increasingly kept indoors nowadays, especially in the USA and in urban areas, and eating house plants can be an issue both for the owners, who do not want their indoor garden messed up, and others whose cat may munch on a house plant or two that is poisonous.
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anxiety syndrome;feline aggression;destructive problems;behavior problems;favorite resource
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