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Introduction to aggressive behavior in dogs & cats

What is aggression?

Aggression is defined as threats or harmful actions directed toward another individual. In animals, aggressive behavior are a means of communication. Dogs and cats use aggressive displays, threats and attacks to resolve competitive disputes over resources (territory, food) or to increase their reproductive potential. "Aggression" describes the behavior, but does not give any information about underlying motives or causes. Aggression can result from a number of motivational states.

Aggressive Dog

How is aggression classified?

Aggression can be subdivided into type based on intended victim or body postures; alternatively other factors such as the focus of competition, oestrus status of animals involved, and location of the aggressive encounter may be used to describe the form of aggression.

The term 'agonistic' refers to conflict or contest behavior in animals (usually of the same species). These encounters can involve fighting, avoidance, escape, dominant and submissive gestures and posturing. Aggressive behavior can also be divided into offensive and defensive aggression. In dogs and cats the supposed function of the aggression is most commonly used as the basis of classification:

Dominance (status related) related, possessive, protective and territorial, predatory, fear induced, pain induced, parental, redirected, play, inter-male, inter-female, and pathophysiological (medical) in origin.

Note that there is no one single cause of aggression. Many factors and stimuli may combine to push the dog or cat to a point where aggression is displayed. For example a dog may be territorial as well as fearful of children. This dog may only exhibit aggression however when it is cornered or tied up and cannot escape, and a strange child approaches it. When the dog learns that snapping or growling successfully see off the child, the behavior may be repeated in other similar situations.

Are aggressive dogs and cats abnormal?

Aggressive behaviors may be "normal", but when they result in human or animal injury, the behavior is dangerous and unacceptable. Human safety must always be a primary consideration when discussing aggression. An estimated one in three children report that they have been "attacked" by a dog and 7% of these reported the incident to the police. This could result in a prosecution for the owner under the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. It is important to be able to identify aggressive dogs and cats to prevent injuries wherever possible.

Some aggression in dogs and cats may have abnormal components and be the direct result of genetic factors, disease, environmental conditions or experience and learning. Health problems and degenerative changes may be present and should be identified whether or not they contribute to the aggressive behavior.

How do dogs communicate their aggressive behaviors?

By watching the body postures and facial expressions of dogs, it is possible to find an indication of what the dog may do. When a dog is reacting to intrusion, the first sign may be eye contact as when two dogs meet. In some cases, the more dominant dog will maintain eye contact, until the more subordinate dog looks away.

Prolonged eye contact may be considered a threat by both dominant and subordinate dogs. Dogs that are acting subordinate by looking away may feel threatened by continued eye contact and bite out of defensive fear. A dominant and/or assertive dog can react to continued eye contact by holding the stare and escalating its aggressive threat. In some dogs a dark iris or hair covering the eyes may make eye contact difficult to ascertain.

What happens next?

If the intrusion or competition continues, the dog may escalate the threat by exposing the teeth and snarling. Snarling is not always accompanied by growling and may only be an upward movement of the lips. Long pendulous lips, long hair or beards on the face may obscure seeing such lip movements. Ear position in dogs can also give clues to canine intentions. A subordinate dog will usually place the ears back as will a fearful dog. An assertive dog will have ears erect. Again, recognition of these positions can be inhibited by conformation, coat and cosmetic surgery.

Dogs will also attempt to change the way they position their body in response to a perceived threat. A dog standing its ground may look "bigger" by raising the hair along the neck and back, raising the tail in a high position and slowly wagging its tail from side to side. Other dogs present less of a threat by looking "smaller", crouching down, tucking the tail between the legs and even rolling over. Crouching and a lowered body posture in dogs is an appeasement posture designed to decrease the aggressive threat. While maintaining either of these postures a dog may be growling, snarling or barking. These postures can result in a stand off, a decrease or an increase in the aggression.

What does an aggressive cat look like?

Often the first sign is a dilation of the pupils and rapid lateral movements of the tail. This may be accompanied by the ears being laid back, hissing or growling. In addition, the cat may "swipe" at the intruder with a front paw, either with the claws sheathed or exposed. Sometimes the cat will gather its legs under and appear ready to pounce. If the intruder or competitor is not too close, or begins to leave, the aggressive encounter may end.

Cats have other more dramatic body postures that signal "go away". Cats frequently enhance their size and ferocity and make the threat more menacing. They do this by turning sideways to the intruder, arching their back, holding the tail upright or straight down, with their fur standing up. They may hiss, growl and yowl at the same time. In other situations a cat may crouch down, tail swishing back and forth with the ears tight against the head, again with an accompanying vocalization. A cat anticipating a serious threat may roll onto its back with claws extended ready to fend off a foe.

Aggressive Cat

How should I respond to these behaviors?

The distance between the animal and the intruder can be important in determining the response. This is often called the "flight" distance. If the opponent is far away the animal may choose to flee, but if the encounter is very close the animal may choose to fight. If flight is inhibited, as in a dog or cat that is cornered or tied up, aggression or fight is likely to occur. Most dogs, and some cats, on their own territory are more likely to fight than retreat. When approached rapidly, a dog or cat may go through the stages of aggressive behavior very quickly and bite without the victim being able to react. This happens in encounters between people and their pets because they may approach too close, too fast.

Dogs and cats that are mildly fearful may calm down if the person shows no fear, waits until the pet settles, and then offers a food reward. Reaching for a dog or cat, while continuing to advance is most likely to lead to physical aggression. Standing still and avoiding direct eye contact is often the best way to reduce aggression in the dog that is chasing. Cats will often flee if given the opportunity. However some cats will stand their ground and will scratch or bite if reached for.

In some cases, despite standing still, avoiding further advance or retreating, the aggression continues. Since aggression depends on the situation, the pet's motivation, previous experiences and the type of aggression, it will be necessary for you to provide a detailed history for your veterinary surgeon in order to establish an accurate diagnosis, and appropriate treatment plan.

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