About the Diagnosis
Aggression is a natural behavior of dogs and cats. Pets that are in pain, stressed, and under duress will often show signs of aggression. However, aggression in the home and uncontrolled aggression should not be tolerated in pets. These pets are potentially dangerous to themselves and others. Furthermore, owners of aggressive pets are ethically and legally liable for their pets' aggression.
It is important to note that aggression is generally felt to be a learned behavior in dogs and cats. These pets have been trained (usually unintentionally) to be aggressive. Because of this source of the problem, medical/drug therapy by itself is rarely if ever beneficial.
- Dogs: There are several recognized classes of aggression found in dogs.
Status or dominance aggression can be a problem within the household or when interacting with new individuals. It can be interdog aggression, aggression toward new people, aggression toward strangers, and so forth. Similarly, protection of property (the house, the toy, the owner, etc.) can lead to aggression.
Fear aggression can sometimes be difficult to predict. Dogs reacting out of fear often do not provide warning behaviors. No bark occurs before the bite. Dogs can sometimes have fear aggression when woken from sleep, but be perfectly loving dogs at any other time.
Prey or food aggression is a natural instinct that may be only slightly displaced. This can cause dogs to bite cherished members of their pack (e.g., people and other dogs) over food. The prey instinct can cause dogs to injure themselves (e.g., by chasing cars) and/or cause them to attack smaller animals and children.
- Cats: In cats, aggressive behaviors typically involve intercat aggression.
Introduction of new or strange cats into the household, yard, or territory can elicit aggression. Protection of toys, food bowls, owner affections, and other similar desired things and experiences may elicit these types of aggressive behaviors. Biting of owners is most common as misdirected aggression. Owners can be unintentionally bitten when they try to intervene or prevent intercat aggression.
Some cats become aggressive with excessive petting. This is not well understood, and avoiding excessive petting is the only treatment.
Play aggression can be common in young cats and kittens that have been separated from other cats at a relatively young age. Cats that are playing with their owners should be taught not to bite and scratch during this play. If they are not taught how to play appropriately, they can easily develop play aggression.
Living with the Diagnosis
There are two critical points to living with an aggressive pet: behavior modification and safety.
Behavior modification can take several forms. Avoiding or eliminating situations where aggressive behavior is displayed, training alternative behaviors, and providing adequate mental stimulus and physical exercise are all forms of behavior modification. Avoiding "problem" situations reduces risk to pets and owners alike.
Training provides structure and positive interactions. It tells pets what you want from them. Good mental and physical health can help reduce aggressive behavior. Provide your pet with positive interactions (when it is not being aggressive), mental stimulus, and physical exercise. If your pet is aggressive, it is your liability. If you chose to live with an aggressive pet, you are responsible if it bites you, if it bites others, and if it attacks other pets.
Reference: Clinical Veterinary Advisor: Dogs and Cats © 2007 Elsevier