Every year, about 1.5 percent of the U.S. population will be injured by an aggressive dog. Cats, too, cause injuries to people, though the incidence is smaller.
Aggressive behavior has negative consequences for pets as well, sometimes leading to the pet being relinquished by its owner or even euthanized.
According to veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kelly Ballantyne, owners can take steps to prevent aggressive behaviors from developing by socializing puppies and kittens at a young age.
Dr. Kelly Ballantyne, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist who practices at the University of Illinois Chicago Center for Veterinary Medicine, defines aggression as a threat of harmful behavior that is directed at an individual. When a pet is exhibiting aggressive behavior, its owner will be able to see that the pet’s facial expression and body language are different from its normal behavior, and the pet may be vocalizing.
Behaviorists have identified distinct categories of aggression in cats and dogs. For cats these categories are play, petting-induced, fear- or anxiety-related, redirected, and intercat aggression.
For dogs, categories include play, predatory, and affective (associated with a negative emotional state) aggression.
“Play-related and predatory aggression are considered non-emotional,” says Dr. Ballantyne, “while most other forms of aggression are referred to as affective, meaning the behavior results out of frustration or from a threat. Aggression in cats and dogs is most commonly caused by negative emotional states and anxiety.”
Affective aggression can be further divided into conflict aggression (this is aggressive behavior towards the pet’s immediate human family), resource guarding, fear based, territorial and interdog aggression.
If a pet is being consistently aggressive to people or other animals in the household, a thorough work-up from a veterinarian may help address the problem. As with any behavioral issue, a detailed history is very important. Explaining to a veterinarian what the behavior looks like, the intensity and frequency, animal’s body language, and how the problem progresses will help the veterinarian have a better picture of the animal’s aggression and possible causes for it.
A thorough physical examination, complete blood count, chemistry panel, and urinalysis are routinely performed to see if there are any health problems that could be contributing to the behavior.
“It is important to realize that aggression in animals is something that is managed and cannot be cured,” stresses Dr. Ballantyne. “Even though there is no cure, management can significantly improve the situation.”
There are several ways to approach treating aggressive behavior in cats and dogs. Dr. Ballantyne recommends techniques such as avoidance, relationship-building through positive reinforcement training and consistent interactions to maintain the human-animal bond, behavior modification and medications.
Medications may be indicated if the pet has high anxiety and/or cannot avoid exposure to a stimulus that incites the aggressive behavior. A veterinarian must determine whether an animal should receive a medication for its aggression.
Whether aggressive behaviors can be managed sufficiently to keep the animal as a household pet depends on many variables, including the presence of young children in the household, multiple forms of aggression in the pet, and multiple situations that trigger aggressive behaviors.
Ideally, owners will take steps to prevent aggressive behaviors from developing in pets. Dr. Ballantyne recommends socializing puppies and kittens at a young age and using reward-based training methods. Reward-based training can help teach animals what behaviors are desirable and will strengthen their relationship with their owners.
“Be consistent and kind in your interactions with animals and when enforcing rules,” advised Dr. Ballantyne. “Most importantly, always supervise interactions between young children and pets.”
For more information about aggression in pets, speak with your veterinarian.
By Sarah Netherton. This column is provided by the University of Illinois School of Veterinary Medicine in Champaign/Urbana.