The Bossy Cat And Owner-Directed Aggression

Owner-directed aggression in dogs has been written and talked about at length, but feline owner-directed aggression has received less attention.


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Owner-directed aggression in dogs has been written and talked about at length, but feline owner-directed aggression has received less attention. In dogs, “conflict aggression” has replaced “dominance aggression” as a more accurate description of the behavior’s motivation.

The change occurred because pundits no longer accept the premise that the relationship between dogs and their owners is governed by pack mentality, as neither dogs in the wild nor, as it turns out, wolves seem to organize themselves along these lines. With this in mind, it seems ludicrous to discuss dominance or status-related aggression in cats, as they do not organize themselves into packs and should have no biological drive to establish themselves in any kind of order.

But is it so ludicrous to consider that there may sometimes be a particularly bossy cat that calls the shots with others in a household? I think not.

One social arrangement of cats has been described as a “despotic hierarchy,” a system in which one cat assumes control over all others who, barring the odd pariah, live peaceably as subordinates. Another more fluid, social situation between house cats involves a sort of time share arrangement in which one cat may avail himself of a preferred sunny location on a windowsill through lunchtime, subsequently deferring to another in non-peak hours. Because of observations like these, it seems that status must play some role in inter-cat relationships and, if this is so, then owners, too, might find themselves included in the arrangements.

Don’t Pet the Animals

One well-recognized clinical syndrome in cats is termed “petting-induced aggression,” which has been described in textbooks as a condition in and of itself. The recommended solution has been simply not to pet the cat. No other type of aggression is classified in such specific terms.

The cat in question, like many others I saw who had issues around being petted, also displayed aggression around food, was irritable if disturbed when resting, did not tolerate being stared at, resisted certain postural interventions (such as being picked up) and responded aggressively to admonishments.Traditionally, the Moyer classification of aggression has been used to describe the types of aggression we see in veterinary practice. Of these, the most appropriate label to apply to petting-induced aggression would be instrumental, meaning aggression that produces some gratifying result; either cessation of something annoying or the acquisition of something desired.

It seems that feline petting-induced aggression may exist as an expression of instrumental aggression, but it also seems likely that a cat with this mentality may use aggression to further other ends as well. This dawned on me many years ago when a client accidentally filled in the canine dominance aggression questionnaire. The cat in question was clearly identified by the checks in the boxes as a dominant dog—but of course it was a cat. And yes, petting-induced aggression is often part of the owner-directed aggression syndrome, too.

Cats of this persuasion also tend to be quite controlling—biting their owners on the nose or toe to get them up in the morning, biting them in the ankle if they are not getting fed fast enough or are shortchanged of food. They may also sit squarely in the middle of newspapers their owners are trying to read and may bite them in the hand if they fall asleep in an armchair when the cat wants them awake and interactive.

Such cats do not appear to be reacting out of fear; quite conversely, they appear confident and pushy by nature. I once described such cats—somewhat tongue in cheek—as alpha cats (making reference to the then widely accepted potential for alpha status of dogs).

However you refer to these cats—pushy cats, bossy cats, or anything else to get away from using the words “dominance” or “alpha status”—they exist. Some, like my own cat, are pushy without displaying much overt aggression, whereas others will do whatever they have to, including using aggression, to get what they want.

Incidentally, trying to fit the words “conflict aggression” to the syndrome doesn’t seem to work as many of the owners of these cats seem to be anything but in conflict with their cats. Quite the reverse, they tend to be affectionate toward their cats and compliant with their wishes.

Possible Solutions

So what can be done to address owner-directed aggression in cats, whatever its motivation or classification? Quite a lot, as it turns out. We use a program similar to the one we use in dogs displaying owner-directed aggression.

The first step is avoidance of ongoing incidents. We have clients list all the situations in which the cat may be aggressive to them and teach the clients how to avoid these situations, or at least avoid imposing on the cat to the point where it becomes aggressive.

Take, for example, the classical expression of petting-induced aggression. Rather than absolute avoidance of this activity, which has been suggested by others, we teach clients to recognize the warning signs of impending aggression and have them immediately cease what they are doing and extricate themselves from the situation. For example, if an owner is petting a cat that is sitting on her lap when (a) its eyes begin to narrow, (b) it glances furtively at the petting hand, (c) its ears swivel sideways and flatten against its head, and (d) the tip of its tail begins twitching, it’s time to bail out.

At that point, we advise the owner to immediately stop petting, stand up and let the cat fall gently to the ground, the petting session over.

As far as feeding time is concerned, food is prepared in isolation, making sure there is enough in the bowl to satiate the cat, and then and only is the cat allowed access to, say, the kitchen. At nighttime the cat may have to be kept out of the bedroom if it is an early morning nose or toe biter. If the cat objects to being picked up, owners are advised to cease doing so and they are advised never to physically punish the cat by, say, squirting it with water.

Teach Your Cats Well

With these ground rules in place, we move onto the second part of the program: teaching the cat to obey a command that, in the future, will need to be obeyed in order for the cat to receive valued commodities, like food or the opportunity to play.

One of the easiest things to teach a cat is to sit on cue. I taught my cat to sit using clicker training technique in a total of about 15 minutes over the course of three days. Thereafter it never forgot that “sit means sit.” Once a verbal cue to perform a behavior such as Sit! has been taught, it can be required that the cat sits on cue in order to receive, for example, food and treats.

This is identical to the nothing-in-life-is-free program that we employ in dogs. One caveat is that if a cat refuses to respond to a known verbal cue to be fed for more than a couple of days, there is the possibility of inducing hepatic lipidosis. This is an issue, like bloat in large breed dogs, that veterinarians must watch out for when engaging such a program and, if necessary, they should be prepared to modify the plan.

Last Resort

The final component of readjusting these bossy cats is an optional one, though sometimes a necessary one. It involves giving anti-aggressive medication to assist an owner in getting more traction with the behavior modification program.

My preferred treatment is with Reconcile, or fluoxetine, which, as a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, raises the concentration of serotonin at central synapses.

The simple rule with aggression is that when serotonin goes up, aggression goes down (and vice versa). This is what we observe in cats and other species. The dose of Reconcile we use for cats is 0.5 mg. per kg., given once a day, increasing to 1 mg. per kg. once a day, if necessary, as side effects permit.

Incidentally, the most common side effect of fluoxetine in cats is decreased appetite, though occasionally owners report that their cats become somewhat withdrawn. This is an unacceptable side effect and one that means the dose must be reduced or discontinued. There are other pharmacological options, such as buspirone, if this occurs.

In summary, bossy, aggressive cats do exist and owners who are on the receiving end of such aggressive displays need help.

Luckily, with the implementation of avoidance, some retraining, limit setting and/or medication, we are now in a position to help them deal overcome this problem. Alpha is as alpha does. 

An author and researcher, Dr. Dodman is a professor at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University and is founder of Tufts’ Animal Behavior Clinic.

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