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A review of a case study on feline aggression and possible treatments

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REVIEW OF A CASE STUDY ON FELINE AGGRESSION AND POSSIBLE TREATMENT

1. INTRODUCTION

‘Despite the fact that the origins of pet domestication have been lost in history, the significance of pets in our lives cannot be overemphasised’, (Landsberg, Hunthausen and Ackerman, 2003:1). Pets are clearly valued in human society, and their behavioural well being has become an important consideration. The study of animal behaviour is important in order to have a better understanding of the needs of an animal and their environment, which in turn leads to improved welfare. The ability to understand an animal’s normal behaviour allows abnormal behaviour, such as illness and stress, to be identified.

‘All domestic cats descend from the original tabby that emerged at the beginnings of domestication from its wild ancestors’, (Tabor, 1997: 20). Despite their variation in appearances, all cats still hold many genetic traits of this wild ancestor. Their methods of hunting, communicating, and their social structures remain the same; therefore understanding this natural behaviour helps explain many of the domestic cat’s functions. This is particularly important when addressing feline problem behaviour that are undesirable to human society. It is these undesirable behaviours that pet owners may fail to understand and feel unable to resolve, and as a result many cats end up in rescue shelters facing a bleak future.

This report looks at common feline behavioural problems with reference to a case study, and discusses methods of adequate diagnosis and treatment for these problems.

Case study

Ted is a 2 year old, neutered male cat. He lives with Mrs Chapman who has acquired a kitten 2 months ago. The kitten, called Alfie, is a male, now 4 months old. From the onset Ted has displayed aggressive behaviour towards the kitten when in close proximity. Ted has become withdrawn and is showing a loss of appetite. Most recently he hasstarted urinating in the house, mainly Mrs Chapman’s bedroom.

2. DISPLAYED BEHAVIOURS AND THEIR CASUAL/        MEDIATING FACTORS.

2.1. Overview of feline behaviour problems

There are a number of behavioural problems exhibited by cats that owners can face. These problems can vary slightly depending on the cat’s genetics, but also on environmental factors such as how the owner responds to these behaviours. ‘House-soiling is the most common behaviour problem for which cat owners seek assistance, and a major reason why some cats are abandoned or euthanised’, (Landsberg, et al, 2003: 365).

Figure 2.1 shows the breakdown of feline problems reported in 2005 in UK, taken from an annual report conducted by the Association of Pet Behavioural Counsellors (APBC).

Figure 2.1: Breakdown of Feline Behaviour Problems reported in 2005

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(Source: http://www.apbc.org.uk/resources/review_2005.pdf)

Although these behaviours are considered a problem to owners, they are not always abnormal in terms of natural cat behaviour. The two most prevalent behaviours, indoor marking and aggression, are both normal feline behaviours; however they are considered undesirable in human society and can implement animal welfare.

2.2 Inter-cat Aggression

It is the two most prevalent behaviours highlighted in figure 2.1 that Mrs Chapman is facing with her neutered, male cat Ted. ‘Feline puberty usually occurs at five to nine months…’ (Fogle, 2006: 222). It is around this age that aggression can occur in both male and female cats, and can develop for various reasons.

The aggression towards the introduction of a new cat would suggest that Ted’s aggression is related to anxiety/ and or territorial issues. ‘This particular kind of aggression is not unexpected when one considers that free ranging male cats commonly defend their territories, and in particular, defend a potentially scare resource…’ (Levine, Perry, Scarlet and Houpt, 2004). In wild feline social systems a few males mate with the rest of the females, resulting in a skewed sex ratio. This is maintained by aggressive conflict between dominant males and pariahs. ‘The aggression is classic, and involves flattening ears, howling, hissing, piloerection, threats using eyes, teeth, and claws in combat’, (Overall, 2001).

In a household situation aggressive behaviour is undesirable, as the welfare of individuals involved is compromised. Owners also find these behaviours distressing, and can often find themselves the object of redirected aggression. They can also indirectly facilitate aggression through conditioning, which is discussed more in section 3.

‘The behaviours are facilitated by post-pubertal androgen secretion and are largely prevented or eliminated by castration’, (Landsberg, et al, 2003: 449). However; in this case Ted has been neutered, yet is still showing aggressive behaviour towards Alfie. Tabor (1997: 126) stated that one in ten neutered male cats will perform inter-male aggressive behaviour.

A study by Levine, et al (2004) on inter-cat aggression in households highlighted that a young kitten (of the opposite sex) can help decrease the possibility of aggression; however some older cats act very aggressively to young kittens, a condition known as Feline Asocial Aggression. There are a number of reasons why Ted is demonstrating aggression towards Alfie.

Firstly, this aggression may be due to poor socialisation methods when Ted was a kitten, involving inadequate exposure to other cats. ‘Genetics and previous social experience with other cats plays a role in how one cat may react to a new addition to the household’, (Landsberg, et al, 2003: 446). The bulk of a kitten’s learning occurs during the period from birth to six months of age. During this time, adequate socialisation will to a large extent influence how a kitten behaves as an adult. Socialisation with conspecifics usually begins around the second week of age and continues to the seventh week. Owners/ breeders at this stage need to provide an enriched environment, where the kitten is presented with a variety of stimuli. This includes contact with different humans and other household pets. ‘Conversely, the kitten can be handled by only one or two people maximum,  which will consequently make for a cat with only one master, who will be extremely attached to his future owner’, (Paragon and Vaissaire, 2004). Tabor (1997) stated that removing kittens from their mother before weaning can be traumatic and results in over-dependency on owners. Poor socialisation techniques may have been the case for Ted, who may be highly attached to Mrs Chapman, and is unsure how to appropriately react to another cat.

Secondly, the instinct to defend territory may be the reason for Ted’s aggression. Many cats choose to avoid confrontation by keeping social distance; however some more confident and domineering cats may display offensive threats to newcomers. ‘Because of complex, transitive, feline social hierarchies, a cat that is aggressive to one housemate, may not be aggressive to another’, (Overall, 2001). Territorial aggression can also be accompanied with other behaviours such as patrolling, chin-rubbing, spraying and mounting. Hart (1977) stated that when the encounter is between cats, the resident cat has a distinct advantage in any aggressive encounter. Alfie’s welfare is in jeopardy due to being the ‘territory invader’, and also young/ inexperienced.    

In the wild, male cats range from 0.4- 990 ha. The average house cannot accommodate for such extensive ranging, and Overall (2001) stated that ‘it is no wonder that when multiple cats converge in small territories there may be some social jockeying’. As Alfie is now 4 months of age, he soon to become sexually mature and may be a threat to Ted. Whilst neutering Alfie is a possible solution, this cannot be done until he is at least 6 months old.

2.3. House-soiling

‘Urine spraying is a sexually dimorphic behaviour, occurring with a higher frequency in male than female cats’, (Landsberg, et al, 2003: 368). There are numerous and varied reasons for house-soiling; therefore sufficient information must be collected to determine its cause. ‘This inappropriate behaviour can take the following forms: substrate or location aversion, substrate preference for urination, defecation, or both, location preference for urination, defecation, or both, and spraying’, (Overall, 2001).

It would appear that Ted’s house soiling problem is linked to territorial spraying triggered by the arrival of Alfie.

This normal behaviour is a communicative function via chemical signals to conspecifics. It provides information of an individual’s territorial area and/ or their reproductive status. This behaviour often increases during the breeding season of intact males as the levels of testosterone increase and also the urinary amino acid, felinine.

Again neutering will usually stop spraying behaviour, but not in all individuals, as shown in the case of Ted. There are a number of reasons why Ted is displaying this behaviour.

Firstly, this eliminative behaviour may be the result of anxiety.

Landsberg, et al (2003: 370) stated that ‘it has been noted that some cats will spray urine during socially stressful situations, such as adding new pets or family members to the home…’ The exact reason for this type of spraying behaviour is unknown, but has been suggested that it could allow the cat to become more self-assured, or could be a type of displacement behaviour due to anxiety. It is possible this is the case for Ted, as he has begun to show other types of anxious behaviour such as loss of appetite and withdrawal. For two years he has lived with Mrs Chapman as a dominant, solitary cat, and now he may find his social status/ environment complicated by Alfie’s arrival. It is therefore open to interpretation as to whether this is a ‘normal’ behaviour, or whether the spraying has become a stereotypical behaviour as a coping mechanism.

Secondly, Ted may be motivated by the newcomer to confirm his territory by spraying parts of the house. This normal behaviour is demonstrated by both wild and domestic cats. ‘During the spraying behavioural sequence, the cat will back up to the target, stand with its rear end held high, tail erect and quivering, and squirt a stream of urine’, (Landsberg, et al, 2003: 368). However; Overall (2001) stated that ‘the postures that go along with spraying are stereotypic, do not have to be accompanied by urine spraying, and would be recognised by another cat as associated with assertion of status and/ or the claim to territory’.

The fact that Ted is mainly urinating in Mrs Chapman’s bedroom may be to gain territorial confidence and reassurance by the presence of her scent, as this is an area of the house where he feels secure.

3. DIAGNOSIS, TREATMENT AND PROGNOSIS

3.1. The role of the behaviourist

The initial consultation between a behaviourist and their client allows an in-depth analysis of the behaviours of both the animal and the owner. Whilst many behavioural problems are due to factors such as genetics, socialisation techniques, etc; the owner and the environment they provide for an animal are often factors causing or assisting a behavioural issue. ‘While changing the animal’s behaviour is the ultimate goal of the pet behavioural counsellor’s efforts, the proximate goal and indeed the only means of ultimately resolving the problem is to change the owner’s behaviour and the various attitudes and beliefs which underlie it’, (Askew, 2003: 26).

It is therefore better to have the initial consultation at the client’s house, where interactions between them and the animal can be observed. It may be that Mrs Chapman has indirectly encouraged Ted’s aggressive behaviour. ‘Unwary owners may inappropriately reward undesirable behaviour by offering the aggressive cat food or attention to try and calm it down’, (Landsberg, et al, 1997). This type of animal learning is known as operant conditioning, where the animal learns there is a consequence for its actions. It is therefore important for the behaviourist to identify this and educate Mrs Chapman on how she reacts to Ted’s aggression.

Firstly, when diagnosing the reasons for certain behaviours, it is important to initially rule out any physical problems that may be the underlying cause. Both the aggression and spraying behaviours that Ted is displaying could be caused by a medical problem that would need the expertise of a vet rather than a behaviourist. Aggression can be a result of pain from an injury, or irritability from an underlying illness. Conditions that cause house soiling can include hyperthyroidism, diabetes and injuries affecting locomotion.

Once these possible physical causes have been ruled out, the behaviours can then be addressed from a behaviourist’s view.

Also, during the initial consultation, the behaviourist can analyse the environment and identify any stimuli that may be contributing factors to the behavioural problems (which are discussed more in section 3.2).

Figure 3.1 highlights the important phases of an initial consultation where information is analysed, recommendations are given, and the owner understands the methods/ treatments that must be enforced to ensure problems are tackled efficiently and desired behaviours are maintained.

Figure 3.1: Important phases for the initial consultation between the behaviourist and the client

image01.jpg

(Source: Askew (2003)Treatment of behaviour problems in Dogs and Cats, p27)

3.2. Methods of treatment

The main behavioural problems that need to be addressed are Ted’s territorial aggression and territorial spraying.

‘The likelihood of a favourable outcome depends on the duration of the problem, the social experience of the cat, its temperament and its threshold for arousal in response to territorial stimuli’, (Landsberg, et al, 2003: 161).

Environmental factors must firstly be examined, and if necessary, addressed. As cats make use of both horizontal and vertical space, the adequate opportunity of three-dimensional environment where Ted can have his own space away from Alfie may help reduce aggression. Horwitz, Mills and Heath (2002) stated that ‘…lack of available vertical space may lead to a decrease in the cat’s ability to regulate stress and a consequent increase in the incidents of aggression, toward either owners or other cats in a social group’. This would also allow Alfie to escape from antagonistic situations that could result in injury. It is also important that Mrs Chapman ensures there are always the availability of other important resources, such as food and water, as competition for these resources could encourage aggression.

Whilst Mrs Chapman is seeking practical advice about Ted’s aggression, she must ensure the safety of both cats by separating and isolating them so that no more antagonistic situations arise. Physical controls such as indoor pens and harnesses allow control over interactions between the two cats. During this time, she can begin the process of desensitisation. Levine, et al (2004) defined desensitisation as the concept of a gradual introduction, involving scent exchange, limited visual contact and limited physical contact during the time period that the cats are separated. This can then be followed by a method known as counter-conditioning, where the cats are fed highly palatable food whilst in contact with each other. ‘By withholding food and rewards except for training sessions, each cat may learn to associate the presence of the other cat with food and play, rather than fear and anxiety’, (Landsberg, et al, 2003). Whilst treats can reinforce non-aggressive behaviour, mild aversive stimuli can be used to discourage aggressive behaviour. This can be in the form of a water gun squirted at the aggressor cat; however animal welfare must be taken into consideration, and not all behaviourists regard punishment as an adequate approach. ‘Clients should be discouraged from direct physical correction of the cat, since the cat may view that as a challenge and intensify its aggression’, (Overall, 2001). These behavioural modification techniques used to treat territorial aggression should also help to cease the territorial urine marking.

The use of the feline pheromone F3 therapy in the cat’s environment can assist behavioural modification techniques when used in the environment. ‘The presence of the F3 pheromone within an environment inhibits sexually related urine marking’, (Horwitz, et al,2002: 138). These pheromones should be sprayed in the main areas where Ted is marking, such as the bedroom. They are also a therapeutic tool for combating aggression.

There are a number of medicines that can be prescribed for both aggression and spraying, however this method is opposed by many behaviourists as it masks the problems rather than treating them holistically. Overall (2003) stated that ‘classes of drugs used and misused in behavioural medicine include anti-histamines, anti-convulsants, progestins/ estrogens, sympathomimetics/ stimulants, narcotic agonists/ antagonists and mood stabilisers/ anti-pyschotics’. These medicines suppress a cat’s aggression by affecting the neurotransmitters in the brain; however aggression may return when the cat is taken off them. If drugs are to be used, it is therefore important to regard them as assisting other on-going behavioural treatments rather than a quick solution.

4. CONCLUSION

To conclude, this report highlights that the complex feline social structure may cause a significant number of cats to fight when a newcomer is brought into the home. Although the likelihood of this increases in intact male cats, one in ten neutered males will show aggression and territorial spraying behaviours; therefore an operation is not always the solution to these problems.
In a wild situation, the ranging areas of male cats coupled with the communication of territorial marking would make antagonistic situations less frequent; however in a household situation, territories are much smaller and often do not allow escape for the subordinate male. This increases the instances of undesirable behaviours due to anxiety and insecurity within the social order.

The unnatural environment, coupled with a lack of owner understanding, can indirectly encourage undesirable behaviour; therefore it is important to assess both owner and the animal during consultations. As well as the initial consultation, the behaviourist should provide on-going support so that clients can seek advice about any problems they may during treatment.

Whilst section 3 highlights a number of treatments for behavioural issues, it is important to note that these problems must be approached holistically in order for treatment to be successful. Behaviour modification techniques will not work if the animal’s environment is not also addressed, and drugs will only mask problems rather than fix them.

‘Homes with older cats may need to take a longer period of time to introduce a new cat into the home, but some older cats will never accept a newcomer’, (Beaver, 2003; Levine, et al, 2004). It may be a possibility that Ted will never accept Alfie, and that Mrs Chapman will need to re-home one of the cats. However, there is every possible chance that the situation will turn out successful provided Mrs Chapman is given sound and on-going advice, and understands what she must do in order for her cats’ behavioural welfare.

5. REFERENCES AND BIBLIOGRAPHY

References

APBC (2005) Annual Review of Cases 2005 (online) Available from <http://www.apbc.org.uk/resources/review_2005.pdf> (Accessed 12th February 2007).

Askew, H.R. (2003) Treatment of behaviour problems in Dogs and Cats, 2nd Ed. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing: 26- 27.

Fogle, B. (2006) Cats, London: Dorling Kindersley Ltd: 222.

Hart, B.L., and Hart, L.A. (1985) Canine and Feline Behavioural Therapy, U.S.A: Lea and Febiger.

Horwitz, D., Mills, D, and Health, S. eds. (2002) BSAVA Manual of Canine and Feline Behavioural Medicine, Gloucester, UK: BSAVA.

Landsberg, G., Hunthausen, W., and Ackerman, L. (1997) Handbook of Behaviour Problems of the Dog and Cat, Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann.

Landsberg, G., Hunthausen, W., and Ackerman, L. (1997) Handbook of Behaviour Problems of the Dog and Cat, 2nd Ed. London: Elsevier Saunders.

Levine, E., Perry, P., Scarlett, J., and Houpt, K.A. (2005) Intercat aggression in households following the introduction of a new cat. In Applied Animal Behaviour Science, vol. 90: 325- 336.

Overall, K.L (2001) How to deal with Anxiety and Distress Responses: Cats and Elimination, and Cats and Aggression (online) Available from <http://www.vin.com/VINDBPub/SearchPB/Proceedings/PR05000/PR00381.htm> (Accessed 17th February 2007).

Overall, K.L. (2001) Development of Behaviour: Evolutionary Background- Normal Cat Behaviour (online) Available from

<http://www.vin.com/VINDBPub/SearchPB/Proceedings/PR05000/PR00371.htm> (Accessed 17th February 2007).

Overall, K. L. (2003) Paradigms for Pharmacologic use as a treatment component in feline behavioural medicine. In Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, 6: 29- 42.

Overall, K.L (1997) Clinical Behavioural Medicine for small animals, USA: Mosby.

Tabor, R. (1997) Cat Behaviour, United Kingdom: David and Charles.

Bibliography

Beaver, B.V. (2004) Fractious cats and feline aggression. In Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, vol. 6: 13- 18.

Cromwell-Davis, S.L., Curtis, T.M., and Knowles, R.J. (2004) Social Organisation in the Cat: A Modern Understanding. In Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, vol. 6: 19- 28.

Morris, D. (1994) Cat Watching, Great Britain: Ebury Press Ltd.

Neville, P.F. (2004) An ethical viewpoint: the role of veterinarians and behaviourists in ensuring good husbandry for cats. In Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, 6: 43- 48.

6. LIST OF FIGURES

Figure 2.1: Breakdown of Feline Behaviour Problems reported in 2005

APBC (2005) Annual Review of Cases 2005 (online) Available from <http://www.apbc.org.uk/resources/review_2005.pdf> (Accessed 12th February 2007).

Figure 3.1: Important phases for the initial consultation between the behaviourist and the client

Askew, H.R. (2003) Treatment of behaviour problems in Dogs and Cats, 2nd Ed. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing: 26- 27.

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