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How to Handle Feline Fear Aggression

Armed with sharp claws and teeth, even the smallest felines are fearsome foes.

It’s not unusual for the most docile of cats to become aggressive when afraid. Lots of situations can cause cats to be fearful. Car rides, visits to the veterinarian, a stay in a kennel, an encounter with a dog or, in the case of the cat mentioned above, a new baby in the home can turn a normally sweet cat into a feline fighting machine capable of leaving serious scars.

Fight or Flight

Next to litterbox issues, aggression is the most common problem behaviorists see in cats. Aggressive cats can intimidate and even injure people, dogs and other cats in the name of self-defense. When a cat encounters anything that appears to be a threat, from a vet tech coming at her to draw blood to a high-pitched noise that sounds like other cats fighting, she will usually try to escape it. If that’s not an option, she may turn and fight, usually attacking whomever is closest, whether that’s the tech, her owner or another cat in the room.

A cat on the ropes may crouch in defense, pupils dilated, ears back and tail drawn in. She often hisses angrily, swipes with her claws and arches her back, hair on end. Her body language tells you everything you need to know about her mood.

If your cat has gone from flight to fight, don’t tangle with that tumultuous tabby. Don’t risk a serious bite or scratch by trying to pet her or speak soothingly. Leave the room and give her time to calm down. Your departure will ensure that she doesn’t feel trapped.

If you aren’t sure why your cat lashed out, it’s a good idea to schedule an appointment with the veterinarian. Your cat may have a medical condition that’s causing her pain.

Most important, never punish an angry cat. It’s not her fault that she’s afraid or unwell, and punishment will only make things worse. Instead, your veterinarian may recommend managing the problem with feline pheromones, a ThunderShirt and behavior modification in the form of desensitization and counterconditioning. None of these things are cures, but they can help your cat be a little more chill in frightening situations.

If your cat’s fear aggression is consistent or causes injury to you or other people or pets, the best thing you can do is get the help of a veterinary behaviorist. If she could, your cat would thank you.

Reducing Fear at the Veterinary Clinic

Whenever possible, identify situations that put your cat on edge and work to defuse them ahead of time. A common source of anxiety for cats is the veterinary clinic. Fortunately, there are some simple steps you can take to address your cat’s anxiety at home before her next vet appointment.

Getting your cat into her carrier for the trip to the vet can make her anxious; in the weeks before her visit, keep the carrier out and available. Reward your cat with treats and praise every time she goes into her carrier voluntarily. As your cat gets used to having her carrier around, move her food bowl inside it and leave treats inside for her to find. You want her to learn that going into the carrier is the cat’s pajamas.

If possible, take your cat to the veterinarian for practice visits that involve only petting and treats from the staff — nothing frightening or painful. This can help her relax when you take her in for her actual checkup.

Before a visit to the veterinarian, prime the carrier with a feline pheromone spray or wipe. Pheromones can help your cat relax. If your cat is extremely anxious or fearful at the veterinary clinic, ask your vet about calming medications that you can administer beforehand.

At the veterinary clinic, it’s best if you and your cat wait in the car until you can take her straight into the exam room. If that’s not possible, place a thin towel over the carrier to prevent direct eye contact between other pets in the waiting room and your cat. In either case, as you make the journey from car to clinic, hold the carrier securely against your chest instead of letting it dangle. That’s more comfortable — and less frightening — for your cat.

When you make your appointment, ask the receptionist to build in an extra 10 minutes at the beginning so your cat has time to adjust to the surroundings before the vet tech and veterinarian enter the room. Once you and your cat are in the exam room, start handing out treats; this teaches your cat to associate the vet’s office with good things. When your veterinarian and the vet tech arrive, have them offer your cat treats as well and ask if they would spend some time greeting you and your cat before they begin the exam.

By Dr. Marty Becker provided by


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