The most common problem I see in my dog and cat behavior practice is aggression. Aggression can be directed at other animals, people or objects (i.e. vehicles). In dogs aggression can include lunging, barking, growling, snarling, lip lifting, snapping, and biting. Cats can sometimes show more subtle signs of aggression such as staring as well as more overt signs including hissing, growling, scratching and biting. Most of the time aggression is a normal behavior (your dog growling is equivalent to you as a human raising your voice), but not acceptable in our human society.
The most common reason for underlying aggression is fear. Other reasons may include territoriality, possessiveness (over a particular type of item such as food or a toy), hierarchical/ social status aggression between two animals, dominance, play aggression, medical or pain-induced, maternal and re-directed aggression (when aggression is directed not at the primary target, but a closer target or a target that interacts with the animal when they are in an aggressive state). In cats another form of aggression is called petting-induced aggression. It is important to determine the reason for the pet’s aggression in order to determine the most appropriate treatment plan.
Aggression is usually not cured, rather it is a problem we manage to decrease the chance of the behavior occurring. Prevention of behavior problems, including aggression, is the best medicine and this is why we recommend socialization for puppies 8-16 weeks of age (a week after an initial parvo/distemper vaccination and deworming). Puppies should meet new people and healthy, vaccinated dogs on a daily basis during this time. They should be exposed to anything else they could encounter later in life (i.e. vacuums, stairs, rain, people in uniform, men with beards, etc) to help minimize the chance of fear and aggression later in life. It is important to take precautions and not take puppies to places highly trafficked by dogs of unknown health or vaccination status (i.e. parks, streets, dog parks or pet stores).
The first step in treating aggression is having your pet examined by your primary care veterinarian, since any underlying medical problem can lead to irritability and aggression. It is also recommended to avoid all situations in which the pet is aggressive so they do not continue to practice the behavior and learn that it works. For example, if your dog looks out the window and barks and growls at strangers passing the house, then close the blinds or put up wallpaper for windows.
Other behavior modification techniques will be prescribed based on the type of aggression and situations in which the aggression occurs. These techniques may include creating more structure and predictability for the pet, learning new commands such eye contact or hand target, in dogs introducing a head collar for better control and using pheromones (AdaptilTM for dogs and Feliway ® for cats). Often these steps are in preparation to begin a desensitization and counter-conditioning program, the primary technique we use to change your pet’s emotional response to triggers of fear and aggression. In addition, sometimes anti-anxiety medications are recommended; however medications are generally not a first line treatment and should not be used without concurrent behavior modification.
– Meredith Stepita, DVM, DACVB (Veterinary Behaviorist)