Some pets exhibit behaviour for a variety of reasons that can affect their quality of life, which may be difficult to eradicate depending on how ingrained it is. Animals can often be trained to behave differently, but a high level of commitment is required from the owner. In this first part of our guide on pet behaviour, we will be discussing aggression.
Although usually viewed as negative, aggression is a natural and instinctive way for dogs, and indeed humans, to communicate with one another when diffusing difficult social situations. An aggressive dog will growl, raise their hackles, bark and perhaps bite. Depending on the type of aggression, cats may scratch, swipe, hiss, bite and make themselves appear as large as possible, but there are many more signs. When a pet’s aggression appears to be in response to something unwarranted, that is when a problem can arise. There will be a reason for their aggressive reactions, from feeling under threat to protecting their territory or young, or even because they feel irritated as a result of too much petting. In order to combat the aggression, you need to find out and understand what is causing those feelings in your pet. Learning your pet’s body language can enable you to recognise how they are feeling. Bear in mind that a cat’s body language is often more subtle than a dog’s, and therefore can be more difficult to interpret.
Animals can behave a certain way because of how they have been cared for. Their owners might not have understood how to mould their pet into the best they can be, whilst others could have developed certain behaviour through maltreatment. A lack of socialisation can make animals fearful or wary of other animals and people, which can elicit aggression. Determining the reasons why a pet behaves in a certain way is more difficult when their history is uncertain or unknown, as can be the case with rescue animals. When deciding to care for one that has deep-rooted behavioural issues, you need to be prepared for a lot of commitment to help them.
Aggression in cats can often be underestimated because of their small size compared to some dogs, yet they are still capable of causing serious injury. Cat Scratch Disease, where the sufferer experiences flu-like symptoms, can originate from a vicious scratch. Also, bites can be extremely painful because of their small needle-like teeth.
Overcoming aggression in cats is not always guaranteed, but you can establish trust by letting them come to you in their own time. Don’t overwhelm them with affection; allow them to determine the amount they need. Always ensure your cat is able to escape if they feel the need to, as this is a natural instinct. Failure to allow this could lead to aggression.
A dog’s aggression can sometimes be dealt with by altering the circumstances that provoke it. In order to do this, you need to consider what is triggering their response. For instance, they may display aggression when defending certain food or toys they deem to be more precious than others, so refusing to give them certain items could be the answer. Nevertheless, a dog demonstrating aggressive tendencies in one situation is likely to do so in others.
Reprimanding your dog for mild aggressive behaviour such as growling might stop them from doing it again, yet it could lead to them storing their feelings without any outlet. This may eventually result in a release of emotions they can no longer control into what appears to be an episode of unpredictable or unwarranted aggression.
Some studies suggest that neutering your dog or cat reduces the likelihood of aggressive behaviour because of the decreased level of testosterone after the procedure. There is also less chance of an animal fighting to compete for female attention. Whilst the general consensus appears to be that it does reduce aggression in cats, the evidence is inconclusive regarding dogs, so there is no guarantee.
Aggression can also be a sign of illness. A dog in pain may growl or bite, even when someone is treating them. Take your pet to the vet so they can rule out any other reasons for their aggressive behaviour.
What not to do
Whatever you do you must not shout at or punish an animal for behaving aggressively. This might inflame the situation and intensify their behaviour, which can prove dangerous. Remain still if your dog shows signs of aggression towards you. Moving closer to them can be seen as threatening whilst moving away could urge them to bite. Attempt to distract them with something they enjoy such as picking the lead up or asking them to sit for a treat. Although this may offer a distraction in the short term, help must be sought because the behaviour could be repeated and lead to something more serious, such as a bite.
Make sure you speak to your vet if your dog behaves aggressively. If you have tried everything, consider consulting a behaviourist so they can assess your pet and what you need to do moving forward.