Pet Bites and Aggression

 Probably one of the most frightening experiences for any pet owner involves being bitten by one of your own family pets.  Being bitten by a strange animal is disconcerting enough, without all of the guilt involved when a canine or feline family member delivers the bite.

Pets inflict most dog bites in the United States and the family dog is involved 25-33% of the time.  An astounding 85% of bites occur in an owner's own home with male dogs being responsible for more bites than females.  In cats, family members are more frequently subjected to swatting, scratching, and biting (bites which both break the skin and those which do not) than strangers.  While not all bites are created equal, there should still be cause for concern even if the bites are delivered during play.  So why might a beloved pet bite its owner?

Aggression in Dogs

There are 14 types of aggression recognized in dogs, including aggression seen during play, while protecting their territory and when frightened.  Some dogs may also aggressively defend food and favorite toys.  Since there are so many conditions under which aggression may occur, it seems obvious that this is a complicated problem with no easy solution.  While this is true, there are some common elements that all dog owners should bear in mind.  First, no matter what circumstances elicit the aggression, you must avoid repeating these same conditions until you can get help from a professional.  If, for example, your dog snaps or bites you when you try to take away a toy, then take away all of the dog's toys (or at least all of them likely to elicit this type of response) and seek professional help.  And secondly, refrain from punishing an aggressive dog.  Aggression on your part will inevitably lead to escalated aggression on the part of your dog since the dog may aggress you in order to protect itself.

In addition, dogs often single out one family member and direct all of their aggression toward this person.  For example, children are most often the recipients of aggression by dogs.  In many cases, the aggression is actually provoked by the child, albeit unknowingly, which can be even more alarming to parents.  Children often squeal, scream, run, move in an uncoordinated fashion, and fall down while playing.  These also happen to be the same behaviors seen in prey species, so dogs often view children as prey and themselves as the predator.  This predator-prey relationship between dogs and children is often more pronounced in certain breeds.  For example, parents often report that herding dogs like Border Collies will chase and corner their children like wayward sheep and correct them for fleeing by snapping at their heels.  This is not aggression per se, but can still be viewed as a behavior problem worthy of immediate attention.  At the other extreme is the dog that attacks the baby lying on the family room floor.  Babies in particular seem to elicit the predator-prey response in certain dogs.  This is why it is so important that you never leave a child alone with a dog and that you teach young children very early how to interact with the family dog.

Aggression in Cats

There are 11 recognized types of feline aggression, many of which are similar to those seen in dogs.  One type of aggression commonly seen in cats and which is unique to them is known as assertion of status aggression.  This is the "leave me alone" type bite that many owners report when they try to pet their cats.  The cat often bites and then flees the scene.  These cats seem to demonstrate a need to control when their owners deliver attention and when it ceases.  Again, it is important in this situation to avoid all instances where this behavior might be provoked or at least begin to recognize the early warning signs so such aggression can be headed off before it begins.  For example, if you are petting your cat on your lap and he begins to tense up, flatten his ears, or flick his tail, you should stand up thereby letting the cat slide to the floor.  Then you will want to refuse to interact with the cat again until he can exhibit an appropriate behavior.  Once again refrain from directly punishing your cat for aggressive behavior.  Physical correction will often be viewed as a direct challenge and elicit more heightened aggression by your pet.  In this instance it is much better to use more passive forms of punishment such as a water pistol or spray bottle or an air horn to discourage your cat.  It is worthwhile to note that cats with this type of aggression rarely become cuddly companions.  They may allow their owners to hold them for brief periods of time without petting, but their need for control keeps them from being particularly companionable. 

How to Prevent Pet Bites and Aggression

It is important to realize that while both canine and feline aggression are not curable, they can usually be controlled.  The degree to which your pet's particular form of aggression can be controlled is directly related to when the behavior began occurring, how quickly you get professional help to correct the problem, and the degree to which you are willing to follow through on the methods suggested by the professional to achieve success.  Because of the potential danger and liability involved in treating any aggressive animal, it is important for all family members to agree that they wish to treat this animal and that they feel reasonably safe doing so.  This may not always be the case.  In that situation, again the professional whose help you have enlisted can be of service in determining the best course of action for you to take (for example, finding a new home without small children for this pet).  I cannot emphasize enough how important it is in cases of aggression to seek the help of a qualified behavior specialist who has experience treating aggressive pets.  This person will best be able to advise you on treatment options and chances for success.

Article Supplied by Julie C. Bond, M.S., Animal Behaviorist

More to Explore

Aggression in Dogs

The Politics of Inter-Dog Aggression

Severe Dominance Aggression in Felines

Aggression in Cats