Pass It Along: Redirected aggression in cats and dogs

Dr. Jim Ha, CAAB (Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist)dog aggression, aggresive dog, redirected aggression

Most pet owners are familiar with the situation: your dog or cat is upset about something, perhaps has been challenged or even attacked. But rather than an understandable response in which the animal lashes out at the challenger, or turns and runs, it will turn and attack someone, or something, else. That is, it will exhibit an appropriate behavior but toward an inappropriate target.

In my house call cases, I frequently see this behavior in cats: they are frightened by a strange or new cat, and will turn and attack… the owner! This is frequently also the situation in inappropriate urination situations. The cat dislikes something about her litterbox, and urinates… in a different location.

In dogs, redirected behavior frequently manifests itself in social relationships. Dogs, more so than cats, have a social hierarchy, and if confronted by a more dominant animal, dogs will frequently redirect their aggressive response towards a different target, usually a dog lower on the social ladder. Some wags have suggested that this sort of behavior is frequently exhibited in the corporate world: passing the “aggression” right on down the corporate ladder.

But redirected aggression may exhibit itself in less obvious ways as well. A novel or escalating stress situation can be the trigger for redirected “aggression” towards objects, resulting in the destruction of shoes or furniture, which are unlikely to have elicited an attack themselves. It becomes very much a matter of “I know I am not supposed to growl or bark at that new baby, so I will tear up the sofa instead.”

Redirection of a behavior is one of three forms of conflict behavior seen in animals, and humans. The other two forms of conflict behavior are “approach-withdraw” and “displacement behavior,” which I’ll discuss in future blog entries. But all three of these behaviors are methods for resolving internal conflicts: a hungry dog, faced with a bowl of food and an aggressive canine owner of the food might express any of these three ways of resolving a conflict between approaching for food and fleeing the aggressive owner of the food.

The difficulty for pet owners, and specialists treating their pets, is recognizing redirected behavior. It is a frequent mystery when your dog turns and attacks you, or another member of your “pack” when you or they have done nothing to deserve it. Determining whether this is truly a change in behavior, a change in the relationship, or simply the sign of a redirected behavior is critical to the assessment and treatment of the situation. It frequently takes a skilled behavior observer to establish the difference.

Some situations are quite obvious: if your dog gets into a fight with another dog, and you intercede and get bitten by your own dog, this is an obvious case of redirected behavior: an appropriate behavior for the situation directed at an inappropriate target in the heat of the exchange.

But other situations are much more difficult to establish, like a situation that I saw in a behavior case. A cat named Milo (all names have been changed to protect the furry) was reported to have suddenly and without provocation begun chewing and tearing up curtains. The curtains had not been changed, nothing in the room had been changed, and Milo was in good health. Milo was housebroken, using a litterbox correctly, and had remained social with the owners and other cats in the house. Upon a lengthy investigation, it was discovered that another one of the cats in the house had recently been ill, had spent a night or two in the veterinary hospital, and had come home a day before the first curtain “attack.” The two cats had never interacted much but Milo hated visiting the vet, and when the sick cat came home smelling like the vet office, Milo started attacking the curtains instead of the cat. By using positive (food) counter-conditioning to reduce Milo’s anxiety, and therefore aggression, in the presence of the other cat, we eliminated the behavior within a few days.

So, being attentive to the possibility that a behavior might be a form of redirection is an important part of the behavioral assessment. It’s an obvious idea, the need to channel conflicting behaviors into something that is less dangerous, but in its myriad subtleties, it can be tricky to diagnose and treat.

Comments

  1. Virginia says

    Recently I moved into a neighborhood that has many cats who come into my backyard at night and up to the front window. This is causing aggression between my wo indoor cats who normally get along well. My cats will get into a full blown fight, leaving me with no choice but to separate them and re-introduce them. I I have only lived here a month and it has happened twice already. What can I do?

  2. says

    Virginia,

    I would make a couple of suggestions:
    1. See if you can keep the invading cats out of your yard: one way to do this is through the liberal use of scents… there are a number of products on the market that you can spread around your yard, like coyote urine (yuck, but WORKS!) that tends to drive away cats. I recommend them for people with cats in the gardens.

    2. Try using the Feliway product, but only in the plug-in diffuser form, in which it is much more effective. Use one of the diffusers in each room in which your cats can see outside.

    3. Finally, working with a veterinarian, you could try one of the modern anti-anxiety medications for both cats, just until they adjust and settle into their new home.

    Let me know what happens!

    Cheers,
    Jim Ha

  3. Meredith says

    Hello! I would like to have the prognosis for my dog’s rehabilitation evaluated. How would I locate someone in my area who’s as qualified as yourself to do this? Thank you, Meredith

  4. says

    Hello Meredith,

    Here is a link to a page on this blog where we discuss how to evaluate Animal Behavior Consultants: http://companionanimalsolutions.com/blogs/finding-a-qualified-professional/

    And here are some links to professional organizations where you can search for someone in your area:

    To find a Board Certified Veterinary Behaviorist, visit the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists web site: http://www.dacvb.org/

    To find a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, visit the Animal Behavior Society web site: http://www.animalbehavior.org/ABSAppliedBehavior/caab-directory

    To find a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant, visit the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants: http://iaabc.org/

    To find a Certified Training Consultant, visit the SFSPCA web site: http://www.sfspca.org/resources/library/for-dog-owners/academy-dog-trainer-referral-lists/academy-for-dog-trainers.html

    Lastly, if you’d like to speak to someone at Companion Animal Solutions for help with an evaluation, you can fill out our Contact Us form and I’ll send you an email to set up a short phone intake: http://www.companionanimalsolutions.com/contactUs.php

    We’d love to hear how your search for a qualified professional goes and how your case turns out. Good luck!

    Regards,
    Christine Hibbard

  5. says

    Thanks for sharing this group of lesson learned, you have added a few points that I need to go away and consider.

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  7. LMC says

    I have about 30 cats, so we definitely DO have a social hierarchy! Generally the older cats are the top cats. (Funny it should go by age, but that’s the way it works – kittens are low cats on the totem pole.) We do have a King and a Queen. King and Queen are among older cats, but not THE oldest, there apparently are other qualifications for being a cat monarch (such as: cat has to be cat-socialized enough to want to be leader – some are not).
    I have one cat also older, neutered female who is intensely disliked by all other older cats. Her name is Caramel. Younger cats tend to ignore her. Just exactly WHY she is such a target for the older cats we do not know, but her behavior shows she has a lot of trouble learning “human” things so maybe she has a lot of trouble learning “cat” things to; “intellectually challenged”. So she could be perceived by older cats as dangerous to the group.
    Anyway my King cat Silver is a notorious user of redirected aggression. if he is angry at me or my husband and (especially) if he is also frustrated about something (as at Thanksgiving when he smells turkey roasting and is anxious to share it with us —- but it takes SO LONG to bake)
    he will attack other cats. Poor Caramel is a frequent target, but I have also seen him go after somewhat younger males. The other cats apparently find this very interesting and when they see Silver in this mood, they follow him to watch the “fun”. One time, when he went after Caramel, my husband chased him and all the onlookers through the cat door and out of the house (this is what all the cats do to other cats when they really want to make a point; a cat chased out of the house looses face big time) . My husband’s message was that Silver might be King of cats but there is still a BIGGER King in the household. Silver let Caramel alone for a long time after this although he still goes after other catd

  8. Rachel says

    I have two dogs that have been living together for the past 3 years. They were best friends up until 6 months ago when one started to become very possessive over toys, and sensitive about an old hip injury that is now causing arthritis. This behavior and pain issue has led to some pretty serious dog fights. A couple of days ago, they got in to it, so I pulled them apart by their collars when the one directed all of her aggression on to my arm. It led to 19 stitches and even my own vet suggesting euthanasia. I have set my mind completely against this suggestion; I willingly and consciously made the decision to intervene (very inappropriately, I may add) and assume full responsibility. My dogs have never shown any sign of aggression toward people and I have confidence that they won’t in the future. This, to me, is a very classic example of redirected aggression, but my vet believes that regardless of the situation, my dog should have recognized me as the alpha dog and backed down. I disagree, am I wrong? I have contacted a behaviorist, and once we have all healed, I plan on doing intense work with her. I’m also looking in to pain management for the sensitive hip and not allowing toys at all! Should I think any differently? In your opinion, should I have expected more from my dog since I am the owner/alpha?

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