Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Aggressive Cats and Dogs

Pet Column for the week of February 23, 1998

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
By Theresa A. Fuess, Ph.D.
Information Specialist

"Aggressive behavior is one of the most difficult pet topics to talk about outside of
euthanasia. However, the number one reason animals are euthanized is problem behavior,"
says Dr. Sheila M. McCullough, veterinarian at the University of Illinois Veterinary
Medicine Teaching Hospital at Urbana. "We think of euthanasia as a merciful relief from
suffering for an incurably ill or old animal. But the majority of pets are euthanized because of
behavior problems."

Aggressive behavior in pets must be addressed without delay. The longer it continues, the
harder it is to change. Don't wait until someone is injured to seek help with this problem.

Some behavioral problems result from medical problems. A thorough physical examination
by your veterinarian can reveal an underlying problem. You can also ask your veterinarian
for suggestions on curbing aggressive behavior. However, veterinarians often don't feel
qualified to give such advice because their training is in medicine rather than behavior. Pet
behavior is a new and growing field.

If the pet is healthy and initial efforts to curb the behavior don't work, then Dr. McCullough
advises immediately contacting a board-certified behaviorist. This is a veterinarian who
specializes in animal behavior. Dr. Karen Overall, a behaviorist at the University of
Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, runs a behavior clinic that pet owners can call
for information (215/898-3347). Since mishandled aggressive behavior is potentially
dangerous, most specialists will want to see the pet and owner in person. Dr. Overall can
refer pet owners to a specialist in their area.

Prospective owners can reduce the chance they'll end up with an aggressive pet by
educating themselves. Through books and animal shows, learn about the personalities of
different breeds and the environments they do well in. For example, a particular breed may
look like a teddy bear, but a dog's signals can be hard to read and aggression is not always
easy to anticipate. Read several books about general pet care and about handling and
raising a puppy or kitten. A pet dog or cat is a 15-year emotional commitment. A little
advance planning will help make it a rewarding experience.

When picking out a puppy or kitten, don't choose either the most pushy or the shiest one in
the litter. Pick out a friendly, happy pup or kitten that will come to you. Then, while it is
young, accustom your new pet to people young and old, other animals, and a variety of
different situations. Early socialization is very important.

If you are considering adopting an adult animal that is known to be aggressive, be realistic
about what you can expect. Even if the problem was aggravated by the previous
environment, rehabilitating an aggressive animal is a big project. To believe the animal needs
only tender loving care is a mistake. Animals do change, but it takes dedicated work and
lots of time. An aggressive pet is a liability, especially if there are young children around.

"If a pet shows signs of aggression," says Dr. McCullough, "the most important thing is to
get help right away. Don't delay."

For more information on animal health, contact your local veterinarian.