Your cat is nestled on a comfy window perch and cackling at birds flying around a bird feeder outside. But his demeanor quickly turns to agitation and anger when the other cat in the house dares to share his window perch. He hisses and swats your other cat who dashes into another room.
Both scenarios are prime examples of what is known as resource guarding. This behavior takes many forms and can occur at various levels of intensity.
By definition, resource guarding involves threatening behavior directed towards an individual who approaches the dog or cat while he is in possession of or near something he does not want to relinquish, reports Pam Perry, DVM, Ph.D., a veterinarian board-certified in animal behavior at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine.
Resource guarding can occur in any dog or cat of any age and breed and stems from a normal desire to maintain access to valuable resources. A dog may aggressively defend his turf, toys, food, bedding and even favorite people inside your home that he regards as treasured resources. When he displays aggressive behavior (body tensing, growling, lunging, snapping and biting) and the person or animal backs away, the resource guarding behavior becomes negatively reinforced. Without proper intervention, it can become the dog’s go-to behavioral response.
Same situation applies to cats. The severity can range from a cat tensing muscles and hissing to lunging and biting. And keep in mind that cats mark what they deem to be their resources by rubbing their faces and bodies on these items. This action releases natural pheromones. Some cats feel so stressed and threatened that they will urine spray to mark their territory as a scent warning to others to back off.
When it comes to dealing with resource guarding in dogs, Dr. Perry offers these do’s and don’ts:
• Do teach your dog to sit for all interactions. Make that his default behavior.
• Do teach your dog to heed the “leave it” and “drop it” commands. Teach these important cues by using rewardbased positive reinforcement training techniques. For example, if a dog guards his food dish, drop a few pieces of a tasty treat into the dish every time you walk by so that the dog learns that your presence around his food bowl is associated with getting something pleasurable.
• Do not forcibly attempt to retrieve an item from your dog. Such actions may result in the dog snapping at you and even biting you.
• Do not punish a dog for resource guarding. Never yell at him, yank him away or even strike him. These actions will only cause the dog to become more anxious and may even exacerbate the aggression in him. This punitive approach can also damage your relationship with your dog.
• Do restrict access to items your dog tends to guard. Limit the number of toys available to him each day by placing the rest in a toy chest or other place he cannot access on his own. Rotating toys is a great way to minimize resource-guarding tendencies.
• Do minimize the dog’s resource guarding tendencies. Do this by keeping temptations like kitchen trash cans and laundry baskets full of clothes out of reach and by closing doors to bathrooms.
Here are key ways to minimize resource guarding by indoor cats as identified by the American Association of Feline Practitioners: 1. Provide a safe place. Each cat needs a safe and secure place where he feels protected. These may include an open pet carrier, a cardboard box or a raised cat perch.
2. Provide multiple and separated key environmental resources in multi-pet households. These include food, water, litter boxes, scratching areas, play areas and sleeping areas. These resources should be separated from each other so that cats have free access without being challenged by other cats or pets in the home. Separation of resources reduces the risk of competition as well as stress-associated diseases.
3. Provide opportunity for play and the chance to display predatory behavior. Cats need to be able to capture “prey” during play. Using food puzzles can also mimic the action of hunting for prey. Be sure to rotate your cat’s toys so he does not get bored.
4. Provide positive, consistent and predictable human-cat social interactions. Keep in mind that each cat has personal preferences in how much human interaction (petting, grooming, being played with or being picked up) they can tolerate. Remind guests not to force interaction and instead, allow your cat to initiate, decide and control interaction with them.
5. Provide an environment that respects the importance of a cat’s sense of smell. Cats use their sense of smell to evaluate their surroundings. Threatening smells to cats include scented products, cleaners or detergents as well as the scent of unfamiliar animals.
Let’s take a closer look at a few key resource guarding issues and how to address them:
The resource: Food bowl
Basis: Food is one of the key must-haves for all dogs and cats. Some dogs and cats who are more food motivated may be more apt to resource guard at meal times, especially when the food is being prepared and they are aroused.
The Behavior: One pet may quickly gulp his food and then push another away from his bowl. Or he may block the entrance to the kitchen while you prepare the meals. A dog may gulp his food, growl, stiffen his body and even attempt to bite another pet who is perceived to be too near to his food bowl. Some dogs may even bite a person if they feel that person will take the food away before they have finished eating. An intimidated cat may hide and wait until the bully cat leaves to enter the kitchen and attempt to eat his meal. And some cats may swat or bite a person if they perceive that person will take the food away before they have finished eating.
Possible solutions: Feed the pets in separate areas of the kitchen or even different rooms so that they can enjoy eating their meals at their own paces without the threat or fear of not being able to finish. Quietly position yourself between the two food bowls to block direct eye contact between the pets. Help your dog or cat to view meal time as a safe time by refraining from sticking your hands in the food dish or taking the dish away while they are eating. Occasionally, swap out food bowls for food puzzles to encourage your pet to earn their food by hunting.
The resource: Favorite toy
Basis: The toy contains the pet’s scent and has been a dependable resource for play, making it a valuable commodity to him.
The Behavior: Even young puppies and kittens are capable of growling and hissing at their littermates who dare to play with their favorite toy.
Possible solutions: Disrupt the interaction before it escalates into aggressive behavior by calling them away from the toy. Then with the pets separated, engage them in play with separate toys. Also, store and rotate toys and schedule mini play sessions. For dogs, you can also exercise the “trade up” technique by teaching your dog to drop or give an item as you give him one he views to be more valuable.
The resource: Litter box
Basis: The litter box can be a site of aggression. It may not be as much as a resource to guard as it is an easy place for a cat to ambush another cat when the latter cat is in a vulnerable position.
The Behavior: One cat in the house may lie down across the hallway, blocking access to the room where the litter box is located. The cat may also hide and then pounce on another cat who is using a litter box, scaring him away before he completes urinating or defecating in the litter box.
Possible solutions: Locate litter boxes in different rooms to prevent the resource-guarding feline from being able to block access. He can’t be at two places at one time. Make sure your cats can view any possible threat easily while in a litter box so that may mean not having hooded litter boxes that block their view. Remember, the recommended number of litter boxes is one per cat plus one. So, if you have three cats, you should have four litter boxes located in different rooms to minimize resource guarding behavior.
By Sarah Zumhofe