Handling Aggressive, Fearful, or Fighting Pets

Cat Hiding Under The BedHere is the next installment of the Animal Safety series. This document is adapted from the Pet Sitter Safety Handout I, Kim Fields, and Chris Wooten created. Learn more about what inspired this document in my blog The Complicated Contracts of Dog Walkers.

I have just learned I will be speaking at the Pet Sitters International conference in September in North Carolina on these topics.

Our last post (Reading Animal Body Language) discussed how to identify pets that are scared or aggressive. In this installment we discuss how to safely handle scared or aggressive pets.

Handling Scared or Aggressive Animals

Again, I highly recommend the book Low Stress Handling, Restraint and Behavior Modification of Dogs & Cats by Dr. Sophia Yin for anyone that wants to learn how to handle stressed or aggressive animals safely.

If there is any doubt you can handle an animal safely, STOP. Your safety is paramount. Get the help of a professional if necessary.

Here are some basic tips to calm fearful or aggressive animals.

  1. Be Quiet and Calm – Do not reassure the animal if it is fearful or yell if it is aggressive. Quiet, calm behavior is more reassuring than worried “it’s okay”s or an angry, stern tone of voice.
  2. Be Patient – Take your time; do not rush. As the pet gets used to your presence, they will see you as less of a threat. Watch the pet’s body language and make small movements only as they start to relax. Absolutely do not chase the animal. The more they run away, the more fearful they become.
  3. Be Indirect – Do not walk straight up to a pet or look them directly in the eye. Point your body away from the pet. Do not sit or stand directly in front of or behind them, but on a diagonal. Look at them with short, sideways glances.
  4. Be Farther Away – The farther away you are from the pet the better. Start far away from the pet and only move closer as the pet starts to relax.
  5. Be Smaller – A crouching person is usually less threatening than a standing one. Stay on your toes when crouching, in case you need to move away quickly. Do NOT sit down or go down to your knees. The one time crouching may be more threatening is if you crouch right next to an animal. This brings you too close to the animal too fast (see rule #4 – be farther away)
  6. Be a Quitter – It is hard to let go and admit a pet is not going to let you handle it safely. However, it is better to stop before you or your pet are hurt. Do not give the pet a panic attack. You have pushed the interaction too far if
    1. You tried to approach or handle the animal unsuccessfully 3 times.
    2. The pet has urinated, defecated, or expressed its anal glands in fear
    3. You or the pet have been injured or almost injured.

Use this rule of thumb – If you’re saying ‘let me try just one more time’ you should have already stopped.

Handling Exotic Animals

Guinea pigs, rabbits, snakes, birds, and other “exotic” animals require different kinds of handling. Books describing how to care for these animals usually describe how to handle them. If possible, always have an experienced person show you how to handle the animal first.

When Pets Fight

Preventing animal fights is much easier than stopping them. Make sure pets have well fitting collars or harnesses. When fitted properly, collars should only fit 2 fingers between the collar and the pet comfortably. Make sure leashes are in good repair and will not break. Always keep animals on a leash.

If a pet does get into a fight remember that your safety is paramount.


Do not put your safety at risk to break up a fight. Stay calm and get help. Do not try and break up a pet fight alone.

NEVER, EVER get your hand or any part of your body near a fight.

Ways to properly break up a fight include:

  1. Grabbing both leashes to pull the pets apart
  2. Using a large stick or broom to physically push (not beat) the animals apart.
  3. Spraying animals with water from a nearby hose (first making sure water is not burning hot)
  4. Covering animals with a large blanket or tarp to distract them.
  5. Sliding a large, sturdy object between them.

Animals can turn on you even using these strategies, so use extreme caution. IF IN DOUBT, JUST STAY OUT!

Once they are separated, never stand between the animals. Also be very careful handling pets after a fight since inured animals are more likely to attack.

The Red Cross’s Pet First Aid course covers safely handling injured pets.

The American Veterinary Medical Association also has a podcast on handling injured animals: http://www.avmamedia.org/display.asp?sid=234&NAME=Handling_an_Injured_Pet

Call a veterinarian if you have any doubts about how to handle an injured animal safely.

If You Are Bitten or Scratched

Get immediate medical attention.

Deadly infections come from bites or scratches that people thought were “not that bad”. Earlier treatment means less damage. Cat bites and scratches are especially deceptive since wounds are small on the surface but can create serious infections and abscesses.

Know what authorities you need to notify of a pet bite. The pet is usually quarantined for 10 days if current on their rabies vaccine. The reason? An animal with the violent form of rabies usually dies within 10 days.  After the bite, ask your doctor if there is enough doubt about the pet’s rabies status if you need to start rabies vaccinations.  Rabies is the one of the single most fatal diseases of humans and should be taken very seriously.


I hope these resources will help you have a happier and safer experience with your pet. Please reach out to your veterinarian, the American Veterinary Medical Association, the American Red Cross, the resources Dr. Sophia Yin provides for more information.

Good luck and stay safe!


Please remember that this blog is not a substitute for real-life veterinary advice. Your vet knows you and your pet best and you should talk with them before starting any course of treatment. Seeing, touching, and smelling your pet is essential to making a good treatment plan, none of which I can do from my blog (sorry).

More than anything, I hope these topics will encourage you to take your concerns to your veterinarian and help your pet feel better sooner.

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