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Maternal Aggression

A bitch with her puppies

Maternal aggression is defined broadly to include growling, snarling or biting in an attempt to see off an intruder. It is mostly seen in intact females with a litter of puppies or in females with pseudopregnancy. It can be directed toward people or other animals, and it is stimulated by an actual or perceived threat to her litter. The term maternal aggression is also used to describe the aggression or cannibalism directed toward the puppies by the bitch.

What are the presenting signs of maternal aggression?


The signs of aggression arise when the bitch’s puppies or toys that mimic puppies are protected. It occurs more frequently after a first litter. The presenting signs include:-

  1. A bitch with a litter approached by another animal/person.

  2. A bitch inexperienced as a mother.

  3. An inexperienced bitch who persists to be aggressive in later whelpings.

  4. Approached bitch in false pregnancy (Pseudopregnancy/pseudocyesis) with a litter of toys or on a bed.

  5. A bitch warns and then attacks an animal/person approaching her litter.

What causes maternal aggression in dogs?

A bitch protecting her puppy

There are several causes of maternal aggression and they include the following:-

  1. Neurophysiological influences:-instinctive protective behaviour of mother towards her young.

  2. The level of stimulus (of perceived threat).

  3. Bitch's experience/learned effects of consequences of behaviour.

  4. Bitch's hormonal status.

  5. Maternal aggression may have a genetic component,

The probability that threat and attack will be generated under defined circumstances is determined by the following:

Normal factors

A Yorkshire terrier with her puppies
  1. Natural protective maternal behaviour real or adopted items.

  2. Aggression directed against a perceived threat to her puppies.

Abnormal factors

3D Illustration of DNA

  1. Probably subtle interaction between bitch's genotype and environment.

  2. Disposition to aggression.

Aggravating factors

  1. Previous experience.

  2. The actual situation in which bitch finds herself.

  3. Hormonal status: sex steroids may have a direct effect on the brain.

  4. Metabolic disturbances.

  5. Irritability due to maternal disease, eg mastitis.

  6. Hunger.

3D Illustration of the neural units of the brain
3D Illustration of the neural units of the brain

Aggression is difficult to define and relate to physiological mechanisms but it is likely that this behaviour is under the influence of groups of neural units rather than a specific aggression centre of the brain. Hormonal status modifies the intensity of response.

How is maternal aggression diagnosed?


Maternal aggression is diagnosed by assessing the health status of the bitch and evaluating her history. The history should indicate:-

  1. Whether the bitch has puppies and if the aggressor is inexperienced with pregnancy, i.e. if it is her first pregnancy.

  2. Whether people threaten or tease the bitch or the puppies.

  3. Whether the bitch is in false pregnancy.

Maternal aggression needs to be differentiated from pain, predatory, protective, redirected and territorial aggression.

How is maternal aggression treated?

  1. The first thing to be done is to recognize the possibility of maternal aggression and take steps to minimize the stress on the bitch.

  2. Keep other animals and humans away from the bitch.

  3. Avoid confrontation.

  4. Distract or lure the bitch away from the puppies if the puppies need to be examined.

  5. Counter condition aggressors' perception of threat.

  6. The aggression should resolve when the hormonal state returns to normal and/or the puppies are weaned.

How is maternal aggression prevented or controlled?


Awareness by a dog owner of the following is important:-

  1. Maternal aggression in a bitch after pups are born is a possibility.

  2. The need for quiet and sympathetic handling of such animals, minimizing stress to both mother and puppies.

  3. Avoiding getting between the mother and the offspring.

  4. Ovariohysterectomy (spay) can prevent further incidents of maternal aggression.



Overall K L (1997)Clinical behavioural medicine for small animals.Mosby. pp103-106.

Landsberg G, Hunthausen W & Ackerman L (1997)Handbook of behaviour problems of the dog and cat. pp 164.

Askew H (1996)Treatment of behaviour problems in dogs and cats.pp 147.

Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors, PO Box 46, Worcester WR8 9YS, UK. Tel/Fax: +44 (0)1386 751151; Email:; Website:

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