Winter 2010 Newsletter

Cat Chat

Feline Aggression

By Nancy Marano

A friend recently called me in great distress because her two male cats were fighting. They'd been good friends until recently. Then a cat from the neighborhood sashayed past the window. One of her cats, Oscar, made all the right moves to attack the intruder on the other side of the window - hissing, screaming and arching his back. But he was thwarted in his desire to attack due to a pane of glass. Then her other cat, Herman, walked past, probably drawn by the commotion. Turning away from the window, Oscar spied Herman and took out all his pent up aggression on him. A fight ensued. My friend managed to separate the two cats into different rooms. Now whenever Oscar sees Herman, it acts as a trigger for him to go on the attack again.

According to animal behaviorists, aggression is second on the list of feline behavior problems people most want to solve with the first being inappropriate elimination. Cats display several different types of aggressive behavior. There is status-related or dominance aggression, fear aggression, territorial aggression and redirected aggression. Oscar and Herman displayed a full-blown case of redirected aggression. My friend loves both her cats and doesn't want to see either of them hurt and she definitely doesn't want to find a new home for either of them. But what is she to do about this problem?

There are several ways of treating redirected aggression but the key to a successful outcome is patience. This is not a quick process. The steps to follow are as follows.

  • 1. Separate the cats.
    Put each cat in its own darkened room with food, water and a litter box. Leave the cat in the room alone until he calms down. This may take several days depending on the cat's temperament and how severe the trauma. The room should be left dark unless his owner turns on the light when the cat is fed. When the cat appears relaxed and approaches his owner normally, it might be time to let him out of confinement. Don't try to reintroduce the cats too quickly or it might lead to further fighting, which will only intensify the problem. It is common for owners to not wait long enough for the reintroductions.
  • 2. Desensitization and counterconditioning.
    Since this involves the cats eating, you must "meal feed" (eating at a certain time) your cats. If they are used to free feeding (eating whenever they want to), you'll have to stop that practice. The aim here is for the cats to be hungry enough to eat when you give them food.
    Feed the cats on either side of a closed door so they can hear and smell each other but not see each other. Be sure to feed them something they like such as small pieces of tuna or chicken.
    Place the bowls far enough from the door that the cats remain relaxed and will eat. Gradually move the bowls closer together still on opposite sides of the door. If your cats are comfortable eating on either side of the door for about a week, you can proceed to the next step.
    The next step is to introduce rewards so the cats associate food and play with being near each other. A second person is a help here. Each cat should be played with while they are on opposite sides of the door. Your goal is for the cats to associate food and play - pleasurable sensations - with being in each other's presence.
    When the cats can eat next to each other on opposite sides of the door, you can open the door a few inches so the cats will catch glimpse of each other. You continue to widen the crack and put a newspaper covered screen in the gap. Gradually tear off parts of the newspaper until the screen is empty and the cats can see each other. Just remember each step must be done gradually. If the cats balk at any step, then go back a few steps and try again.
  • 3. Reintroduction
    As soon as the cats can eat comfortably on either side of the screen, it's time to put them in the same room. For safety's sake put them on harnesses or in carriers at first with one person in charge of each cat. You want to keep them relaxed in each other's presence. You might play with them or give them treats or food. They should be in the room for up to 15 minutes as long as they are relaxed. Each day bring them a bit closer to each other and extend the time they are together. Eventually you want them to be able to eat side by side and ignore each other.
    Once they are eating side by side in a relaxed manner on their harness or in the carriers, you may release the passive cat. If this goes well, the next day you can release the aggressive cat.
    Depending on how well this works, you can release both of them to eat together. You can leave them together for increasing periods of time. Each cat should have his own food bowl and litter box with enough distance between them so the cats can see what is happening and neither will be able to sneak up on the other.
    Remember to praise them and give them treats every time you see them together. If the timid cat begins to avoid the other cat or you see the aggressive cat intimidating the timid one, it is time to go back to an earlier phase and repeat the process.

If you achieve less than satisfactory results with this method, some animal behaviorists suggest using drugs or holistic interventions to help the situation. Drugs such as Amitriptyline, Buspirone or Valium need to be prescribed by your veterinarian. These anti-anxiety drugs can help calm cats. Holistic remedies and aids are available in pet supply stores. Feliway Plug-In is frequently used to calm the atmosphere. The plug-in works in an electrical socket and diffuses pheremones thoughout the room. It was made to imitate the friendly facial pheremones cats use to mark territory. Bach's Flower Essences, especially Rescue Remedy, also is used in stressful situations. A drop or two in the cat's water bowl every day has a calming effect.

Remember patience is the name of the game here. This process is slow and can take several months before you have acceptable results. These techniques work well with some cats but they don't always work.

Another thing for you to work on is getting rid of the original trigger. If there is another outside cat involved, as there is here, you might talk with that cat's owner about keeping his cat indoors. You might try re-arranging the furniture or covering the window where the outside cat is likely to appear. This is almost impossible to accomplish however. There may also be unidentified issues between Oscar and Herman that no one knew about which were set off by the outside cat.

Redirected aggression is one of the most difficult behavior problems to treat. It takes tremendous patience on the owner's part and some luck for affected cats to be friends again. In this case both cats were neutered. However, if you have cats that aren't neutered, it definitely can contribute to this behavior. The non-neutered cat wants to defend his territory. By all means neuter your cats.

You need to understand some cats will always fight if they are alone together. However, they may be happy living in different rooms of your home. This solution is more work for you but it works for the cats. In extreme cases, you may need to consider re-homing one of the cats, difficult as that decision is. You need to consider the happiness and safety of your whole household when making this decision.

My friend is working her way through these steps and hoping for the best. My hope is that she succeeds.

For a handy chart to help make the reintroduction process easier go to:

Nancy Marano is an award-winning author who is owned by two cats, Sammy and Rocky, and a Westie named Maggie May.

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