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Inter-Cat Aggression

By: Dr. Nicholas Dodman and Dr. Alice Moon-Fanelli

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Aggression is the number two feline behavior problem reported to behaviorists, second only to inappropriate elimination. Cats show several different types of aggression including status-related (dominance) aggression, fear aggression, territorial aggression, and redirected aggression.

Territorial Aggression

By nature, cats are solitary hunters, not pack animals. However, when food is plentiful, as it is in most of our homes, a group of cats can often live harmoniously, at least most of the time. But even well fed cats retain their instinct to define and defend a territory. Outdoor cats mark their territory with urine, feces, and various natural odors (so-called "pheromones") from various scent glands. Scent marking serves to indicate that the territory is occupied and reduces encounters between cats.

In close quarters, though, cats often live by certain subtle territorial rules, respecting distinct territories within a single room, like access to a particular couch or favored window perch. Moreover, some feline housemates learn to "time share" these favored locations with one cat taking the front window in the morning and the other taking it over in the afternoon.

Unfortunately, anything that disturbs the established "rules" can lead to confrontation, and what starts as occasional minor spats of aggression may erupt into a full-blown feud unless precautions are taken. It is important to keep in mind that when cats are confined indoors they have little chance to avoid each other, and aggression, once it occurs, is often compounded.

Problems with territorial aggression are most common when a new cat is added to the household. If sudden introductions lead to aggression, this can set the stage for future battles and may not bode well for the future. The way to circumvent this problem is to gradually introduce unfamiliar cats to each other across a closed door. A gradual introduction of a new cat to the household may take two to three weeks. This said, if initial animosities are mild, they often resolve spontaneously over a period of four months, even without such precautionary measures.

Territorial aggression between cats in the same household tends to develop gradually. The more confident cat may begin to guard various resources and threaten its feline housemate over the slightest infraction. Gradually the threats may progress to attacks and the victim may become progressively more frightened. Depending on the victim's temperament, he may choose to retaliate or hide, only making an appearance when the territorial cat is not around. Occasionally litter box problems may arise because the fearful cat is too afraid to leave his hiding place. Additional problems of spraying and other forms of marking may occur if both cats are of close to equal status.

Non-Recognition Aggression

This explosive type of aggression occurs between feline housemates that have previously had a reasonable relationship. It probably occurs through "failure of recognition." Non-recognition is most often triggered when one cat in the family is brought back from the veterinarian's office, or the groomer, and smells and behaves differently. If a fight ensues, it can damage irreparably the relationship between the cats and lead to the development of territorial aggression. It is best avoided by separating indoor cats after outside excursions until it can be established that they are friendly toward each other.

Redirected Aggression

Aggression intended for an outdoor intruder that is redirected onto a feline housemate can also severely damage the social bond between cats that have previously cohabited in harmony. A typical scenario is of one cat resting by a window when a second cat sees an intruder cat outside the window and rushes to attack it. A sudden conflagration ensues with both cats fighting with one another. Theories as to who first attacks whom vary. One theory is that the would-be attacker, behind the window, being unable to attack the unwelcome visitor on the other side of a window, turns and attacks the cat next to it instead. This is true "redirected aggression" and is analogous to an angry man who punches a wall.

A second possible scenario is that one of the inside cats becomes extremely frightened by its buddy's aggressive display (intended for the cat outside) and adopts a defensive posture with its pupils dilated, claws unsheathed, crouched body posture, ears flattened, and perhaps hissing and swatting. The other cat observes this display, interprets that it is about to be attacked, and takes the offensive. A fight ensues.

A variation on the theme of redirected aggression occurs when two cats are resting in the same vicinity when a frightening incident occurs, such as an unusual and particularly loud noise. Both cats are startled and assume a defensive posture. When they see each other in this stance, they each assume the other is ready to launch an attack. Each cat responds defensively, a fight erupts, and they remain fearful and aggressive toward each other afterwards.

In cases of redirected aggression, the cats should be separated immediately. If this is done and they are given several hours, if not overnight, to cool off you may be able to reintroduce them the next day over a bowl of food.

General Recommendations

  • Neuter all cats.

  • Keep nails trimmed as short as possible to lessen the chance of injury.

  • Set aside 10 to 15 minutes every day for each cat for interactive playtime. Encourage continuous aerobic play with laser pens, feather wands, or toys on strings to reduce anxiety and release energy.

  • Place bells on the cats so you can locate them. The bells must be loud and have different tones allowing you to distinguish the cats. This will also allow the cats to know each other's whereabouts so there will be less chance for a surprise attack.

  • Rub each cat daily with a towel that has the other cat's scent to familiarize each cat with the other's scent.

  • Treatment with facial pheromones may be helpful. These pheromones are thought to have a calming effect and are associated with pleasurable experiences and "friendly cats." A product called Feliway that contains facial pheromones is marketed to discourage urine-spraying behavior in cats. While Feliway is not suitable for direct application to the cat (because it is in an alcohol base), a small amount may be sprayed on a cloth or tissue and then rubbed onto the cats once it has dried. Alternatively, you can gently rub the bald triangular areas between the cat's eye and ear with a tissue and apply that to the other cat.

    If cats end up in a fight, do not reach between them as you could be injured. Instead, separate them with a blanket, broom, or whatever is handy. Alternatively, make a loud noise to startle them by dropping a pan or book. Cats become extremely agitated after an aggressive event and respond best to isolation until they become calm. You should banish the aggressor to a less desirable area. Cats may need to be separated for as long as 12 hours before they calm down and it is safe to reintroduce them.

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