How to Deal With Aggression Between Family Cats

Aggressive house cats
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It is always with concern when we witness what seems to be angry aggression between cats who have been good buddies in the past. Two cats will be engaged in mutual grooming one minute, and at the next, are locked in a tooth-and-claw battle. Our instinct is to break it up before someone gets hurt, and indeed, sometimes that intercession is called for. However, aggression between housemate cats comes in several forms, with associated causes, and it behooves us, their human companions, to fully understand these kinds of aggressive behavior so that we can take appropriate steps when needed.

Forms of Aggression Between Cats

Play Aggression

Also called "play-fighting," play aggression starts at an early age with littermates, or with non-related kittens sharing a household, but is not confined to kittens. Cats have a natural instinct for survival, whether in the wild or in a cushy home, and early-on are taught predator-prey behavior by their mothers. One kitten will "stalk" the other, then pounce his unsuspecting prey, and the fun is on. You will then see them trade off roles, with the victim chasing his former predator. The "chase me" game is often a favorite in multi cat homes, including cats of all ages. 

Play-fighting is usually harmless fun, and intercession is only necessary if it appears that a cat is being hurt; if the fighting continues for too long a period, or if it turns into sexual aggression. (You can help ensure against injury from scratching by trimming the cats' claws regularly, a practice which should become part of your normal maintenance routine.)

It should be mentioned also that play aggression is the first step toward establishing a permanent hierarchy, or "pecking order" among feline housemates.

Sexual Aggression

Even neutered cats occasionally "feel their oats," especially if they were neutered after sexual maturity. From observing my own cats, it appears that their sexual aggression toward each other borders on what is called "Dominance" aggression, or territorial aggression.

Sexual aggression is easy to identify. The aggressor will bite the nape of the neck of the victim cat and attempt to mount him, with the same thrusting hip movements seen in male-female mating. Sexual aggression between cats can be discouraged by " scruffing," about the only means of direct discipline usually necessary.

Territorial Aggression

Territorial aggression can sometimes arise suddenly between two relatively evenly-matched cats, and can take place between male-male, male-female, or female-female. Territorial aggression in the form of fighting is often accompanied by urine spraying or "marking," which helps identify this form of aggression. The aggressor cat is not necessarily the older cat, nor the one who has been in the household the longest. He will preface his attack with much posturing: back raised, ears laid back, with accompanying growling and hissing, then leap on his victim and attempt to bite him on the back of the neck. In many cases, the "victim" cat will back down by turning and walking slowly away, and the social hierarchy process will have begun. Other times, the victim will give tit for tat, and a violent battle may ensue. Do not attempt to physically separate two fighting cats; in the heat of emotion, they will not recognize you, and severe injury could result.

You may try one of these methods of breaking up a fight:

  1. Use a Water Pistol
    Generally, a water pistol set on full stream will be an attention-getter and break up a fight quickly.
  2. Toss a Pillow or Large Toy Between Them
    Best-scene results will be that the aggressor's attention will be diverted toward the pillow, so the victim may safely retreat.

Most housemate cats will eventually resolve their disputes; one will reign as the "alpha cat," and the other will be satisfied with his lesser role in the "hierarchy line." On the other hand, you may be faced with the dilemma of two cats who will never get along, and may have to be permanently separated. Each case of territorial infighting comes with its own nuances, and it will take a great deal of time and commitment on your part to work with the parties to resolve a peaceful living arrangement.

Redirected Aggression

The classic scenario of redirected aggression goes something like this:

Alex is sitting in the window watching the birds outside, when he sees a strange cat in his yard spraying his favorite bush with urine. Alex hurls himself off the windowsill and viciously attacks Sophie, who is sleeping peacefully in a chair. Poor Sophie wakes and either fights back or runs away and hides. Sophie may or may not later attack Alex out of fear-based aggression.)

Dealing with redirected aggression consists of two basic steps:

  1. Find a way of keeping the strange cat out of your yard, or temporarily cover the window where he is most likely to be seen.
  2. Keep your two cats separated for a day or two until they both forget the incident.


Redirected aggression is usually a temporary situation unless you allow it to escalate.

Next:  Female Aggression / Ways to Handle Aggression

Aggression in Female Cats

Female cats have their own separate agenda. They are often very territorial and resent other female cats intruding into their space. Female-female aggression most often takes on the characteristics of territorial aggression, and you would handle it much the same way.

There is another form of aggression peculiar to female cats, that of aggression toward an adolescent male kitten, one they may have "adopted" and loved on when he was younger.

One day (much to the kitten's surprise and dismay) his previously loving surrogate mother suddenly turns on him, growling, hissing, and attacking. This form of aggression will take place whether or not the female is spayed, or whether or not she has born kittens herself. It''s sort of the  "Get Out of the Nest" aggression. If that title isn't self-explanatory, think of it as telling the youngster he's loafed around at home long enough, and that it is time he gets out and takes care of himself.

This kind of behavior can be found in the big cats, where a pride of lions will chase off the adolescent males, forcing them to move on elsewhere, to establish their own prides.

How to Handle Inter-cat Aggression

There are as many ways of dealing with cat-to-cat aggression as there are forms of aggression. They are separated here into three groups, in the order they should be approached: Distraction, Physical Intervention, and Medical Treatment

Distraction

Overly zealous play aggression, sexual aggression, and most territorial/dominance aggression can be dealt with effectively by distracting the cats and redirecting their energies toward play with a toy. Here are some ideas:

  • Clap your hands, then say "No!" or "Time Out!" in a loud voice.
  • Blow a whistle or sound an air horn (I can't imagine always having one available, but for ongoing problems, it wouldn't hurt.)
  • Hiss loudly. This is in imitation of their mother cat, a lesson cats remember well into adulthood. It can work effectively along with scruffing, described below.
  • Provide the aggressor cat with a large stuffed toy, such as a teddy bear. Keep it aside as his own personal "surrogate victim," and throw it to him to redirect his attention away from his feline victim (after getting his attention).
  • After you've gotten their attention, bring out an interactive toy, such as Da Bird, to redirect all that energy.

Physical Intervention

As mentioned before, never physically intervene between two cats locked in combat. However, there are times (during pauses between attacks, with less violent fighting, or during sexual aggression) where one form of physical intervention is extremely effective: that of scruffing.

Scruffing is performed by grasping the loose skin at the scruff of the neck of the aggressor cat, then gently, but firmly, pushing him down toward the floor. "Gently" is the optimum word here. Never use scruffing as punishment, but rather as a form of discipline.

Scruffing is a close approximation of the actions a mother cat will take with an unruly kitten. You can accompany scruffing with loud hissing, to reinforce the memory.

The aggressor cat will immediately relax into a subservient posture, and may even roll over slightly. It is important to separate the cats prior to scruffing the aggressor. The best way is the use of a soft toy, as described above. No doubt the victim cat will beat feet away from the scene as soon as the other cat is distracted. Once you are sure the aggressor has calmed down, release him and talk to him quietly. A few gentle strokes will be appropriate at this time, much as a mother cat would lick and groom the kitten she has just disciplined.

Another form of physical intervention is separation, which may be necessary when a series of fights has occurred between two cats, or in the case of redirected aggression. Assign a "time out" room for the aggressor cat, and allow the victim the rest of the house.

Separation can take place in as short as an hour or two, or as long as a day or two. Some cats living with forum members have needed separation for as long as several months, but most of them have eventually come to their own form of living peacefully together.

Next:  Medications, Homeopathy, and OTC Aids

Cat Behavior & Training > Cat Behavior 101 > Aggression Between Family Cats

If all else fails, you may have to resort to medication for the aggressor cat and/or the victim. Your own veterinarian can prescribe for your cat, or you may seek out the services of a veterinarian specializing in behavioral problems. Typical meds include:

  • Amitriptylline
    Sometimes prescribed for the aggressor cat to calm down his aggressive tendencies.
  • Buspirone  or
  • Valium
    These are both anti-anxiety meds, and may be prescribed for the victim cat, or in the case of redirected aggression, for both cats involved.
  • Non-Prescriptive Aids
    Many holistic remedies are available for stress or fear that accompanies aggression by another cat. Check my listing of Natural Remedies for Stress. Two other readily available "OTC" aids are:
    • Feliway Plug-In
      Although not actively marketed for this purpose, this pheromone-based product has been cited anecdotally as helping calm the atmosphere between aggressive feline housemates. Feliway was formulated to closely approximate the "friendly" facial pheremones cats use to mark their territory. The Feliway Comfort Zone Plug-In plugs into an electrical socket and diffuses the pheromone throughout a room. It is available online, and in most pet supply stores.
    • Bach's Flower Essences, particularly Rescue Remedy are widely used for stressful situations. A drop or two in the cats' water dish each day may have a calming effect on your combatants. Flower essences are available in some pet supply stores and in many health food stores.

    Chances are that your household will rarely be troubled with severe aggression problems. By keeping your eyes open to potential rivalry, intervening when necessary, and by providing regular exercise with interactive toys, your cats will enjoy peaceful companionship for years.

    May it be so.