JustAnswer PixelPaws and Effect

Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:

I have two cats, Shannus, age 13, and her daughter, Albuquerque, age 10. They’ve lived together their whole lives, and they’ve always gotten along. Over the last two or three years, Shannus occasionally snapped at Albuquerque, but nothing malicious until today. When I came back from taking the trash out, I opened the door and Shannus ran out and had a hissing confrontation with a stray who’s been wandering around the neighborhood. I picked Shannus up and brought her back inside … and then as soon as she saw Albuquerque, she attacked! Viciously! I managed to separate them and put Shannus in my room, but when I went to take her some food and water she ran out of my room and chased Albuquerque all around the house, cornered her in another room and attacked again. Now I’m afraid to have them together. I don’t want to rehome either of them, but I’ve got to do something. But what should I do to stop this?

~ James

Cat sitting in the crook of a tree, hissing.

The presence of stray cats can cause redirected aggression between indoor cats that used to be friends.

Siouxsie: Well, James, what you’re seeing here is a classic case of redirected aggression.

Thomas: Redirected aggression happens when a cat gets angry at another cat but can’t take her aggression out on thee offending feline. The aggressive cat is so aroused that she’ll attack the closest other cat (or sometimes, person).

Bella: If the cat on the receiving end is submissive anyway, that cat will flee, which will only make the aggressive cat angrier. Thus, the aggression escalates: the victimized cat gets more scared, the aggressive cat gets angrier, and the situation can devolve into real misery for all concerned.

Siouxsie: The good news is, there are things you can do to help put a stop to the escalating cycle of aggression.

Thomas: First, you need to make sure Shannus’s chances of seeing the stray intruder are minimized. You can use deterrents like motion-activated water sprayers or ultrasonic noisemakers, or odors that make cats want to go away (here are some DIY ideas). A web search will reveal many options. Cover the windows where Shannus is likely to see the stray, too.

Bella: Once you do that, the next step is to get Shannus and Albuquerque to be friends again.

Siouxsie: We’re not going to sugar-coat this: it’s probably going to take a while. You’re going to have to start by keeping the two cats separated — which you’re already doing.

Thomas: The first thing we’d recommend is taking Shannus to the vet for a checkup, if you haven’t done so recently. We say this because you mentioned that Shannus has been kind of hissy with Albuquerque for the past couple of years. A lot of people think grumpiness is a natural part of getting old, but behavior changes are also a sign of pain.

Bella: Arthritis or dental disease can cause your cat a lot of discomfort — and if you were in pain all the time, you’d be grumpy too!

Siouxsie: You’re not lyin’, Bella. When my teeth were aching, it made me pretty darn snappy. But after I had my sore teeth pulled, I felt so much more tolerant of the other cats’ shenanigans.

Thomas: Once Shannus has gotten a clean bill of health, or any issues causing her pain have been resolved, you can start with the reintroduction. Stage 1 of stopping the aggression is to re-introduce the cats as if they’d never met before. You can read this column and the others linked to it to get our tips on how to introduce a new cat.

Bella: We’d recommend that you use Feliway diffusers. Feliway is a synthetic “happy cat” pheromone that helps to reduce stress without doing any harm or introducing drugs into your environment.

Siouxsie: A crucial part of resolving the aggression is interactive play. You need to play with Albuquerque every day, using a feather toy or some other interactive “thing on a string” toy, in order to increase her confidence. You need to play with Shannus to help her calm down and get out her ya-yas on an appropriate target.

Thomas: Once the two cats can spend time together without hissing and spitting, play with them “separately together.” Use one toy for each cat. This type of play will help the cats restore good associations with spending time in the same room. Even after you’ve gotten the aggression resolved, take time to play with Albuquerque and Shannus every day.

Bella: Make sure both cats have plenty of territory — cat trees, beds, and so on — and that you have three litterboxes in different parts of your house.

Siouxsie: The reason we recommend this is that stress can be exacerbated by lack of territory and an aggressive cat can “guard” the litterbox, making it impossible for the submissive cat to do her business in appropriate places. You don’t want potential inappropriate elimination issues stressing you out!

Thomas: Try to think positive. We know it’s hard once you’ve had cats viciously fighting with one another, but cats are very sensitive and will pick up on your mood. If you’re on the verge of freaking out when your cats are together, your stress will amplify theirs and this will impede their recovery.

Bella: If for some reason none of these techniques work, your vet may recommend a short course of anti-anxiety medication. These drugs will decrease your cats’ level of arousal and can help to stop the cycle of fear, stress and aggression.

Siouxsie: Good luck, James. Please let us know how things turn out!