Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:
This question is urgent, because my roommate and I are going away on vacation soon and we really want to have things fixed before that because the cats will be fed by my mom but no one will be watching them full time.
I have two cats. One of them is an 8-year-old neutered female tortie named Sabrina. The other is Speck, a year-old female stray we adopted last year and had neutered, vaccinated and vet-checked.
When I lived with my parents, Sabrina had to stay in my room with the door closed all the time, because she had serious social problems with my mom’s cat. She’d cower and run, and my Mom’s cat would attack her. I was in my room constantly anyway, so she didn’t mind it and seemed quite content to only come out in the house at night when my mom’s cat was locked in her room. Since moving out a year ago, Sabrina has been much more comfortable, and last October we adopted Speck with no initial problems.
Sabrina and Speck usually get along just fine, but the last four days Sabrina has started acting bizarre towards her. She hides all the time, she’s avoiding the litter and doing her business elsewhere, and when we can get her out, all she does is look around like she’s terrified of Speck and looking for her. When she’s up on a perch that Speck can’t reach, all she does is stare at Speck with this FURIOUS face. Bu Speck doesn’t respond to her in any unusual way, most of the time she’s not even looking at her, during any of these incidents. This is a completely one-sided thing. Sabrina is acting like she did around my mom’s cat.
So we tried a little immersion therapy; my roommate and I put Speck and Sabrina together in the bathroom and stayed there to watch. Sure enough, Sabrina was snarling and hissing at Speck, but Speck completely ignored her and looked a little scared, lowering her tail and staying near the door. Neither one of them lifted a paw against the other. Sabrina seemed to think she had to defend herself against Speck, but I don’t know where she got the idea from. It’s so sudden! I don’t want to leave them alone when Sabrina is like this. She’s my princess and if she’s already scared, the last thing I want is her feeling like I’ve abandoned her. I don’t want her to feel threatened all the time, but Speck is very attached to us and I don’t want to give her up either, and that seems like a permanent solution to a temporary problem. This happened so suddenly, there must be some way to reconcile them. We’re making an appointment with the vet tomorrow to rule out it being a health issue with Sabrina, but in the meantime is there anything you can suggest?
Siouxsie: You’ve made the right choice in taking Sabrina to the vet to rule out any health problems, because as you probably know, sometimes health problems can cause personality issues.
Thomas: If your Sabrina gets a clean bill of health, then the next step is to figure out the behavioral issue. And to us, this sounds like a classic case of redirected aggression.
Dahlia: Redirected aggression results from a cat being cut off from the main source of her agitation. A typical situation would be that the aggressor is looking out the window and sees an unfamiliar cat in the yard. The cat becomes extremely stressed and then, say, the aggressor’s cat companion jumps up to see what’s going on and the aggressor lashes out at the other cat because she’s in such a highly reactive state that she doesn’t recognize the other cat as her friend.
Siouxsie: We’d venture to say that Sabrina is pretty easily triggered into this behavior because of her years of having similar conflicts with your mother’s cat.
Thomas: Other things that can cause stress and the resultant redirected aggression include loud noises, the smell of another cat on your clothes, being in an unfamiliar environment, or an owner actively trying to break up a cat fight.
Dahlia: As you can see, this redirected aggression can cause serious damage to cats’ relationship, especially close companions.
Siouxsie: Usually the stress wears off within a few hours and the cats can “kiss and make up,” so to speak. But sometimes the stress continues because the victim, having been severely scared by her buddy’s outburst, takes on a defensive posture whenever she’s near the aggressor, which only stimulates the aggressor to continue her behavior.
Thomas: Unfortunately, the immersion therapy you describe may not have been the best idea. By forcing the two cats to be together in a small space, they became stressed enough that their aggression dynamic was reinforced.
Dahlia: But don’t fear, there is a way to restore harmony in your household. It may take some patience and diligent effort, though.
Siouxsie: What you’re going to need to do is separate the two cats at the first sign of an aggressive outburst. By separating Sabrina and Speck, you’ll give both cats a chance to calm down and begin feeling safe again. We’d recommend putting Sabrina in her own room–preferably a nice, comfortable room like your bedroom–with a litterbox and toys and food and water dishes. Make sure the room is dark and quiet, and leave her there until she begins acting calmer.
Thomas: Signs that she’s feeling calm include sleeping in an open place like on top of your bed, not grooming constantly in an attempt to displace her anxiety, and body language that indicates a tranquil state of mind.
Dahlia: Be aware of Speck’s body language, too. Once the cats start feeling calmer, you can reintroduce them under pleasant circumstances like feeding time or play time. If you do play with the two cats, make sure each cat has her own toy to play with; if they’re competing for one “thing on a string,” for instance, that could bring back the stimulation to be aggressive.
Siouxsie: We recommend that when you’re not home, you leave Sabrina and Speck separated so that they can’t get at each other while you’re away. If you can’t change your vacation plans (for example, you’ve got nonrefundable airline tickets or you simply can’t change the timing for other external reasons), make sure your mother understands what’s going on and that she keeps the cats separated.
Thomas: If they’ve been able to have supervised time together without lashing out, your mother might be able to bring them together for a meal and some play time, but make sure she puts Sabrina back in your room before she leaves.
Dahlia: Another thing that could really help is a plug-in feline pheromone diffuser. This product is sold under the brand names of Feliway or Comfort Zone, and are available at most pet stores and online pet supply stores.
Siouxsie: Feliway/Comfort Zone mimics “happy cat” pheromones and helps cats to feel calmer. Mama’s used this for us when we’ve had some aggression issues and to help us deal with the stress of moving to a new home, and we’ve got to say it really works!
Thomas: If they’re still having trouble together, they’ll probably need to stay separated until you return from your vacation. At that point, you’ll want to really start working on reintroducing them and rebuilding their relationship.
Dahlia: Good luck, Dee. Please let us know how everything turns out!