Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:
I have two cats, male (Meow) and female (Cow). They’ve been together since birth and have always been the best of friends. Recently, Meow had a urinary obstruction and had to spend several days at the vet’s while catheterized. Since he got home, Cow has been extremely mean to him. She hisses at him, she sits in doorways so he can’t get through and then slaps him when he tries, and today she even bit him. She’s never been an aggressive cat. I don’t know whether she’s mad at him because he went away, or whether she thinks he smells different now, or what. This has been going on for almost a week and its easy to see that Meow is very upset by her behavior, and so am I. What should I do?
Siouxsie: This problem is actually quite common. But don’t worry, there are solutions.
Thomas: Cats identify their friends and housemates by their scent. Housemates in particular have a shared scent from years of living together in the same environment.
Dahlia: When a cat goes to the vet or some other strange location, and especially if he stays for a couple of days, he will come back smelling different. This can cause stress, which can cause aggression.
Siouxsie: Even after the absent cat has been in the house for a few days and presumably gotten his “family smell” back, the aggression can continue just because of the stress caused by the initial strange smell.
Thomas: It sounds like this is what’s happening with Meow and Cow.
Dahlia: So what can you do? The first thing is, you need to figure out whether it’s the scent issue that’s causing the problem.
Siouxsie: Do this by stroking Meow with a very slightly dampened washcloth. Make sure the washcloth is not the least bit wet! You don’t want Meow to run away because you’re getting water all over his fur. Be sure to stroke not only his back and sides but the areas of thin hair between his ears and eyes as well as his cheeks.
Thomas: The reason for paying attention to the head area is that cats have glands that distribute their scent there. Cats rub their heads on people and objects to mark them with their own particular aroma.
Dahlia: Then bring the washcloth to Cow and present it to her. See how she reacts. If she growls, puts her ears back, or shows other signs of aggression and stress, you’ll know that the scent issue is a major part of the problem.
Siouxsie: But even if Cow doesn’t react strongly, we still think you ought to do what we’re going to recommend next.
Thomas: Leave that washcloth somewhere Cow can explore it and get used to the scent. At a time when Cow is sitting calmly–perhaps even on your lap–take another dampened washcloth and stroke Cow all over, again making sure not to forget the head and cheek area.
Dahlia: Bring that washcloth to Meow, wherever he is, and see how he reacts. He may get upset because Cow has been bullying him. However, if you can get him calm enough, try to stroke him with that cloth and get Cow’s scent on him. If he won’t let you do that, leave the washcloth in Meow’s room of choice and let him explore it on his own terms.
Siouxsie: We would recommend that you purchase a Feliway or Comfort Zone (the same product, just with different names) diffuser. It produces a synthetic pheromone that calms cats. Humans can’t smell this pheromone, but cats can, and it works wonders. Mama has used it with us before and found it to be very effective in restoring peace and harmony in the household.
Thomas: You can find these diffusers at veterinarians’ offices, pet stores, and online retailers. You can get a starter package–one diffuser and one plug-in attachment–for between $25 and $35 US. One diffuser bottle lasts about a month. Refills for the diffuser bottles cost about $13-$15 US each, but you can save money if you buy them in two-packs or three-packs.
Dahlia: Considering that Meow and Cow have been buddies since they were kittens, you may only need to use the diffuser for a month to restore harmony.
Siouxsie: Another important thing you can do is what we call Distraction Therapy. When you find Cow getting ready to lunge for Meow, or when you find her in that staring and guarding position, grab a toy and play with her. A “thing on a string” toy is usually the best option for interactive play. By distracting Cow, you’ll redirect her aggressive instincts toward the toy rather than Meow.
Thomas: Playing can be a great way to restore the relationship between Meow and Cow, too. Get them to play together. You may have to start with “playing together separately,” by which we mean having them play in the same room but you wield a separate Thing On A String for each cat.
Dahlia: Playing makes cats happy, releases pent-up energy, and gives them a way to redirect their hunting instincts. With regular play sessions, Meow and Cow will begin to redevelop good feelings about one another.
Siouxsie: By taking these three simple actions, we believe you’ll be able to restore Meow and Cow to their former level of filial harmony.
Thomas: This behavior problem has been going on for a while and reprogramming their circuits, so to speak, may take some time. But in the end, all of you will be glad about the outcome.
Dahlia: Good luck, Missy. And good luck to Meow and Cow, too!