Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:
Two of my three cats suddenly started not being able to stand being in the same room together after living together for four years with no problems. They have all been to the vet and have ruled out major health issues. Other than a constant need to have their ears cleaned, the vet can’t find a reason for the aggression. We are currently separating them from each other but yesterday when I cracked a door open to let them see each other, my oldest did some exaggerated sniffing toward the younger one that he currently hates. I recall hearing him do the sniffing after they have gotten into fights together before separation. Could this just be a matter of them needing baths, should we have the younger one checked again for something that would change his scent or am I going to have to keep them separated for the rest of their lives?
Thomas: Well, Maria, this is a tough situation, both for your cats and for you. But we think we have some ideas that could help.
Bella: Since you’ve taken all the cats to the vet and ruled out health issues — which is the first step we recommend for anyone who finds themselves in this feline situation — it’s most likely that the cause is behavioral.
Tara: And this sounds like a classic case of what cat behaviorists call redirected aggression.
Thomas: What that means is, probably the aggressor cat saw something that got him really agitated, and since he couldn’t take his angst out on the object of his stress, he turned to the closest proxy — who just happened to be your younger cat.
Bella: Most likely the younger cat responded to this aggression by running away in fear, which started a chain reaction in which the aggressor chased him and attacked …
Tara: … and the redirected aggression train pulled out of the station and started speeding down the tracks!
Thomas: But don’t worry, you’re not going to have to keep the two cats separated for the rest of their lives if you do a few important things.
Bella: First of all, it’s good that for now you’ve got the two cats separated so they can’t continue to attack one another and reinforce the aggression-fear dynamic.
Tara: The next thing to do will be the scent swap. Rub each cat with a washcloth, focusing on the scent-producing areas around their cheeks, heads and chins. Then you’ll want to have each cat sniff the other cat’s particular scent. If you don’t get a growl or a hiss, move on to the next step of rubbing each cat’s scent onto the other.
Thomas: If you do get a growl or a hiss, back off and feed each cat a treat while the other cat’s smell is nearby. The idea is to start creating positive associations with the other cat’s scent: When a cat smells the other cat, he gets a treat.
Bella: Once they’re past the peaceful scent swap, you’ll want to move on to feeding the other cats near one another. First, feed the cats on opposite sides of the door with the door closed. After a few days, put up a baby gate or two and feed the cats on opposite sides of the door, moving their dishes a little bit closer together each time.
Tara: When they can eat peacefully while being able to see each other through the baby gate, take the gate down and let them eat together with no barrier between them. Be sure to supervise and praise both kitties. (By the way, if you have a friend or housemate to help you, this whole “feeding on either side of the door or gate” thing will be easier.)
Thomas: While all this reintroduction is going on, you’ll want to use regular play for both cats. For the victim cat, play will increase his confidence, and for the aggressor cat, play will help him exhaust his hunting instinct–and energy–before he encounters the other cat.
Bella:If the victim cat just can’t seem to get over his fear, you may want to ask your vet about the possibility of starting a course of anti-anxiety medication,
Tara: I’ve been taking special medicine to help me with my anxiety, and it’s made a huge difference!
Thomas: For more detailed formation on re-introducing cats, visit My Cat From Hell star Jackson Galaxy’s library of videos on how to introduce cats and cat behaviorist Pam Johnson-Bennett’s article on how to reintroduce cats.
Tara: Another thing you should do is see if you can figure out what might have triggered the aggression. If it was another cat (or a dog, or a wild animal) in your yard, for example, you may want to invest in cruelty-free deterrents.
Thomas: If that’s out of reach financially, try blocking the view from the bottom half of the windows where the cats might have seen the intruder. This can be done with cardboard or paper.
Bella: If you can’t figure out why the aggressor cat got so agitated, just proceed with the reintroduction. Be aware that it can take quite a while, so patience is key.
Tara: Have you other readers dealt with redirected aggression in your cats? What did you do to stop the behavior, and how did it work? Please share your experiences in the comments!