by Barbara George
Tellington Ttouch Behaviourist
Cats are not social by nature, yet we ask them to live in harmony in the environment that we create, with other cats that we have chosen as their companions. Cats that don’t get along with other cats have strategies for coping; hiding to keep out of the way, running away, being submissive, or fighting.
Aggression among cats, between cats and people, and cats and other animals is a common problem. There are many types of aggression, each one with a cause and reaction. This article briefly covers three of the main types of aggression in cats.
Territorial aggression occurs when one cat feels that another cat is, or could, encroach onto his territory. When defending the carer we may refer to a cat as being ‘jealous’ when he is keeping his ‘territory’ safe from invasion. This behaviour may be against other pets, animals or people.
Causes of territorial aggression include the introduction of a new cat, sexual maturity of one cat, illness or injury, changes in the human family or environment, and other triggers.
Territorial aggression often begins slowly and subtlety and can escalate into full-scale war before it is identified as unacceptable behaviour. The protecting cat will show signs of aggression by hissing, growling, puffing up his fur and posturing. If the threat persists he will lash out and then attack. This can escalate into one cat hunting out the presumed aggressor even when the territory is not under dispute. Spraying and urine marking are often used as territory markers. Where cats do not have sufficient territory, stimulation, are bored, stressed or not socialised to other cats, this can become a habit that is difficult to break.
Defensive or Fearful Aggression
Defensive aggression, or fear aggression, is exhibited when a cat feels threatened. He tries to make himself look so threatening and intimidating that no-one will approach him, thereby keeping himself safe.
The main reason a cat feels threatened is not being in control of, or not having the knowledge or experience to deal with the current situation. Immobility and feeling trapped or fearful of the situation are triggers. Personality plays a role – not every cat is brave and confident!
The defensive posture includes crouching with paws and tail tucked underneath and head tucked in; the body may be leaning away from the threat. Fur on the back and neck is raised. Hissing and spitting are used as vocal deterrents.
The defensive cat will only attack if the threat persists, first by lashing out with claws, scratching, biting and intimidating the intruder by exposing his claws. Only when there are no further options available will he embark on a fight. He is then traumatised and the fight is serious.
When the cat is feeling threatened and exhibiting defensive behaviour it is best to leave him alone until he has calmed down. Any intervention will cause him to retaliate. If at all possible, remove the threat or create a pathway for the cat to safely move away.
Redirected aggression occurs when one cat feels threatened by a situation over which he has no control and takes out his frustration on the nearest victim – another cat, animal or person. A typical trigger is looking through a window and seeing an outside cat in his territory when he is not in a position, or not confident enough, to retaliate. It is a reflex action, not a conscious thought.
Where the victim of the attack is another cat, this cat may fight back, or may run for cover. Either way, the relationship between the cats is damaged and the attacks will continue and escalate in intensity. Each cat will view the other as the cause of the incident and react in the same way – attacking or retreating – whenever they meet.
Often owners are only aware of an issue when cats that were previously friends, or at least compatible, now behave as arch enemies. Not knowing the original trigger event makes it difficult to assess the best corrective strategy as there is no recognisable trigger. Both cats are demonstrating survival strategies; one trying to remove the perceived enemy, the other trying to stay alive in a difficult situation.
The first step is a full vet checkup for all the cats involved, as illness or injury plays a major role in aggressive behaviour. Identification of the territory under dispute or the trigger for an attack is useful in designing the program for peace.
While it is possible to re-establish good relations between cats after an episode of aggression, restoring harmony requires commitment, discipline, time and space. Many cats will learn to accept and live reasonably peacefully with another cat, even if they do not become friends. In extreme cases it may be necessary to re-home one of the cats; this should be a last resort.
Punishment for any aggressive behaviour will only re-enforce the behaviour and escalate the importance of the threat while diminishing the ability of the cats to deal with the situation. This is natural cat behaviour and requires other interventions to resolve the aggression.