by Barbara George, Tellington Ttouch Behaviourist
While cats are not naturally social or pack animals, they can live together in reasonable harmony. Sometimes one cat seems to seek out one other to terrorise; this generally upsets the entire family of cats as well as people.
There are many reasons for this on-on-one aggression; only the cats involved in the action know the real reason for their conflict.
What can be done to reduce the aggression and restore a level of harmony in the home? Each situation, environment, family lifestyle, and pair of cats is unique. Here are some ideas that may help reduce tension.
All cats that are not registered for breeding should be neutered or spayed as soon as practically possible, at least from 3 months of age – females can come into heat as early as 4 months old.
If the aggression begins after a period of relative peace, consider a thorough vet check-up for both cats. Illness can play a large role in behaviour.
Diet and nutrition affect health, which in turn affects behaviour. Provide the best possible food for all cats, as species-appropriate as possible with the lowest level of carbohydrates. Note that grain-free labels do not mean carbohydrate-free, these foods incorporate other forms of carbohydrates and fillers.
Look for triggers for the behaviour. What is happening, where, who is in the vicinity? What noises or smells are around at the time? Are any resources involved – food, water, litter tray, toy, or people? What time of day/night? Before or after meals? Has the routine been changed?
Create escape options in every room. These can be spaces in/under/behind/on furniture or open windows/cat flaps or any other option that will allow the cat under attack to get away from his attacker.
Increase territory and resources so there is more than enough for each cat. Vertical territory can be created by scratch posts, hanging window seats, clearing a space on the book case or piano, or placing furniture close to a window to extend the width of the windowsill. Cat flaps that can be coded to collars or microchips will allow select access to various areas of the house or garage.
Vertical territory is invaluable in high-traffic areas, such as passages to food, water and litter trays, giving an alternative pathway with one can on ground-level and another on the higher level. Low bookcases and narrow tables, or shelves along the wall, can be used here.
Look at the contrast between furnishings and the cats – a black cat on a black/dark blue leather seat is invisible until he moves, startling the other cat into fight-or-flight mode which usually ends in a fight. Invest in colourful throws that will contrast with the cats.
Check that there are sufficient resources for all cats. For litter trays the general rule is one per cat plus one, in different areas of the house where they cannot be ‘guarded’ by cat so that others cannot reach them. Resources include food, water, sleeping spaces, litter trays, toys, and people.
Create alternative activities for the cats, mental and physical. Solo-play toys, puzzle feeders, multi-level scratching posts, a view outdoors. Cats are designed to use their minds and bodies every day; they require us to provide the opportunities to do this successfully.
Interactive play sessions provide many benefits; a bonding opportunity, release of energy, mental and physical exercise, movement releases happy endorphins.
When the cats look as if they are about to interact, relax and watch them. Most interactions are posturing and vocalisation, an attempt by the aggressor to intimidate the victim. Interfering in this process will prolong the dissention between the cats.
Do not reward the behaviour as this can provoke further behaviour issues in order to receive the reward. Breathe deeply, speak calmly to both cats, and walk away without interacting with each cat. Rather reward the good behaviour, when they are both in the same room together but not staring at each other, walking past each other without incident, or sleeping at either end of the bed, etc. the aggressor cat may benefit from additional attention.
However, they should not be allowed to physically fight. If this looks likely, distract the aggressor with voice, sound (clapping hands etc.), favourite toy, or a soft toy that can be ‘killed’ to release the built-up adrenaline. If this is not successful and they do engage in a fight, don’t try to separate them with your hands or body – they will not distinguish between human and cat flesh and you can be seriously hurt. This is the only time I recommend using a water-pistol or jug of water, or cover them with a blanket.
After a fight the cats should be separated and confined to allow them time to calm down and regain perspective. If left, they can turn on other cats or people to release the pent-up anger and frustration, which can cause more issues in a multi-cat household or seriously bite or scratch people. Check on the cats after a few minutes; when they are relaxed they can be let out.
Calming remedies can be used for both cats, to calm the aggressor and reduce the victim behaviour. Natural calming remedies are best; a short course of chemical calming medication prescribed by the vet can be useful to break the cycle of aggression, along with some of the ideas mentioned above. Pheromone collars or diffusers can be helpful; ensure that you are using the right product for the situation as they have different effects. Tellington TTouch is good for relaxing and improving confidence in cats.
Our attitude is a factor in the behaviour of our cats. If we are tense and expect them to fight, they are more likely to fight. It can be difficult to relax and be positive, but it does help. Speaking positively is also beneficial – ‘Be nice to each other’ rather than ‘Stop fighting!’
If the cats continue to physically fight, try confining them separately until they both calm down. Use this opportunity to make changes to the environment and placement of resources. Re-introduce the cats as if they were new, taking as much time as is needed by the slowest cat. Only when they are comfortable with each other are they allowed to be together unsupervised.
There will always be cases where there is no hope of reconciliation, no matter what has been tried. These cats will need to be kept separate for the rest of their natural lives, or one will need to be re-homed. This is not considered a failure, but rather the option in the best interests of the cats, and a peaceful home.