by Barbara George – Tellington Ttouch Behaviourist
There are three types of conflict, offensive, defensive and re-directed. Re-directed conflict is when a cat is threatened by one cat, and re-directs this offensively to another cat, not necessarily at the same time.
Conflict is generally between two cats, the aggressor and the defender cat, and can be overt or covert. Overt, or aggressive, signals are outward displays of assertion or aggression and easily visible. The aggressor cat attacks, or physically threatens the other cat, who either becomes submissive or defensive. Covert signs are subtler, only visible and understood by the cats; these are more difficult for us to recognise as conflict messages.
For the sake of easy reading, I will use male cats as an example, although females are equally capable of overt conflict, and masters of covert signalling!
It is important to identify which cat is the aggressor and which is the defender cat, as a defensive cat can retaliate with aggression, attempting to put both cats at the same level, or pretending to be too large and dangerous to be attacked.
All conflict behaviour begins with body language; posturing is the first attempt to intimidate and potentially remove the threatened cat.
The aggressor cat will start an overt interaction using aggressive behaviour including attacking, chasing, biting, growling, hissing, stalking, or ambushing; physical fighting is not usual, as instinctively no cat wants to be hurt. He will stand his ground, keep direct eye contact, and manoeuvre slowly towards the threatened cat.
The defender cat can retaliate by displaying aggressive behaviour, running or moving away, or keeping still and showing submissive behaviour; the standard fight, flight or freeze responses. The fight response often makes it difficult to distinguish the aggressor from the defender cat.
Covert conflict can be likened to passive bullying, and is an effective psychological tactic used in place of physical contact. Careful observation is needed to recognise and understand the signals.
Cats that ‘time share’ resources, including food, beds, people, litter trays and favourite places, have a tacit agreement not to meet. One cat may leave a room, stop playing a game, or move away from the food bowl, when the other appears. The defender cat may spend more time sleeping, staying outside, or in an area, such as the roof, not favoured by the aggressor cat.
The defender cat prefers to avoid interaction, and this may extend to other pets and people too, as he may be aware of the consequences if he is caught by the aggressor cat. The defender cat may slink around the house, keeping as low a profile as possible, using the resources at times when the other cat is not there, and may even avoid using the litter tray if the aggressor cat has used it first. This last behaviour can lead to illness, especially urinary issues, but also to any stress-related illnesses.
A silent aggressor cat may use the litter tray as soon as it is cleaned, or immediately after the threatened cat has used it, to keep his scent fresh, and show his level of importance.
It is also interesting to note that the aggressor cat can be the least-socialised cat, and may lack the confidence, experience, and skills to deal with other cats. His only option is the instinctive one, to remove the cats he sees as threats to his safety, and those who want to use his resources.
Other signals or signs of both overt and covert conflict are used by both cats when the other is not around. These include urinating outside the litter tray, spraying, marking furniture and other items, over-grooming, demanding attention, aggression redirected to other pets or people, and guarding resources such as food, litter trays and outdoor access, to prevent the other from accessing them.
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