Are your cats attacking each other? It could be redirected aggression. Here’s how to help your cats stop fighting, or prevent it in the first place.
Your cats used to be the best of friends, but now they get into a fight every time they see each other. What’s going on? In our experience, redirected aggression is the most common reason for a sudden onset of aggression (aside from medical problems). It has several causes, and can be difficult to resolve. Let’s look at why redirected aggression happens, and what you can do about it.
Understanding redirected aggression
Redirected behavior happens when a cat’s aggression is triggered by one event or individual, but the aggressive behavior is let loose on a third party. Viewing outdoor cats through a door or window is a common trigger for redirected aggression between resident indoor cats. And the targets aren’t limited to other cats — people and other animals in the household can also get attacked.
In one case, a cat belonging to Vanessa (a client of ours) became extremely agitated when she saw stray cats walk past a sliding glass door. Domino took to stationing herself at the door, and would hiss and yowl whenever she saw the other cats in the yard. Finally, after several such incidents, Domino suddenly attacked Vanessa as she walked past the door, injuring her severely.
Sally and Sam are two female Siamese littermates who had been best friends and playmates for two-and-a-half years. After a joint visit to the veterinarian, both cats began hissing and growling at one another and Sam started chasing Sally around the house. The owners were stumped as to why their cats – who had got along well all their lives – were now suddenly angry and upset with each other.
The most likely explanation is that both cats were agitated by the trip to the veterinarian. In addition to being poked and prodded, they were bombarded by the sights, sounds and smells of other animals.
Cats are particularly sensitive to odors. We’ve had cases in which cats that have been to the veterinarian, kennel or groomer were attacked by another resident cat upon returning home, apparently because of the unfamiliar odors clinging to the cat’s fur or the masking of his or her normal odors.
Helping cats co-exist again
- The first step in resolving cases of redirected aggression is to prevent any more conflicts from occurring. The more cats “practice” redirected aggression behaviors (hissing, growling, yowling, attacking), the more ingrained they become.
- Counter-conditioning and desensitization techniques need to be implemented to help the cats re-learn their friendly responses toward one another or the person who became the target. This might require a complete re-introduction program that begins with allowing only olfactory and auditory contact.
- The aggressing cat may need to be confined to one room or limited to another part of the house. Objects carrying the scent of the victim can be placed strategically on preferred resting places and under food bowls, to help change the emotions of the aggressive cat.
- Visual contact between aggressor and victim should not be allowed until there is a neutral response to the scented items. At that point, the two should only have brief glimpses of one another. Look for either neutral behavior or, much more preferable, interest in interacting in a friendly way.
- Note that re-introductions and a complete resolution of redirected aggression often require several months of management and behavior modification until the cats can get along again or it’s safe for the targeted person to be around the cat. That’s why preventing the problem in the first place is worth the extra effort.
Redirected aggression in cats that previously had a good social history with one another, or were formerly friendly toward the person who became the target, usually has a good outcome.