Intercat aggression-the secret life of cats (Proceedings)


Cats were once described as solitary animals. Cats typically hunt alone and they do not wander about in packs. It was reasonable to conclude that cats were not a social species.

Cats were once described as solitary animals. Cats typically hunt alone and they do not wander about in packs. It was reasonable to conclude that cats were not a social species. Yet careful observation of free-running cats has revealed that many cats seek the company of others for rest and relaxation. Those cats that live in social groups form attachments and select preferred associates. Relatives often remain together. Certain cats are more solitary than others.

Free-running cats have the option of selecting a home range that suits their personality. When resources are plentiful, cats may cluster. When resources are scarce, cats spread. With housecats, the rules change. Cats cannot avoid one another, for walls and ceilings get in the way. Housecats may have no choice but to rub whiskers in order to get down the hall for a snack. And although caring owners offer an ample quantity of food, the number of feeding stations may be limited. A single albeit giant food dish may represent a scarce resource.

Nevertheless, cat lovers collect cats. And most times they do so successfully. Why, then, can some people live with a harmonious houseful or even trailer full of cats, while other folks cannot convince 2 cats to share their 5500 foot home?

There appears to be no simple answer. One factor is surely related to personality. Some cats just don't like one another. In other cases, one of the cats may be abnormal, behaviorally or physically. For instance, an individual cat may exhibit fear or aggression that is out of proportion to a given trigger. A minor bump in the night is thus perceived as a major infraction. Underlying medical conditions can support the development of fear or aggression in both aggressor and victim cats.

When presented with a family of feuding felines, be prepared to take the time to understand the personalities of all household cats. Even cats that are not obviously involved in the primary conflict may be affecting the dynamics. Information about both appropriate and inappropriate interactions among the cats is valuable. When possible, all household cats should attend the consult. For some multicat homes, a housecall is ideal. Be prepared to spend the day!

If a home visit is not available, encourage owners to videorecord their cats interacting. Be sure that the client understands that you are not asking them to record a violent fight—no injuries please. Rather, ask them to videorecord some "safe" scenarios such as cats walking past one another, or coming into the kitchen for breakfast. Their efforts to communicate will be evident.

A combination of clinical observations plus owner reports will be used to formulate the diagnostic and treatment plan. Keep in mind that it can be difficult for some cat owners to recognize or interpret the language of cats. Having missed the subtle cues of aggressive posturing, clients routinely report that the conflict developed overnight. Careful history-taking will determine whether the aggression is truly sudden onset, or just suddenly noticed.

Sometimes, aggression can develop overnight. Indeed, a traumatic event can result in aggressive behavior between previously compatible companions. Question carefully about any recent changes in routine, or any stressful events. A house guest, a small painting project, or a new puppy next door may all seem innocuous yet can trigger serious aggression between resident cats. When cats present for sudden onset of aggression, both the aggressor and the victim should be examined for an underlying medical cause. Relevant lab work may be indicated before concluding that the diagnosis is behavioral.

If all patients are healthy, then a primary behavioral diagnosis can be assigned. There are several common types of aggression between household cats. Status-based or territorial aggression may begin to develop as one of the household cats reaches social maturity. A mature cat can be threatening to the original resident cat. The up and coming cat may no longer defer to the former feline head of the household. Either cat may pursue access to valuable resources, or may behave aggressively in attempt to establish an exclusive territory.

If both cats are acting within normal limits, then treatment often includes increasing the availability of resources. Owners may need to modify the environment to facilitate time-sharing between the cats. Triggers for aggressive events should be identified so that behavior modification, such as counterconditioning, can be implemented.

Another type of intercat aggression is fear-based. A fearful cat quickly becomes a victim, triggering a pursuit. Once the flee-chase-flee cycle is established, it can be difficult to interrupt. Ample access to all resources should be assured so that the fearful cat does not need to travel "in broad daylight" so to speak, when the risk of an ambush is high.

Behavior modification for fear-based aggression includes desensitization and counterconditioning to reduce the level of fear. Cats can be encouraged to spend time quality time together in a controlled setting. For example, tasty meals can be offered with the cats on opposite sides of the room. After a few sessions, dishes can be moved closer. Should things go awry, owners should be prepared to interrupt a fight with a super water gun or heavy blanket. The plan should be to end all sessions on a positive note.

During the treatment phase, it is helpful to separate the cats when they cannot be supervised. This not only reduces the risk of injury but prevents reinforcement of aggression and fear. As cats are reintroduced, owners should provide ample safe access to litter boxes, fresh food and water, and comfortable resting places at assorted heights.

Sometimes, intercat aggression begins as redirected aggression. An external trigger may be identified, such as a stray cat just outside the window. Trapped inside, the house cat cannot access the stray and instead, directs its aggression toward the companion cat.

Redirected aggression can progress to fear-based aggression. If the original cat continues to associate her companion with the external trigger, she may become fearful of her housemate. In other cases, the cat that was the recipient of the unexpected attack may become fearful and exhibit offensive aggression rather than wait to be bitten.

When there is a known inciting event, separate the cats for several days. Then, a controlled reintroduction can be attempted. The cats may be placed on either side of a baby gate or screen. If they exhibit friendly posturing, attempting to gently bat at one another or rub faces, then they are likely to remain friendly. If they hiss or growl or become pilorect, then they need to be reseparated and a systematic desensitization and counterconditioning should be started.

While treating intercat aggression, concurrent behavioral concerns should be identified and managed. Examples include anxiety or aggression that may be exhibited in other contexts. Urine marking is a common consequence of intercat aggression. Sometimes, urine marking is the first or even the only sign that suggests there might be friction between household cats.

Cats with abnormal levels of anxiety or aggression, as well as cats that exhibit multiple problematic behaviors may benefit from anxiolytic medication. Prior to prescribing, the risks as well as benefits should be considered and discussed with the client. Client understanding and consent are essential as most psychotropic medications are not labeled for use in cats.

Encourage clients to work slowly but steadily. Many owners are overwhelmed with the task of studying and supervising. Regular follow-up support will encourage their efforts to persevere. Ask owners to return in 7 – 10 days for a recheck appointment. This visit will offer an opportunity to address any difficulties with the implementation of either the safety protocol or the behavior modification plan.

In many cases, the prognosis for controlling intercat aggression can be good. However, some cats are not compatible and owners should be prepared to enforce a permanent separation if necessary.

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