Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Feline frenemies: Redirected aggression

I awoke at midnight one night last week to the sound of loud, banshee-like wails coming from the other end of the house. I immediately knew what was up: My cats were at war with each other. They’re Cornish Rexes with the same parents, but from different litters, and they’re best buds. They’ve had their share of skirmishes, but this was unlike anything I’d ever heard.

I cautiously entered the room where they sleep at night and found both cats circling the room in a crouched position, staring and hissing at each other. Their ears were flattened and their tails were lashing. After I took my younger cat out of the room, my older cat, Hogan, body-slammed the sliding-glass door leading outside, as if to attack an enemy in the dark beyond. That confirmed my suspicion: It was a case of redirected aggression.

This puzzling behavior results when a cat is highly aroused in a negative way, which triggers his instinct to attack. The classic example we veterinarians use is this: A cat looks through the window and sees another cat outdoors. For most cats, the invasion is a declaration of territorial war. The indoor cat becomes aggressive and fearful but can’t get to the outdoor enemy. It’s highly frustrating. Another pet or a person comes near the distressed cat, and the cat attacks the unsuspecting victim – even if there is no history of animosity between the two. That scenario is undoubtedly what prompted the battle between my two little guys.

A curious thing about redirected aggression is that the aggressor can develop learned associations that can cause him to react even when the initial inciting stimulus — in this case, the outside cat — is no longer around. One of my clients told me a story about her two cats, who were snoozing on the sofa one day while she was watching Nat Geo. There was a loud, violent fight between two wild animals on TV, which awoke one of the cats and provoked it to attack the other. From then on, that cat reacted adversely to loud television noises, and the owner had to keep him away from her TV when it was turned on. In that case, the origin of the cat’s reaction was obvious, but most of the time, the initial trigger eludes us.

Knowing how to safely manage a highly agitated cat in attack mode is important.

The first thing to do is to separate the two combatants. I threw two thick towels over my younger cat, picked him up, and locked him in a spare room, but I know how to do that quickly and safely. Some cat owners would be wise to stand well away from the aroused felines and simply shut one out of the room when it runs.

Never try to pick up or separate fighting cats with your bare hands. Even breaking up the melee with a glass of water or a broom could provoke an attack on you, so be cautious. Fatalities rarely occur between warring cats, but they are well-armed, and wounds from their claws and teeth are not trivial to either people or pets.1 A cat exhibiting redirected aggression is a dangerous animal.

After you separate them, place one in a “decompression room,” and continue to keep them apart. You can alternate which cat is confined so they don’t feel as though they’re being punished. Hogan, my aggressor cat, stood at the door to the room where I was housing my other cat, yowled, and attacked the door. I then separated them by two doors. After 24 hours I separated them by one door. By the end of day two, Hogan was pawing at the door and meowing for his friend, Cam. I opened the door, and they proceeded to groom each other and cuddle up as though nothing had happened.

Use your own cat’s cues to decide when it’s safe to put them back together. They should remain calm when they smell each other through the door. A good step after the separate confinement is putting one or both in crates for reintroduction. 2 

How can you prevent this nerve-wracking behavior? Identifying the trigger causing arousal and then removing the cat’s access to the stimulus would be ideal.  Take Hogan, for example. His trigger is outdoors, so I’d need to cover the windows so he can’t see any outdoor cats or other animals. That would mean covering nine sliding-glass doors and at least as many windows. Not! And unless it’s only a couple of windows, I don’t expect my clients to do that, either. But occasionally a specific trigger, such as the above-mentioned TV noise, can be avoided.

An observant owner will learn to recognize the signs of an impending conflict and will separate their cats before violence erupts. The owner’s response to a cat’s aggression is very important. Reactions such as yelling, throwing objects, or hitting the cat might redirect his aggression to you from that point on.

If the behavior becomes chronic or dangerous, or if a person is the victim even once, I refer the case to a veterinary behaviorist. They can teach the owner how to desensitize and counter-condition the cats, or at least teach how to recognize the signs of arousal in time to take preventive measures and thwart a battle.

Anti-anxiety drugs, such as Prozac, are a bit controversial for this problem. Behavioral experts aren’t really sure how much help they provide. Besides, sometimes the incidents of redirected aggression can occur years apart. Why subject your cat (and yourself!) to daily pilling when it might not be beneficial, or for a behavior that happens only twice a year? That being said, I’ll recommend one of the calming drugs if the household cats are continually brawling.  I’ve seen plenty of cases in which a client’s cats become permanent enemies and can’t live together, so I figure there’s nothing to lose by trying medication.

After what I experienced, I realize that the key is to be prepared. I now have a litter box and automatic waterer tucked away in my guest room, which came in handy the other day when another incident appeared imminent. Reacting swiftly and safely by separating them will give you the best chance of a speedy resolution.