Mind of the Cat: 07/06

Understanding Cat Fights

Most people who have lived with more than one cat at a time have witnessed a cat fight in one form or another. There are many types of cat fights. Some cats overtly express their aggression. The amazing assortment of noises cats create can frighten even the calmest human. And, should they be played out to their natural conclusions, the chase scenes can be more suspenseful than the best-filmed car chases in the movies.

On the other hand, some cats fight in a very subtle manner. A casual human observer may not even perceive a small shift in the angle of approach that causes one cat to retreat and the other to declare victory. A gaze that is prolonged ever so slightly may result in a clear loser and winner. Even after one or two such conflicts, the dynamics of a household can change.

This may help us to understand the all-too-common scenario of sibling rivalry. I use the term loosely in this case. I am referring to the devastating situation in which two littermates begin to fight.

When littermates fight, it can be more unsettling than when unrelated cats don’t get along. In most cases, the siblings have been together since birth. They have shared a single human family. Their physical environment was the same. They groomed each other, played together, shared meals and slept together in a furry heap.

All is well, and then something changes. Many people claim that the change seemed abrupt. Sometimes, a trigger can be identified. Perhaps one cat was injured or suffered a serious illness. Any prolonged absence can affect a relationship. Cats within a social group spend time grooming and rubbing one another, depositing familiar scents that likely help maintain cohesion in the group.

When aggression is triggered by separation or a medical condition that has resolved, appropriate behavioral intervention is likely to yield a successful outcome. Treatment may involve temporary separation within the home, perhaps for just a few days. During that period, the cats may be permitted to explore each others areas independently. Common towel rubs can be used until the cats are again able to groom each other. As signs of aggression diminish, the cats can be encouraged to share meals or even bat a toy together.

Fear as a Trigger?
But a sudden onset of aggression in one cat can also be triggered by fear resulting from an incident that has nothing to do with the other cat. Some cats, when frightened, maintain a high level of arousal for an extended period of time. In this state of arousal, a cat might be provoked by any well-meaning person or cat that attempts to approach. So a cat that arrives on the scene after the fact can sometimes end up being implicated by association with the residual feeling of fear.

The aggression that follows this scenario can be prolonged and difficult to manage. The fearful cat must gradually learn that his sibling is not dangerous. In turn, the sibling must learn that he is not about to become the victim of a random act of violence. Treatment will involve a very gradual reintroduction; many cases require months of therapy. Anxiety-reducing medication can be prescribed in some cases to facilitate behavior modification.

What about the fighting that seems to appear suddenly with no trigger? Remember, by the time we notice a physical fight, there may have been many subtle confrontations. Perhaps there have been struggles over access to a particular location or a particular person. As siblings mature – generally as they approach three years of age – they may cease to tolerate subtle threats. A mature cat may begin a serious attempt to send his competitor away permanently. Young, free-roaming cats do not always remain with their original social groups as they mature. A house just may not seem big enough to a pair of competing cats.

Treatment of this aggression can be challenging. It requires that the relationship be carefully analyzed. Both overt and covert fighting must be managed. In most cases, some physical separation will be needed. Competition may be reduced by adding access to vertical space, such as shelves or cat trees. Behavior modification techniques can be applied to reduce the intensity of aggression in specific contexts. In selected cases, medication may be prescribed to reduce inappropriate aggression or fear.

Do not despair. Should your cats seem to forget that they are family, search for a cause. Be sure that both cats are healthy and then try to remove any environmental threat that could exacerbate aggression. Finally, try to recall any subtle clues that might help you understand how this devastating yet treatable problem evolved.