The Mind of Your Cat: 02/03

Question: I have two cats that have never gotten along. My first cat was a bottle-fed orphan. She was 1 when I adopted a neutered male tabby to keep her company. To introduce them, I put them together so that they could fight it out. The male pounced on my girl, and prevented her from reaching her litter box and food. Although I have not brought them to a behaviorist, both get medication designed to reduce anxiety and aggression. There has been no improvement. I have even held them so that they can sniff one another, but I have been bitten several times during this process. Now, they are housed in separate areas of my home. Any ideas?

Answer: So many cats do seem to get along famously, and there is no doubt that many of them have been introduced by the approach you mentioned. That is, they just work it out. But to some cats, working it out might mean being subjected to serious physical injury. Others might simply leave home if allowed outside. Since cat lovers often assure that food supplies are plentiful, it is likely that these cats leave to avoid conflict with an individual cat or group of cats. In a way, the departure may reflect a personality conflict and would serve the purpose of preventing potentially dangerous confrontations.

Some pairs of housecats have more difficulty getting along than others. It is not always possible to predict which will become friends and which will remain enemies. It does seem that some cats easily assume the role of the bully, while others are always fearful and ready to run. More often, the role the cat plays is molded by the feedback it receives from its mate.

One thing is certain: With each confrontation, the rift increases. The aggressor is rewarded as his victim retreats. The fear of the victim is reinforced because she cannot even take a step forward without experiencing an attack. By introducing cats and hoping for the best, there is considerable risk that a chase will ensue. As one cat chases, the other flees, and the relationship begins on the wrong paw.

Introduce Gradually
On the other hand, there is little risk involved in gradually introducing two cats. The new cat may explore the house while the resident cat is confined out of sight. Then, the situation may be reversed and the newcomer is confined while the resident roams. This exchange of scents should continue for days or even weeks, until both cats appear relaxed while moving about the house. While the cats remain separated, they may be conditioned to wearing harnesses. They may also become accustomed to being confined for periods.

A gradual introduction of the cats might begin through a physical barrier. If the cats enjoy playing, a toy might be passed underneath a door. The cats may bat a common toy during a daily play session. Once play is accepted, a more open barrier may be used. For instance, a curtain may be placed over a baby gate, and gradually lifted as the cats begin to accept seeing each other. If there are no aggressive displays, the visual barrier may be removed.

Next, the cats may be offered delicious meals or treats while in a large room or hallway, several feet from one another. Initially, a physical barrier may be used for safety. If the cats are calm, leashes and harnesses may restrain them. However, frightened cats can be dangerous, and using a harness should be done carefully. Never bring the cats so close that they are actively trying to flee or hiss at one another.

Daily meetings may last only a few minutes, gradually building up time. It is essential that each session end on a positive note. The cats should still be interested in their food or toys when you separate them. Keep a heavy blanket handy to throw over a cat should one cat attempt to pounce.

Successful introductions of new cats have been done in less than a week. However, it is common for the introductions to last weeks or months.

Control Interactions
Since your first cat was an orphan, she might not have had the opportunity to develop important social skills. Although some social behavior appears to be genetically determined, it is likely that early exposure to other kittens and cats supports the development of appropriate social behavior. She might be particularly fearful and inclined to retreat when faced with the challenge of another cat. Your new cat sounds like a formidable opponent.

Regardless, it sounds as though you need to take a step back, controlling all interactions between the cats. Allow them to become comfortable moving about the house and do not allow any confrontations. Do not attempt to place the cats close to one another. Instead, encourage them to approach one another by offering them pleasant experiences in each others presence.

You indicated that your cats have not visited with a behaviorist. A consultation would allow the personalities of the cats to be better assessed. It sounds as though you and your cats are ready for a customized treatment plan.