The Mind of Your Cat: 06/02

Question: I have two Ragdoll cats, Shadow and Sundance, which are both 7 years old. They are actually related and were adopted together at 12 weeks of age. I have taken them to the veterinarian for check-ups and nail trims regularly. They have never particularly enjoyed these trips, but have usually gotten over the trauma quickly (helped by a special treat of canned tuna when we returned home.) When we got back home the last two times, Shadow has hissed at and chased her sister from the room. On both occasions, the behavior continued for more than a day. What could have caused this new behavior, and how can I ease the stress for everyone?

Answer: Believe it or not, I have met other sibling cats that have responded just as your girls did. It seems that when cats become frightened or distressed, they do not take the time to determine the cause of the distress. Instead, they direct their attention toward the closest family member. In some cases, the family member in question is a person or even a dog. In other instances, the feline housemate is targeted. The aggression that you have described is sometimes called redirected aggression. When another household cat is the target, the problem may quickly escalate: The victim cat naturally runs away, thus reinforcing the aggressor and, unfortunately, stimulating the aggressor to chase once again.

Aggressive displays
It often does appear that the aggressive behavior arises out of the blue. In retrospect, however, subtle indicators of past aggression may be identified. Mild aggressive displays may include posturing, which resulted in a housemates hesitating before entering an area. Such an interaction may have easily been overlooked. If a slightly higher level of aggression were exhibited, the other resident cat might have been driven out of a comfortable chair or even out of the room. If the behavior were exhibited only twice per year and resolved within hours, then it would have been considered a non-issue.

Sometimes in hindsight, we can often recall that the newly aggressive cat has always had a tendency to be easily startled, perhaps hissing at household people or animals with minimal provocation. This tendency to react in a fearful manner may serve to maintain aggression even after the trigger, in your case the visit to the veterinary hospital, has disappeared.

Your original plan of using tuna upon returning from the hospital was a great one. Eating delicious food must have helped your cats to relax. But now it seems that the food is no longer sufficient. Perhaps one of the more recent trips to the hospital induced a higher level of arousal than previous visits – a particular procedure might have been slightly painful or might have required a greater degree of restraint than that to which Shadow was accustomed. Perhaps the person that restrained the cats was unfamiliar or carried a scent that disturbed Shadow. Or the car ride home might have included additional unsettling sounds or sensations.

Appropriate desensitization
Regardless of the exact cause, we should be able to help minimize such aggression in the future. First, be sure the cats are as comfortable as possible in their carriers and with car travel, so that at least one component of the trip may be completed with minimal arousal. If your cats are particularly frightened of being handled at the veterinary office, then an appropriate desensitization program may be in order. Your veterinarian can help devise a program.

Upon returning home, it may be best to allow Shadow to relax in a dark, quiet room without her sister. She may be fed her tuna in private and reintroduced to Sundance after a long nap. Before the reintroduction, you may try rubbing the cats with a common towel. A dab of a light scent such as a feline grooming powder may be applied to the towel. Then, gently rub the towel along the cheeks and over the entire body, including the tail, of one cat; use the same towel for the second cat, and repeat the cycle so that the scents become common. When the rubbing is complete, bring the cats together for something that they both love such as a meal, or if they enjoy playing, offer them a chance to share a wand toy. Keep an eye on them of course, being prepared to throw a blanket over Shadow should she become aggressive.

Getting the desired response
Although unconventional, you may be able to try a commercially available product known as Feliway (Abbott Laboratories) to help the cats relax on the trip home. This product contains a synthetic pheromone that is described as an appeasing pheromone (a chemical substance that is produced by an animal and serves as a stimulus to others of the same species). It may be applied sparingly – just a single dab to the carrier 30 minutes before the cats need to travel. If you notice that the cats appear calmer during the car trip, then you have achieved the desired response. Although the product is considered safe, you should consult with your veterinarian before using any chemical.

Prevent aggression escalation
You have been fortunate in being able to help your cats through the bouts of aggression relatively quickly. If you do continue to observe aggressive behavior, then a professional behavior consultation is in order. Other behavior modification techniques may be available. For some cats, pharmacological intervention to reduce anxiety or aggression may be appropriate.

Remember, to prevent rapid escalation of aggression, the pattern of hissing and chasing must be prevented or interrupted as efficiently as possible.