Redirected Aggression in Cats

CatChannel behavior expert Marilyn Krieger, CCBC, explains why two normally friendly cats may be acting aggressively.

Q: I have two spayed, 3-year-old female cats from the same litter. They are house cats who occasionally spend time in my fenced-in yard. Lately, they have been fighting with each other whenever they see each other in the house. It started last weekend after I let them outside while I picked tomatoes. 

The fighting began when we returned to the house. I didn’t see any negative interactions between them while I was outside, and I didn’t see any other animals, either. At first, I thought that the smaller, more dominant cat, Chloe, was instigating the growling, hissing and batting, but I have seen the larger cat, Zoë, going after Chloe.

I am stumped. They have played at aggression in typical cat fashion, but now they seem genuinely hostile toward each other, as if they were strangers.

A: From your description, it sounds like Zoë and Chloe are displaying classic symptoms of “redirected aggression.” Redirected aggression can occur when a cat is agitated by something and cannot respond to the source of the agitation. Instead, the cat acts out on the nearest cat, dog or human. Cats aren’t the only animals that display redirected aggression. A common human example of redirected aggression is when someone has a bad day at the office and yells at their spouse or children when they arrive home.

Typically, when the original trigger has been removed and forgotten, the cat will continue to respond aggressively toward the other cat, unless the cats are encouraged to feel good about each other again. Depending on the cats and the circumstances, this can take weeks to accomplish.

The first step is to temporarily separate Zoë and Chloe from each other. While they are separated, gather their friendly, welcoming pheromones by rubbing each cat gently on the cheek with a clean sock. Next, take the sock that has Zoë’s pheromones on it and place it where Chloe likes to hang out. Do the same with Chloe’s sock, but place it where Zoë sleeps. Repeat this twice daily.

Additionally, find delicious treats and feed them on both sides of the closed door at the same time. You also can feed them their regular meals this way.

The next phase in encouraging the two cats to make nice to each other is to put a double-sided toy under the door to entice them to play together. When there are no signs of animosity between the cats, take two towels and gently pet each cat with the towels. Exchange towels, rubbing each with the other’s towel. All of these activities need to be repeated several times each day.

When it’s time to reintroduce them to each other, open the door about 1 inch, and wedge your foot in, so that it can’t be pushed open. That way, they can only touch noses. When there are no signs of animosity, let the cats have short, supervised visits with each other. Don’t rush this process. Remember that you are following the cats’ schedule, not your own.

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