Feline Redirected Aggression

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by Dr. Nicholas Dodman

Dr NIcholas Dodman

Sometimes cats who have cohabited peacefully for years – perhaps ones cats who were formerly mutually bonded – suddenly break into fights, with chasing, biting, fur flying and horrendous blood-curdling yowls and screaming. Sudden onset aggression of this type is almost always a result of redirected aggression.

The scenario usually goes as follows: The two cats are sitting by a glass slider or on a window sill when something terrifying catches their attention. Oftentimes that something is an outside cat who comes too close and scares the heebie-jeebies out of them. Both cats “puff up” – hair raised, back arched and ears flat with associated hissing and/or long, low moans. Trouble is afoot at this stage. If no one is around to break this situation up, suddenly one cats turns toward the other and lashes out. The battle has begun.

Some think that the striking out is akin to an angry man punching a wall – an innocent wall that has done nothing to deserve such a response. This is redirected aggression. Another explanation is that one of the cats interprets its housemate’s affective state incorrectly as aggression directed toward him (or her) – and that triggers a defensive reaction.

I have witnessed this type of aggression first hand in my own two cats. Mother and daughter that they were, they were the best of friends – ate together, slept together and curled up together like inverted commas. But that particular day, a warm summer evening as it happens, I saw them both looking out of a fly-screened door almost face-to-face with an unwelcome visitor – a tomcat. Both cats puffed up and began to moan. I know what I had to do – separate them immediately but I had to take care. Cats in this state can lash out indiscriminately and I did not want to be the target of their ire. So – like a lion tamer – I used a chair to separate them and shooed them into different areas of the dining room as they continued to growl and (totally uncharacteristically) to look mean. I was able to shoo the mom cat up the backstairs into formerly maid’s quarters (it was an old house – I do not have a maid). I shut the door and thus both cats were completely isolated, one in the maid’s quarters and one in the rest of the house. I left them that way overnight and the next morning put my trust in what I knew, reintroducing them once they were acting calmly. They hopped up onto the counter where I fed them and ate happily from each side of a double-sided food bowl. The storm was over and they never ever exhibited any hostility to each other again for as long as they lived (many years). But that isn’t always to way things work out.

If the redirected aggression occurs when the owner is away from the scene, cats do come to blows and the longer they fight the more ingrained the dislike for each other’s actions becomes. Usually one cat becomes the aggressor and the other tries to escape from harm. The problem escalates until it appears much like territorial aggression (which I have discussed before). Fights are relentless and ongoing and poor owners are at their wit’s end. “But they used to love each other,” I hear people say. “What could have happened?” Well now you know.

Redirected aggression does not have to occur because of an outside cat’s presence – though that is a common cause. It can occur when a cat – even a single cat – is faced with a mightily scary prospect. In one case brought to me, a woman explained that her cat had become riled at the presence of a new baby in the home. Her friend had brought this (to the cat) mysterious, crying object over for her to see. The woman immediately realized something was wrong when her cat began to go into the Halloween cat mode and begin to moan. Thinking quickly, she realized that the baby was the problem and told her friend to exit stage right ASAP. Her friend complied and the baby was gone – but the cat, as cats do, remained riled and redirected her wrath on the innocent owner. The cat backed tis poor owner up into a corner of her kitchen where she held it at bay with a broom – for seven hours. Yes, that how long it can take a cat to calm down – longer in some cases.

Another case involved an Abyssinian cat who, in her owner’s absence, witnessed, a mean man yelling at and striking his dog on the back deck through a glass slider. Odd circumstance to be sure. The cat hid behind a couch – no doubt in a full affective aggression state – until his owner came home. When she approached the slider, the cat launched an attack at her and continued to attack her for weeks thereafter whenever she approached that slider. I got the cat sorted out in the end but it required strategic planning and medication.

Treatment of Redirected Aggression
  1. Separate both cats as soon as you see them from becoming incensed. Keep them separate for several hours, perhaps overnight, and only reintroduce them if they appear calm. If it is just one cat becoming enraged, try to isolate it until it has calmed down. The prognosis (outlook) if this action can be taken rapidly is good.
  2. If the sudden-onset fighting has been going on for some time, separate the cats as above but the reintroduction process will take much longer, maybe months. The reintroduction process is described in my earlier blog about territorial aggression between cats on this website.
  3. Medication – do not try this without veterinary involvement and oversight! There are a battery of medications that might facilitate the reintroduction process. I typically use a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) like Prozac to treat the aggressor and an anti-anxiety medication, like buspirone, to embolden the aggressee (pariah, if you will). The Valium-like drug Xanax can be helpful, too. Most recently, we have taken to using the hormone of bonding (and love), oxytocin, to repair broken relationships between antagonistic cats and have had some startlingly spectacular results.

If you are sitting in your family room minding your own business and your formerly bonded felines suddenly break into a fight, you now know why that might be. If you come back from shopping to find your cats unexpectedly at loggerheads, it’s most likely the same reason – redirected aggression. And you now know that early intervention is key is resolution of this problem is to be rapid and that failure to intervene early can set you on a long course of trying to endear the cats to each other once again. One last word of caution: cats that have shown redirected aggression may well (unlike my cats) be subject to in future even after their relationship has been repaired. This is because of an underlying sensitive or anxious temperament and perhaps a lack of sociability or a degree of neophobia (fear of new things). Those are character traits and will not go away. After the socialization period for cats (weeks 2 through 7) a cat pretty much is what it is – confident, sociable and equable – or degrees of the opposite. I’m not sure it helps much to know that because the actual occurrence of redirected aggression is hard to predict but perhaps if your cat sits and growls at outside cats through the window it is time to block access to its observation post and provide other entertainment.

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