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Aggression Between Family Cats

When Feline Housemates Fight


kittens on time-out bench

Sometimes Time-Out is Indicated when cats fight.

Franny Syufy

Cat Behavior & Training > Cat Behavior 101 > Aggression Between Family Cats

It is always with concern when we witness what seems to be angry aggression between cats who have been good buddies in the past. Two cats will be engaged in mutual grooming one minute, and at the next, are locked in a tooth-and-claw battle. Our instinct is to break it up before someone gets hurt, and indeed, sometimes that intercession is called for. However, aggression between housemate cats comes in several forms, with associated causes, and it behooves us, their human companions, to fully understand these kinds of aggressive behavior so that we can take appropriate steps, when needed.

Forms of Aggression Between Cats

Play Aggression

Also called "play-fighting," it starts at an early age with littermates, or with non-related kittens sharing a household, but is not confined to kittens. Cats have a natural instict for survival, whether in the wild or in a cushy home, and early-on are taught predator-prey behavior by their mothers. One kitten will "stalk" the other, then pounce his unsuspecting prey, and the fun is on. You will then see them trade off roles, with the victim chasing his former predator. The "chase me" game is a favorite in my own cat-ruled home, either between Jaspurr and Joey, littermates, or often including Billy, the younger non-related kit.

Play-fighting is usually harmless fun, and I only intercede if it appears that a cat is being hurt; if the fighting continues for too long a period, in my judgement; or if it turns into sexual aggression. (You can help ensure against injury from scratching by trimming the kittens' claws regularly, a practice which should become part of your normal maintenance routine.)

It should be mentioned also that play aggression is the first step toward establishing a permanent hierarchy, or "pecking order" among feline housemates.

Sexual Aggression

Even neutered cats occasionally "feel their oats," especially if they were neutered after sexual maturity. From observing my own cats, it appears that their sexual aggression toward each other borders on what I call "Dominance" aggression, or territorial aggression. Sexual aggression is easy to identify. The aggressor will bite the nape of the neck of the victim cat and attempt to mount him, with the same thrusting hip movements seen in male-female mating. I discourage sexual aggression between my cats by " scruffing," about the only means of direct discipline I employ.

Territorial Aggression

Territorial aggression can sometimes arise suddenly between two relatively evenly-matched cats, and can take place between male-male, male-female, or female-female. Territorial aggression in the form of fighting is often accompanied by urine spraying or "marking," which helps identify this form of aggression. The aggressor cat is not necessarily the older cat, nor the one who has been in the household the longest. He will preface his attack with much posturing: back raised, ears laid back, with accompanying growling and hissing, then leap on his victim and attempt to bite him on the back of the neck. In many cases, the "victim" cat will back down by turning and walking slowly away, and the social hierarchcy process will have begun. Other times, the victim will give tit for tat, and a violent battle may ensue. Do not attempt to physically separate two fighting cats; in the heat of emotion, they will not recognize you, and severe injury could result. You may try one of these methods of breaking up a fight:

  1. Use a Water Pistol
    Generally, a water pistol set on full stream will be an attention-getter and break up a fight quickly.
  2. Toss a Pillow or Large Toy Between Them
    Best-scene results will be that the aggressor's attention will be diverted toward the pillow, so the victim may safely retreat.

Most housemate cats will eventually resolve their disputes; one will reign as the "alpha cat," and the other will be satisfied with his lesser role in the "hierarchy line." On the other hand, you may be faced with the dilemma of two cats who will never get along, and may have to be permanently separated. Each case of territorial infighting comes with its own nuances, and it will take a great deal of time and commitment on your part to work with the parties to resolve a peaceful living arrangement.

Redirected Aggression

The classic scenario of redirected aggression goes something like this:

Alex is sitting in the window watching the birds outside, when he sees a strange cat in his yard spraying his favorite bush with urine. Alex hurls himself off the windowsill and viciously attacks Sophie, who is sleeping peacefully in a chair. Poor Sophie wakes and either fights back or runs away and hides. Sophie may or may not later attack Alex out of fear-based aggression.)

Dealing with redirected aggression consists of two basic steps:

  1. Find a way of keeping the strange cat out of your yard, or temporarily cover the window where he is most likely to be seen.
  2. Keep your two cats separated for a day or two until they both forget the incident.

Redirected aggression is usually a temporary situation, unless you allow it to escalate.

Next > Female Aggression/Ways to Handle Aggression

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