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How to Stop Inter-Cat Aggression

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Photo of Two Cats Fighting

Photo of Two Cats Fighting

Photo Credit: © iStock Photo/Tyson Paul

Question: How can I stop my cat from picking on the others?

Em and Tom live with seven spayed/neutered cats, plus one intact nine-month-old rescue female isolated in a separate room for the past month. Tigl is two years old and was adopted at two weeks of age along with siblings Morpheus and Illario (male), and Yoda (female). Five-year-old female Spock, four-year-old male Flip and three-year-old Vader (male) complete the household.

Em writes, “Tigl has always been gregarious and very loving with people. He will come up to myself and partner frequently for affection, rubbing along our legs and sitting on our laps, and generally gets along with the other cats. But after he receives attention, he typically runs toward the nearest cat and leaps on top of them biting their neck. The other cats protest loudly and fight him off. His aggressive behavior started a month or two earlier with Spock—he’d chase her (for no apparent reason) and leap on top of her. As he is quite larger, she would be unable to escape easily. Spock would run away just seeing Tigl and then he would chase her. My partner and I pick him up and scold him verbally if we catch him doing this and give a short timeout in the pantry, but he then redirects his aggression on another cat when we put him down. He now directs this chasing routine at Spock and Vader mainly although it depends on who is around.”

Amy's Answer

Social issues are very important to cats, and status changes over a cat's lifetime. Veterinarians and behavior specialists look at the cat’s physical and emotional health, as well as traits of instinct to help figure out what’s going on and find solutions. Think of this as the H.I.S.S. Test, which stands for health, instinct, stress, and symptom solvers. 

H=Health

Health can affect the way cats react to each other. When one kitty suddenly changes in behavior, it's a good idea to have the veterinarian check for physical problems. In particular, I'd suggest that the victim cat(s) and especially Spock get a look. While it sounds ruthless, cats that are ill can become targets of healthy kitties.

I=Instinct

It's a natural state of cat-dom for some kitties to rank higher than others, and expect preferential treatment. Cats reach social maturity between two and four years of age. Prior to this age, they often get along well with everyone, and then begin to assert themselves to elevate status in the household. The neck bite (even as a mock-attack) can be a sign of dominance. As the oldest cat in the household, Spock would naturally be the kitty for Tigl to target. If he can “best” Spock, that automatically elevates Tigl’s kitty stature in the feline hierarchy.

S=Stress

Stress can cause many behavior chnages. In a multiple cat household, stress is a given. Cat rank revolves around owned territory, so the more resources there are, the less cats will have to argue over. Increasing the toys, perches, and other cat resources can reduce the stress that adds to the tendency to fight. Reducing anxiety can also reduce bossy cat behavior.

S=Symptom Solvers

Frankly, with this many cats I’m amazed that you’ve had problems with only one cat! You must be doing something very right, in all the other instances. However, as you’ve seen, it only takes one kitty to upset the household.

We humans often get in the way of animals sorting out their own business—with the best of intentions, you’re trying to make sure the cats “play nice.” But that’s not necessarily what’s normal or right in all situations. Kitties do not practice democracy. I suspect you’ll be surprised by my recommendation, but please take it into consideration.

Yes, Spock is the oldest. But she’s already decided to bow to Tigl’s efforts to gain ascendency. You can help her with countering the fearful behavior.

When you pet him in front of the other cats (making him important since YOU are his most important territory/possession), and then stop him from driving home the lesson, it confuses all the cats. Picking up Tigl and chastising him makes him redouble his efforts to kick furry tail to show the other cats who is the boss.

Now, I’m not saying you should allow Tigl to hurt the other cats, not at all. But you can reinforce his position in the cat household—as the current top kitty—by feeding him first, petting first, and so on. I’d avoid petting him in front of the other cats, if he typically beats up on them, but reinforce his position in other ways.

If he does go after another cat, as long as he is silent (no hisses or growls), let him. The hisses/growls announce serious aggression while the chasing silently is more of a kitty poker/posture sort of deal. And as long as the other cats give way, that shouldn’t be a problem.

If the altercations get noisy, don’t say anything—just drop a heavy towel over top of the cats and walk away, which should prompt them to separate and go lick their fur back in place (and pretend nothing bad happened). Once Tigl (and the cats) realize that he’s the acknowledged boss-cat, things should settle down and he won’t have to prove himself.

If they don't settle down, you may need to start from scratch and stage a kitty intervention. That is, treat Tigl as the "new" kitty and go through the cat-to-cat introduction protocol. Good luck!

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