Question: "How Can We Calm Mom-Cat Aggression?"
Dan and Sara are concerned about Missy, a stray cat that "adopted" them. Missy remained outside for about three weeks before they brought her inside a week before her kittens were born. Missy received a clean bill of health from the vet. Missy is a year-old intact female (with all her claws) who queened (had five kittens) on August 13. Missy shares the home with Pierre and Sassy, five-year-old brother-sister cats, both neutered and without front claws. The cats have one uncovered litter box in the living room, with food in the kitchen and the mom-cat's bed with kittens next to the kitchen.
"Missy was very aggressive even prior to queening," Dan says. "Females were fighting for alpha. Missy chases them upstairs most of the time." "Missy is very protective of babies. She's the first stray cat I let into the house. Before the queening, she would fight with Sassy. She queened in the morning, that evening Pierre got too close to the bed and she chased him upstairs and wrestled with him. Since then he has confined himself upstairs. I have moved water and food upstairs so he can have some. The litter box is at the foot of the stairs so he adventures that far. Sassy is more brave and still goes downstairs and watches from a distance. This morning Missy was coming upstairs to pick a fight. We have given Missy her own supply of food and water. When she gets aggressive we redirect her back to her kittens and her food dish. This morning when she was coming upstairs and I yelled at her and directed her back down the stairs. When she did chase Sassy up the stairs and they were at a face off, I smacked Missy's behind and told her to go back downstairs which she did. I know we put them in a tough position with little time between introduction and queening. My concern is when the babies start getting out of the box to explore. Is there any way to get her to calm down around the old cats?"
Cats aggress for many reasons, from health related to environmental. You can use the H.I.S.S. Test to figure out why Missy acts this way. That stands for health, instinct, stress, and symptom solvers. There are many causes for feline aggression. From what you describe, though, this cause/effect is pretty straight forward.
Health concerns such as pain often can be associated with feline aggression. But maternal hormones also up the ante so that mother cats simply feel much more protective and develop hair-trigger tempers.
Cats instinctively react with what I call a stranger danger alert whenever they come in contact with something or someone unfamiliar. Any new cat coming into a resident cat's territory will feel defensive, and introductions can help smooth the transition. But mother cats also feel protective of their litter, as well as the surrounding area/territory which may expand to provide a safe zone for the kittens.
FIVE kittens. Nursing. New territory. Stranger cats. Enough said.
S=Symptom, Signs & Solutions
First, bravo that you've adopted this needy stray mother cat and brought her into the safety of your house. Had the kittens been born and raised outside, they may not have survived and would be subject to other animal attacks as well as parasites and viruses. However, just because she's now inside won't change Missy's normal protective behavior.
This is classic "mom cat" behavior. Feline protective aggression rules queens when those hormones tell them kittens are vulnerable. This goes back to the "stranger danger" concept where anything unfamiliar is identified by the cat as potentially dangerous-and therefore a threat to the babies. Even if the cats had been friends previously, it's likely that Missy would act protective and strive to keep the other cats at a distance from her offspring. Some of this will fade once the kittens mature and become more independent, but you can help in the interim by reducing the stress for all of the cats. Here's how.
It's great you've provided a second food and water station for Missy. It's unfortunate that the three cats must share one litter box. That's asking a lot of friendly cats, and when you have a virtual stranger kitty-who has kittens!-it's an impossible situation for all involved. Frankly, I'm surprised that you've not had a to-the-blood fight on your hands.
So add another litter box for Missy, near her bed. That way she won't have to venture so far from the babies to use the facilities, and she can avoid contact with the other felines that make her crazy. Reducing Missy's angst will also help dampen the hair trigger temper, and once she relaxes, she'll be better able to think and learn to accept the other cats.
For the time being, since all the cats know where it is, the other litter box could stay at the foot of the stairs. Ideally, a third box should be positioned upstairs. The more toilet facilities there are, the less chance the cats will feel the need to wrangle over squatter's rights (if you catch my drift!).
It also would be helpful to install a baby gate in the kitchen so that once the kittens begin moving around, they can be confined in one area. Missy likely will still be able to hop over a low gate, but it will relieve her concern if she knows the babies can't wander. The other cats by that time will "know" the kitchen belongs to Missy and probably continue to steer clear.