Do your cats fight? How do you stop a cat fight? And how do you know if the cat fighting turns serious—rather than just kitten play? Shadow-Pup thinks it’s great fun to chase and wrestle with Karma-Kat. Both Karma and Shadow are SMITTEN with the new kitten, Trinity, but they both outweigh her by dozens of poundage. Trinity can’t get enough of them, though, and constantly ATTACKS! Well…she thinks so anyway. We supervise, of course, and interrupt the play should one or the other object. Learn more about how pets play in this post.
There are many kinds of cat aggression, and many are perfectly normal behaviors. Certainly, it’s not fair to you or the cats to allow cats to fight. Learn how to recognize the potential and reasons behind cat aggression and fighting cats, and what you can do.
Karma-Kat and Seren-Kitty used to engage in what appeared to be a catfight on almost a daily basis. From Karma’s standpoint, he wanted to wrestle and play. Seren was not amused, and started yowling at him to “back off, buster!” at the first hint he strolled her direction. Here’s the deal, though…no fur ever flew, nobody was injured, and Seren always came back for more.
Thank cod! 🙂
In fact, I suspect Karma-Kat would enjoy having another cat friend. Maybe I can convince my husband of that fact sometime soon. (Paws crossed, y’all!)
Is The Cat Fight Real?
Cats usually work out their social standing with posturing and kitty bluffs, and neither kitty gets hurt. However, the lowest ranking cat (often an older, or ill kitty like Seren) can become a target picked on by the other felines.
Acting like a victim (slinking around, using submissive body language, hiding) is the equivalent of wearing a “kick me” sign and invites bullies to increase their bluster. Karma weighed more than twice as much as Seren’s 6-lb frame, and at 21 years old when she finally passed, my little Siamese wannabe became quite frail. So these days, Karma spends his play-and-chase time with Bravo, and no longer has to worry about injuring the old lady cat.
Cat Fight & Cat Aggression
Cat-on-cat fights can result from any other kind of aggression, such as redirected aggression, play aggression, and fear aggression. Most intercat aggression involves intact same-gender cats, and gets worse during mating season. That’s why spaying or neutering before a year old decreases or prevents about 90 percent of intercat aggression.
WHY CATS FIGHT
The top reason for a catfight is improper introductions. It’s a cat “rule” that a strange cat should be kicked out of the territory, so just dumping the newbie in with your crew asks for trouble. Once cats experience an altercation, that can predispose them to future fights because the experience was so unpleasant, scary, painful, etc. Think of it this way: the more cats “practice” being aggressive, the more likely they are to simply trigger into a fight at each others’ presence.
Sometimes cats get along fine until suddenly they don’t. That leaves us wondering, what happened? Often this is because cats reach social maturity at two to four years of age when many cats first challenge others for status.
Changes to the cat’s social group (new cat arrives or familiar cat dies/leaves) can prompt an increase in face-offs. Environmental changes such as moving or rearranging cat furniture or feeding/bathroom stations also can cause the fur to fly. Basically, any change in the routine may leave one or more cats so stressed they take it out on each other.
Not enough space predisposes cats to territorial disputes. Cats mark property with cheek rubs, patrolling, and urine marking. Some diabolical felines lure others into their territory and then “discipline” the other cat for trespassing. Feline territorial aggression is notoriously hard to correct, and marking behavior is a hallmark of potential aggression. Outdoor cats are more aggressive on their home turf and the cat closest to home usually wins the dispute.
SIGNS OF CAT AGGRESSION
It’s not all about hissing, screaming and wrestling. Cats use lots of subtle behaviors to control space. I call it “kitty poker” and in the best of all possible worlds, one cat backs down without a fight, and life goes on. Because it’s so subtle, though, you may not recognize power plays until one cat’s had enough and launches into a full-on catfight.
Cats use verbal and silent communication to elevate their status in the eyes of the other felines. They challenge each other with stares, forward-facing body position, hisses and growls, mounting behavior and nape bites, or blocking access to food, play, or attention. Some dominant cats use “power grooming” behavior—energetically licking the other cat—to make her move away.
Karma used to simply sit down on top of Seren, sort of a Sumo-Kitty move that made her crazy and prompted her to give up her preferred bed. Yes, Karma’s a bit of a bully.
Never allow cats to “fight it out” as that rarely settles conflicts but makes matters worse. Manage with behavior modification, counter-conditioning, and sometimes drug therapy. The 10 tips below can help ease the strain and in some instances resolve intercat aggression.
10 TIPS TO PREVENT A CATFIGHT
Reduce the urge to fight by adding more territorial space so the cats don’t have to share climbing, hiding, and perching areas. Create a house of plenty with MORE toys, cat trees, litter boxes and feeding stations than the cats can use all at once.
Electronic cat doors that can only be opened by the collared victim cat will allow her to access the entire home yet retreat to a safe area the aggressor can’t follow. These pet doors open in response to the magnetic “key” inside the collar. Look for “keyed” pet doors at pet products stores or on the Internet.
Avoid rewarding poor behavior. For instance, giving food or attention to the aggressive cat may calm the angst but actually pays her to be a bully. Instead, catch Sheba before she gets hissy and redirect her behavior with an interactive toy, such as a flashlight beam, to lure her into play in another direction. That can also help her associate good things with the other cat—rather than with being nasty.
If the toy doesn’t work, interrupt with an aerosol hiss. Then once the cat walks away and is calm, reinforce the desirable response—acting calm—by offering a treat, toy or attention.
Go back to basics and treat the aggressive cats as though introducing them for the first time. It’s best to give the victim cat the choice location of the house, and sequester the bully cat in the isolation room using pet baby gates.
If you see no significant improvement within a week, talk with a veterinary behaviorist to see if drug therapy may be helpful. Drugs may help control the aggressive behavior in the bully cat, while decreasing the “kick me” defensive posturing and vocalizing of the threatened cat. Drugs aren’t a cure, but can be a tool that helps training work more effectively.
Once the signs of aggression, anxiety, and/or hyper-vigilance fade, begin to gradually expose the cats to each other in very controlled situations. Begin with the cats in carriers, or controlled with a harness and leash, at opposite ends of your largest room or longest hallway.
During each session feed cats tasty foods or engage in play. This helps both cats learn to associate each other with fun, positive rewards.
Interrupt unacceptable behavior (hisses, growls) with a squirt of compressed air or water gun, and toss small stinky treats to reinforce “good” (calm) behavior. Counter conditioning can take months and require much patience and time.
Once cats have learned to tolerate each other and are allowed to freely roam, create at least two feeding stations and two bathroom locations but the 1+1 rule is even better (one for each cat, plus one). Locate them so cats won’t be trapped or surprised when using either.
Thunder and fury with no blood spilled indicate they have excellent bite inhibition. But few fights resulting in lots of damage indicate that at least one of the cats either has very poor inhibitions or seriously wants to kill the other cat. Keep cat claws trimmed to reduce damage. Cats that hate each other and draw blood during fights have an extremely poor prognosis. When all tactics have failed to stop two indoor cats from fighting, then ultimately one cat may need to be placed in a new home or permanently segregated from the other in another part of the house. That’s NOT giving up—it’s making life better for the cats, and you.
Years ago, when I was the spokesperson for the Purina Cat Chow Way of Life Tour, we’d arrive in town the evening before and visit the shelter to choose a kitty for the next morning’s TV appearance. The “stars” almost always received lots of attention from viewers and got adopted. Understandably, shelter staff had their favorites and often urged us to choose a special feline that had less chance for a forever home. I had the delight of spending the night in the hotel room with the lucky kitty. Believe me, it was tough not to bring a whole clowder home!
One memorable kitty hated mirrors. Oy!
Why Cats Hate Mirrors
The shelter volunteers urged us to take a “lifer” onto the TV show. This kitty had been there for several years, and probably couldn’t remember ever being on the “outside.” She’d had reconstructive eye surgery for a birth defect (problems with the eyelids) and had poor vision. But she was sweet and adored by the whole staff–so we chose her to make a television appearance.
That evening, when I opened the carrier door in the hotel room to allow her to stretch her legs, she got as far as the closet door, and FREAKED! The mirror reflection terrified her—that strange cat in the glass hissed at her, screamed at her, threatened to attack—and this poor cat hadn’t a clue what to do. Why do cats get freaked out by mirrors? It’s likely the eyesight issue made it worse, but many cats react to mirrors poorly. Cats often act scared of strange new things. Many of us smile at the picture of a cat looking in mirror and seeing lion—or in the above, a tiger. In a way, that’s exactly what cats may perceive.
CATS & MIRRORS
Why cats hate mirrors? Maybe you see a cat scratching at a mirror over and over again, or the cat’s tail “yelling” at that reflection. Yet we wonder why do cats ignore mirrors other times? Cat face conformation—eyes at the front for binocular vision—lends itself to seeing reflections. But most times, a reflection doesn’t also have a strange odor or unique sounds attached, so for experienced cats, the reflection isn’t important or “real” without a signature odor or noises.
Other times, cats, like my little shelter waif, develop problem behaviors from mis-recognizing their own reflection as a threat or playmate. Kittens that have less life experience are most likely to react to reflections before they realize they can’t reach that “cat behind the glass.” Some cats react to the reflections in pictures, oven doors, fireplace screens, or even tile. Mirrors and other reflecting surfaces like windows can confuse inexperienced cats.
Cats often attempt to reach the other cat by pawing underneath or at the side of the mirror to “get around” the barrier, preventing contact. They also do this after watching TV images of birds or other critters, mistaking the screen for a window. Cats that fear other cats, or that want to chase away the “intruder” act out with aggression.
Cats can become obsessed with mirrors and scratch at mirrors over and over.
EVIL CAT TWINS
The lurking outdoor cat presence primes the mirror-gazing kitty to become suspicious, so his fearful reflection also triggers defensive body language. When the cat displays “friendly” body language, the reflection does the same and such interactions are less likely to cause problems. But a fearful or aggressive body posture in the reflection, the cat perceives as a threat, raising the actual cat’s arousal. This becomes a vicious cycle. When cats become highly aroused, they react rather than think, and it matters little that the reflection offers no scent or sound. Some cats learn to associate shiny surfaces/locations with feeling upset and these can trigger acting out behavior.
The interaction with the reflection runs the range from curious and playful to head-thumping and screaming attacks. This could also feed into cases of redirected aggression. In other words, the cat becomes hissed off by that “threatening cat” seen in the mirror, but can’t reach the interloper, and so instead nails a passing cat friend.
Are mirrors bad for cats? Even windows offer reflections, and cats get freaked out by mirrors reflecting themselves.
Reducing Cats & Mirrors Fears
Each time a cat sees an upsetting reflection he practices being upset. Each repeat of a behavior predicts more to come, and makes it more likely for it to continue. So what can a caring owner do?
Remove mirrors if possible.
Move mirrors or problem reflective surfaces. A new location may not have the same associations.
Cover reflective surfaces you can’t move. Tape paper or cling-plastic over cat-level mirrors, or spray-paint with temporary opaque color.
When you have one confident cat that ignores the mirror, play games and offer treats in the mirror-area while the upset cat watches. This can teach the upset cat that another feline has no fear, and can encourage copy-cat calm behavior. More tips for dealing with mirror angst or redirected aggression are in the ComPETability: Cats book.
Have your cats ever reacted to the mirror or their reflection in windows or other surfaces? How old were they? Did they outgrow the behavior or did it become a problem? How did you manage it? Cats also react to images such as high-definition screens like TVs and iPads as well. That can offer fun games if cats enjoy chasing the image.
Cat aggression? Yikes! When a snuggle-puss turns into a snarling ball of claws, owners are at a loss to understand or deal with cat aggression. You wonder, why does my cat bite me? Besides hurt feelings, cat aggression can cause injuries or cause the cat to lose a loving home. Learn more about cat fights here.
4 KINDS OF CAT AGGRESSION
Health issues including pain or hyperthyroidism can cause aggression. Any sudden personality change demands a veterinary exam. But cats don’t aggress because they’re mean—they always have a good reason, whether or not it makes sense to humans. Recognize these 4 common types of cat aggression and learn how to keep the peace.
Your cat begs for attention, but then he bites you! Karma does this–ouch! “Why does my cat bite me?”
Some cats simply can’t tolerate more than two or three strokes and use the “leave-me-alone-bite” to stop the petting. The bite does stop the owner’s touch, which trains the cat that biting works so he repeats the behavior.
Instead, confine petting to back of kitty’s neck rather than whole-body strokes that some cats find offensive. Stop petting before he asks—his ears will turn sideways or flatten, and tail gets active right before he nails you. Don’t touch him, just stand up and dump the cat off your lap.
Kittens don’t know how to inhibit bites and claws during play, and “only kittens” target owners in painful play-attacks that mimic hunting behavior. Luckily, kittens are made so cute we usually forgive them—and most outgrow the behavior by six to nine months or so.
This is one of the few behavior problems that can be fixed by adding another kitten to the household. Yes, I’m giving you permission (like you need that!) to go out and adopt another cute baby. That way the babies play-attack each other, and learn to pull their punches. At my house, it’s been helpful because Karma likes to play with Magical-Dawg, and Magic enjoys the games, too.
Scared cats crouch and may hide under the bed, or lash out with aggression when they feel threatened.
Most cat aggression arises from fear. The “fight or flight” instinct means if a frightened cat feels she can’t escape, she’ll attack. Cats also naturally fear strangers, and consider anything unknown and familiar a potential threat. That’s why it takes many cats a long time to accept new people or new cats. Fearful cats hide, slink close to the ground, turn ears sideways like little airplane wings, and hiss which means “stay away.” Growls are a step up and are a serious warning to stay away or risk an attack.
Give fearful cats space, extra hiding spots like cardboard boxes or cat tunnels, and elevated perches to help them feel safe. In multicat homes, provide a house of plenty with multiple toys, litter boxes, cat trees and resources so cats don’t have to compete for them. Direct stares intimidate cats and increase fear, so avoid making eye contact. Sit on the floor with an interactive toy like a fishing pole or feather lure, and tempt the scaredy-cat to approach. You’re less frightening when on the cat’s level.
Redirected aggression happens when the cat can’t reach the intended victim, like a critter outside the window. Instead, kitty takes out upset feelings on the nearest pet or the owner. It’s like being mad at your boss—you can’t chew him out so instead lose your temper with a spouse. Redirected aggression is tough to solve because each cat fight “practices” aggressive behavior until it can become a habit. Use these steps to mend fences.
WHAT TO DO ABOUT CAT-TO-CAT REDIRECTED AGGRESSION
Immediately separate the cats for two or three days. Begin an introduction protocol, as if the cats are total strangers (they ARE!), so they can learn to be friends again.
Next, allow one cat out while the other stays confined, so they can meet with paw-pats and smells under the door.
Feed both cats on opposite sides of the door so they associate good things with each other’s presence.
After a few days of no growls, hisses, or airplane ears, allow supervised interaction.
Separate immediately and start reintroduction again if the cats aggress.
Be sure to cover windows and block sight of the evil squirrel that created the angst. If you see your cat window watching, avoid petting until his tail talk calms down.
We love our cats but still complain about their “behavior problems,” but did you ever think why your angry cat might behave badly? Our blood pressure goes off the charts when Sheba and Tom scratch the furniture, baptize the bed, and caterwaul at 5:00 a.m., even though we’re purr-fect owners!
Our cats love us back. But there’s no doubt that kitty’s tail gets in a knot over a human’s “behavior problems.” Put yourself in your cat’s paws.
8 Ways People Hiss Off Cats
Clawing Angst: Cats claw to mark territory, to exercise and relieve stress. Owners hiss off cats by not providing the kitty-correct claw object and location. Cats don’t care if it’s color-coordinated to human taste. A nasty-clawed-ugly-old-post with scratch-graffiti is like a child’s favorite binky and can’t be replaced with a spanking-new post. Hiding it away means claw-art won’t be seen. Cats re-train humans by clawing kitty-correct objects of the proper texture and location—like the sofa. Use these tips to help your cats claw in the RIGHT way.
Declawing Growls: Surgical claw removal offends many cats on an emotional and physical level. It strips away normal kitty defenses, and changes kitty stride/balance. Yes, some cats manage to suck it up and soldier on, but others demonstrate hissed-off status by avoiding the litter box (it HURTS to dig with sore toes!), or biting more often in defense.
Litter-ary Woes: Hit-or-miss potty behavior is the top complaint of cat owners—but we bring it on ourselves. Most standard commercial boxes are too small for jumbo-size cats so they hang over the edge or look elsewhere. Kitties hate being surprised in the potty, and dislike strong odors from perfumed litter or stinky deposits—a covered box condenses smells and blocks the view. Do you have a favorite TP? Cats get attached to favorite litter, too, and switching prompts some cats to take their business elsewhere. Having to “share” facilities is like you discovering somebody forgot to flush—ew! Extra boxes will reduce the hiss-quotient for kitties. Find more tips here!
Carried Away: Cats love the status quo. Changes to routine annoy or frightens them. Fireworks can send your cat under the bed (refer to tips here for relieving fireworks fears). Being stuffed into an unfamiliar cat carrier and then grabbed, poked and probed by scary-smelling strangers (vet alert!) makes cats hit the panic button. Couldn’t the vet at least warm up the thermometer? Savvy kitties teach owners a lesson by disappearing each time we reach for the carrier. Make cat carriers part of the furniture and add catnip toys or fuzzy bedding to take the “scary” out of the equation.
Left Behind: Vacations hiss off many cats because it messes with feline routines. Your felines get used to being fed, petted, played with, and snuggled at certain times and the owner’s absence throws a furry wrench in kitty expectations. It can take kitty a week or longer to become used to a new schedule of you being gone. Your return disrupts the newly learned kitty schedule all over again, so the cat has a double-dose of kitty angst from owner vacations.
Sleeping Late: Why would owners want to sleep late, when a kitty bowl needs to be filled? Cats raise a ruckus to point out food bowl infractions or other owner irresponsibility. Felines become quite adept at training us simply with consistent purr-suasion, causing sleep deprivation until we give in.
Indoor Incarceration: Cats that have experienced the great outdoors can become distraught when “jailed” exclusively indoors. Never mind they’re safer indoors away from dangers—closed doors and barred windows drive these cats crazy. Bringing the outdoors inside with puzzle toys, cat towers and a kitty house-of-plenty can calm the feline freedom fighters.
Unfaithful Owners: Owners may think kitty is lonely and wants a friend, but they never ask the cat! Bringing a new pet (especially a cat) into the house turns up the hiss-teria. How would you feel if asked to share your potty, dinner plate, toys, bed—and love-of-your-life human—with a stranger off the street? To the cat, the interloper looks funny, smells scary, and disrupts that all-important familiar routine. It can take weeks or months for cats to accept newcomers as family members.
You can find many more details and tips for relieving the angst in my ComPETability: Cats book. There are always feline exceptions. Your cat may not have read the kitty rule-book, and perhaps throws hissy-fits over other issues. Understanding what concerns our cats helps us be better owners, and enhances the love we share.
What have I missed? Are there other things you do that really urk your kitty? Do tell!
Is your kitty the Masked Avenger, ready to protect life, limb and property? Image Copr. Karla Spence
Is your pet an attack cat? Does he or she serve as a guard kitty, able and willing to keep bad guys at bay?
Debbie Russell, one of my IAABC behavior consultant colleagues, recently read my debut thriller LOST AND FOUND and posted a lovely and very positive review that said in part, “I also loved Macy’s role at the end of the book.” (Thank you, Debbie! read the rest of the review here.) For those who haven’t (yet 🙂 read the book, Macy is the trained hero cat who literally “nails” one of the bad guys.
Debbie also emailed me. She said, “You’re probably aware of this, but cats, when they bite, can absolutely savage the target before nerves even have a chance to respond to, “hey, I’m being bitten!” I once had a cat land three deep bites before my CNS could even begin to yank my arm back. I cringed on Macy’s attack.”
She also gave me permission to share these two true fascinating tales of cats defending their owners/territory:
We had dinner with a couple, and the husband told us of the following event. He was a teenager, sleeping and awoke due to some noise coming from the living room. He picked up a bat and went forward towards it. His Dad, whose bedroom was on the other side of the living room, heard it also and came from that side. What did they see? Their giant Maine Coon had a man on the ground, behind the couch, totally torn up.
He was screaming “Get it off of me! Get it off of me!”
They tried. It wasn’t easy. Apparently said MC hadn’t learned “aus”. (“Aus” is the German release command used with dogs.) When they approached, he’d just growl. I imagined him thinking, “MY PREY! I can eat off of this for a month. Go find your own.”
Eventually they got him off the guy, police arrived, etc. However, this cat had even managed to tear through the intruder’s leather jacket. Impressive, huh?
And a second story . . .
I can’t remember where I heard this, but remember it as true. A woman awoke to see blood splattered in her stairwell leading to the upstairs bedroom. She called the police. Based on the blood splatter, they determined that the Siamese must have launched him/herself at the intruder’s head from the stop of the stairwell. Yikes. Can you imagine?
Yes, I can imagine! My cousin once told the story of their cat that liked to lounge on the top of the refrigerator, next to the back door. A burglar entered the house, and…you guessed it…kitty launched an attack from on high, and drove the intruder from the house. As I recall, they knew because of the blood stains and door left open. Does this sound familiar? Where did you think I got the idea for that Macy scene? 🙂
I’ve also had consults with cat owners to help them diffuse territorial aggression and “guarding” areas of the home, especially when visitors enter. One client’s cat wouldn’t let the pet sitter to enter by the back door (the cat “owned” that area) but was fine if the pet sitter arrived from the front door. Cat-to-cat aggression is much more common (and discussed with tips to solve it in my ComPETability-Cats book). But cat-to-people aggression can be horribly dangerous and terrifying.
Then there are cats who sleep through strangers coming and going, while others probably would show burglars where you hide the silver. Where do your cats fall in the scheme of things? Do you have stories of cats running to your rescue–if not physically, perhaps sounding a warning? Please share!