Preventing Re-Directed Aggression Among Cats

Redirected aggression problems between cats that have previously lived together amicably is a problem we see fairly often.  One case involved two female Siamese littermates who had been best friends and playmates for 2 ½ years.  Subsequent to a visit to the veterinarian, both cats began hissing and growling at one another, with one cat also chasing the other.  The owners separated the cats for two days, but the same thing happened when they tried to re-introduce them.

The owners were stumped as to why their cats – who had gotten along well together virtually all their lives –were now suddenly angry and upset with each other.

The most likely explanation is that both cats were agitated by the trip to the veterinarian.   In addition to being poked and prodded, they were bombarded by sights, smells, and odors of other animals.  Cats are particularly sensitive to odors.  We’ve had cases where cats that have been to the veterinarian, kennel, or groomer have been attacked by another resident cat upon arrival home, apparently because of the unfamiliar odors clinging to their fur.

Once agitated, cats can remain aroused for hours without necessarily displaying outward changes in behavior until presented with a suitable target.  When the littermates got home and were released from their carriers, they redirected their agitation from the veterinary visit onto one another.

This is a classic history for redirected aggression.  Redirected behavior happens when a cat’s aggression is triggered by one event or individual, but the aggressive behavior is let loose on a third party.  Viewing outdoor cats through a door or window is another common trigger for redirected aggression between resident indoor cats.

Dogs also display redirected aggression, but it seems to have a somewhat different pattern.  Redirected behaviors in cats seem to more often result in long-term relationship problems, while in dogs the behavior usually is very short-lived.

After a trip to the veterinarian, grooming salon, or boarding kennel, it may be wise for owners of multiple cats to separate their cats for a few hours when returning home rather than putting them together immediately.  Although most cats won’t have this redirected response, it’s better to be safe than sorry and not take the chance.

During this “calm down time” give each cat a little canned food, or some other irresistible treat, in a bowl placed on top of a towel that has been rubbed on the other cat.  This re-exposure to one another’s scent while pairing with the pleasure of food, can modify the cats’ emotional reactions to another.

The Siamese owners reacted correctly by immediately separating their cats.  The more the cats “practice” these hissing/growling behaviors, the more ingrained they become.  So the first step in working with redirected cases is to prevent any more social conflicts from occurring.

From there, counter conditioning and desensitization techniques need to be implemented to help the cats re-learn their friendly responses toward one another.  Occasionally, in addition to behavior modification, anti-anxiety medication approved and prescribed by a veterinarian may be needed.

It’s not uncommon for complete resolution of these problems to require several months of management and behavior modification until the cats can again get along together again.  That’s why prevention is worth the extra effort.  Redirected problems in cats that previously have a good social history with one another, usually have a good outcome.

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