If you have more than one cat living under your roof, you may be familiar with catfights, technically known as intercat aggression. Frequent catfights are frustrating to pet owners and potentially dangerous to cats, sometimes even drawing blood. There are steps you can take to calm the tension, but it's not a good idea to allow cats to "fight it out." This rarely settles conflicts and usually makes matters worse.
Why Do Cats Fight?
Cats usually display social standing with posturing and "bluffing" communication that doesn't result in injuries. If they get along, they can usually learn to tolerate or avoid each other as well. However, this likely won't always be the case and fights may break out.
Cat-on-cat fights are usually the result of redirected aggression, play aggression, or fear aggression:
- The majority of the time, the fighting involves intact same-sex cats and worsens during mating season. Ninety percent of intercat aggression can be decreased or prevented by spaying or neutering cats before their first birthday (I am having trouble finding a reference to support this sentence)
- The lowest-ranking cat—often an older or infirm kitty—can become a target that's bullied by the other felines. Acting like a victim by slinking around, using submissive body language, hiding, and so forth invites the bullies to increase their bluster.
- Changes in the cat's social group, such as the addition or departure of a member, may prompt an increase in face-offs.
- Environmental changes, such as moving or rearranging cat furniture or feeding and litter box stations, can cause fights.
- Any change in routine may leave cats so stressed that they take it out on each other.
- Felines reach social maturity at 2 to 4 years of age, and that's when many first challenge others for status.
- A lack of space predisposes cats to territorial disputes. Cats mark property with cheek rubs, patrolling, and urine marking. Some diabolical felines may lure others into their territory and then "discipline" the other cats 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.
- Cats use oral 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, growls, mounting behavior, nape bites, or blocking access to food, play, or attention. Some dominant cats use "power grooming" behavior and energetically lick another cat to make it move away.
How to Stop Aggression
If your home is the site of frequent catfights, it's important that you do your best to stop it, not only for your cats' health but also for your own well-being. This is not an overnight process; behavioral conditioning can take months. Stick with it, but also realize that some cats may never get along.
- Adding more territorial space can prevent cats from having to share climbing, hiding, and perching areas where fights can break out. Increasing the number of toys, cat trees, litter boxes, and feeding stations reduced competition for resources.
- Consider an electronic cat door that can only be opened by the collared victim cat. This allows the passive cat to access the entire home while having a safe area where the aggressor can't follow. The doors open with a magnetic "key" inside these collars, and can be purchased at pet stores or online.
- Avoid rewarding poor behavior. Giving food or attention to the aggressive cat may calm the angst in the short term, but it rewards the bully. Instead, catch the aggressor before it gets hissy. Redirect its behavior with an interactive toy, such as a flashlight beam, to lure it into play.
- If the toy doesn't work, interrupt bad behavior with an aerosol hiss. Once the aggressive cat walks away and is calm, reinforce its good behavior with a desirable treat, toy, or attention.
- Go back to the basics. Treat the aggressive cats as though introducing them for the first time. Give the passive cat the choice of locations within the house, sequester the bully cat, and then make the introduction.
- Speak with a board certified veterinary behaviorist (see note about adding hyperlink in notes section?) to see what kind of professional therapy may be helpful. Certain medications may control the aggressive behavior in the bully cat while decreasing defensive posturing and vocalizing of the threatened cat. While it's not a cure, medication may be a tool that enables further training to work more effectively.
- Use controlled situations to expose the cats to each other. Cat carriers or a harness and leash used in a hallway or large room can be helpful.
- During the controlled meetings, feed cats tasty foods or engage in play so they learn to associate each other with fun, positive rewards.
- Try pheromones to reduce tensions. Pet stores sell products that mimic natural cat odor (humans can't smell it) and that can significantly reduce stress. Diffusers are more effective than sprays.
- Create at least one feeding station and one litter box location per cat. If you have the resources, adding an extra set is even better.
When all tactics have failed to stop two indoor cats from fighting, one cat may need to be placed in a new home or permanently segregated from the other. Don't consider it giving up; it's making life better for your cats and ensuring that they are happy no matter where they live.
How to Break Up a Cat Fight
When your cats are aggressive toward one another, it's likely that a fight will break out at some point. To avoid escalating the brawl, resist the temptation to break it up physically. You'll only end up bloody and scratched and potentially lose the trust of one (or both) of your cats.
Distraction is a better approach to stopping a squabble between cats. Loud noises can do the trick, but only if you're out of sight so you're not seen as a third aggressor in the fight. Try clapping your hands, banging on a pot, or throwing a large, soft object like a pillow near the cats. If it's frightening and distracting enough, it's very likely that you'll see the cats running to hide.