Feline Social Behavior and Aggression Problems between Family Cats
Feline Social Organization
Domestic cats tend to be solitary. They do not usually form large groups with complex social structures as do dogs. Cats are also very territorial by nature, some more so than others. However because their social organizations is somewhat flexible, some cats are relatively tolerant of sharing their house and territory with multiple cats. It is not uncommon for a cat to tolerate certain other family cats, but not get along with others in the house. In general though, the more cats you have, the more likely it is that some of your cats will begin fighting with each other. This may be more likely to happen if you have many cats in a relatively small living space.
The factors that determine how well cats will get along together are not fully understood. Cats who are well socialized, meaning they had many pleasant experiences with other cats during kittenhood, will likely be more sociable than cats who have not been around many other cats. On the other hand, "street cats' who are in the habit of fighting with other cats in order to defend their territory and food resources, may not do well in a multi-cat household. Genetic factors also influence a cat's temperament, so friendly parents are probably more likely to produce friendly offspring. Owners can help prevent fighting problems from developing by properly introducing a new cat to the household.
Common Types of Aggressive Behaviors Between Cats
The most common types of aggressive behavior that occur between family cats are territorial, intermale, defensive, and redirected. Each of these is explained below.
As mentioned previously, cats are very territorial; much more so than dogs. Territorial aggression occurs when a cat's territory is invaded by an intruder. Depending on where your cat spends his time, he may view the whole block as his territory. Female cats can be just as territorial as males. The behavior patterns in this type of aggression include chasing and ambushing the intruder, as well as hissing and swatting when contact occurs. Territorial problems often occur when a new cat is brought into a household, when a young kitten reaches maturity, or when a cat encounters neighborhood cats if allowed outside. It is not uncommon for a cat to be territorially aggressive towards one cat in a family and friendly and tolerant to another.
Adult male cats normally tend to threaten and sometimes fight with other males. These behaviors can occur as sexual challenges over a female, or to achieve a relatively high position in the cats' loosely organized social dominance hierarchy. This type of aggression involves much ritualized body posturing, stalking and staring, and yowling and howling. Attacks can usually be avoided if one cat "backs down", and walks away. If an attack occurs, the attacker will usually jump forward, directing a bite to the nape of the neck, while the opponent falls to the ground on his back and attempts to bite and scratch the attacker's belly with his hind lets. The cats can roll around biting and screaming, suddenly stop, resume posturing at each other, fight again, or walk away. The cats usually are not severely injured, but puncture wounds can occur which are prone to infection. Intact males are much more likely to fight in this way than are neutered males.
Defensive aggression occurs when a cat is attempting to protect herself from an attack she believes she cannot escape. This can occur in response to punishment or the threat of punishment from the owner, an attack or attempted attack from another cat, or any time the cat feels threatened or afraid. Defensive postures include crouching with the legs pulled in under the body, laying the ears back, tucking the tail, and possibly rolling slightly to the side. This is not the same as the submissive postures dogs show in that it will not "turn off" an attack from another cat. Continuing to approach a cat who is in this posture will likely precipitate an attack.
This type of aggression is directed toward another animal (cat or otherwise) who did not initially provoke the behavior. For example, a household cat sitting in the window may see an outdoor cat walk across the front yard. Because she cannot attack the outdoor cat, she may instead turn and attack the other family cat who is sitting next to her in the window. Redirected aggression can be either offensive or defensive in nature.
What NOT To Do
First, if cats in the same family are fighting, do not allow the fights to continue. Because cats are so territorial, and because they do not establish firm dominance hierarchies, they will not be able to "work things out" as dogs can sometimes do. The more often cats fight, the worse the problem is likely to become. To stop a fight in progress, make a loud noise such as blowing a whistle, squirting the cats with water, or throwing something soft, such as a pillow, at them. Do not try to pull them apart. Next, do not allow fights to occur in the future, This may mean keeping the cats totally separate while you are working on the problem, or at least preventing contact between the cats in situations you know a fight is likely to occur.
Second, do not try to punish any of the cats involved. Punishment is likely to elicit further aggressive and fearful responses which will make the problem between the cats worse. Owners who attempt punishment can become targets for redirected and defensive aggression.
What To Do
The appropriate behavior modification techniques for working with these types of aggression problems are termed counter conditioning and desensitization. This means that the cat is conditioned (taught) to respond in non-aggressive (and/or non-fearful) ways in the presence of the other cat. This means finding ways to expose the cats to each other in a gradual fashion such that neither becomes afraid or aggressive. The presence of the other cat is always paired with something pleasant for both cats, such as a mouth-watering tidbit of food. Through this process, the cats come to associate "good things" with each other's presence. In this way the motivation for the aggressive behavior is decreased.
If these techniques are implemented incorrectly, it is actually possible to reward and reinforce the aggression rather than minimize it. The most common mistake that is made is to try and re-introduce the cats too quickly, without enough gradual steps in the process.
Chances for Success
It is impossible to estimate for any pair or group of cats how well they will ultimately tolerate each other. some cats are very territorial, may never adjust to sharing their house, and may do best in a one cat family. However, many aggressive problems between cats can be successfully resolved, but owners may need help from both their veterinarians and from animal behavior specialists knowledgeable in cat behavior.
Medications may be available from veterinarians, which can be used in conjunction with a behavior modification program to make the cats easier to work with. Medication by itself is not a permanent solution to these problems Your veterinarian is the only person who is licensed and qualified to prescribe any medication for your pet. Do not attempt to give your dog or cat any over the counter or prescription medication without consulting your veterinarian. Animals do not respond to drugs the same way people do, and a medication that may be safe for humans may be fatal to animals.
Often, cats with these types of problems will never be best friends, but can learn to mutually tolerate each other with a minimum of conflict. Working with aggression problems between family cats will take time and commitment from you. Don't give up on the problem without consulting the appropriate experts.
Written by Suzanne Hetts, Ph.D., Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, Animal Behavior Associates