Our vet, the intrepid Dr. Rich Goldstein digs deep into our reader mailbag for this week’s Vet 101 Q & A. We think he’s the best vet we’ve ever had. If you have a question for him, email it to the editor Layla@laylamorganwilde.com with Vet 101 in the subject line.
Q:My girls, both age 4, have been together for 4 years now. Both were rescue cats with one being in the house about 3 months longer than the other. 90% of the time, they get along just fine. It’s that other 10% that can get really hairy. Sometimes, they will chase each other through the house, obviously having fun. Sometimes there’s hissing, spitting, growling and attacks with claws bared. It’s really distressing to see my girls go from sleeping next to each other in the recliner to ears back and full attack mode in the middle of the living room floor. I’ve had to take one to the vet to treat an abscess caused by a bite on her chin. Is there something I can do or is this just normal behavior for territorial animals like cats?
A:Ernest Hemingway once said, “A cat has absolute emotional honesty: human beings, for one reason or another, may hide their feelings, but a cat does not.”
There can be many reasons why co-habitating cats start hissing and spitting at each other:
- Expression of discontent (“You are really irritating me today.”)
- Establishment of territory (“You’re invading my space.”)
- Social ranking (“I’m the Queen of this castle, and don’t you forget it.”)
- Redirected aggression (“I would really love to chase that stray cat away from that tree, but I can’t reach him, so I’ll chase you instead!”)
- Normal play (“I’m bored, so game on!”)
- Sexual aggression (“I don’t care if I’m neutered, I sometimes still have feelings for you.”)
- Medical conditions (“I don’t feel well, so leave me alone.”)
If your cats are living in harmony 90% of the time, it’s completely normal and common for them to occasionally set some boundaries. In most cases, it’s fine to just let them work it out themselves. But if they seem to be getting a little too aggressive with each other, a loud noise (like a clap, or shaking a can of screws), or a spray bottle with water, can often distract them enough to break it up. Don’t ever try to break up a cat fight, as serious injury can occur to you, and the cats. And certainly, never hit your cat. Cats typically don’t understand (or, more accurately, don’t acknowledge) punishment. So, yelling at your cat will most likely just result in an over-the-shoulder glance, and a flick of the tail. Sometimes pheromones, like Feliway diffusers, can help keep everyone calm and collected. Keeping claws regularly trimmed (or using Soft Paws) will also help decrease the risk of injury.
Bottom line: an occasional spat is completely normal. But if the frequency is increasing, you may need the help of your veterinarian to determine if there is a medical issue to address, or if the behavioral trigger can be identified and eliminated.
As a child, I once remember hearing my grandparents, who were married for 50 years, get into a verbal shouting match that raised eyebrows for blocks. Five minutes later, they were sitting on the couch holding hands, talking about where they were going to have dinner. Their cats taught them well.
And, on another note, I’d like to congratulate Layla and Cat Wisdom 101 for a wonderfully successful first year of enlightening and entertaining cat lovers everywhere!! Meow-zel tov!
Editor’s Note: It’s wonderful when cats have companions to play, cuddle and play fight with but it doesn’t preclude active engaged play between cats and their humans. We have endless toys available these days to entice and allow healthy expression of our tiny jungle Kittie’s wild side.
I’d like to add the importance of checking our cats’ fur regularly during regular petting or grooming time for any broken skin where an abscess might take root. Sometimes the area near an abscess is so well hidden, we are only alerted to it by an abnormally warm patch or by the cat reacting strongly if we happen to touch the painful spot.
With behavioral concerns, I like to give clients a detailed checklist to help identify or uncover clues to possible explanations. One of the reasons it’s so difficult to pinpoint causes without an extensive interview, ideally in person, is the lack of clues. For instance, the hissing sound of a client’s new hairspray created intense anxiety in one cat recently.
The first thing to establish is when the change(s) occurred. What was going on? Was it a sudden development or slowly escalating? Make note of any changes taken place around or before the time behavioral changes were noticed. Changes could be anything from a new food, cat litter, moving the location of food bowl, scratching posts, litter boxes to changes in the pet guardian’s or any household member’s personal life (another example: a loud, new video gaming monitor placed near a favorite perch caused a reaction of peeing outside the box.) Note changes in work, school schedules, personal or social life, changes outside the home i.e. new neighbors, roaming pets, landscapers.
Remember: the tiniest change can sometimes have big repercussions. When we spend more time interacting with our cats we will be more apt to notice changes before they develop into a problem.