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Feline Redirected Aggression

What is feline redirected aggression?
Can it happen to my cat?
When is it most likely to occur?
What should I do if it happens?
How do I make things "normal" again?
Can it reoccur?
Is there hope for my cat?

What is feline redirected aggression?

Your cat is sitting on a window perch and sees another cat outside. Suddenly your cat becomes very agitated, adopts an aggressive posture, and hisses or growls. Your other cat walks into the room and the agitated cat aggressively attacks him. This is feline redirected aggression.

Feline redirected aggression (also known as displaced aggression) is when a cat behaves aggressively toward the closest animal or human (most often another cat in home, but it can also be a person or another animal) that is not the source of its agitation. Unpredictable and sometimes severe, and therefore dangerous, it is one of the most common forms of feline aggression, and it can have serious, life-changing consequences. In the most severe cases, cats may have to be moved to a different home, surrendered to a shelter or euthanized.

Generally, the behavior is caused when the cat sees another cat, but it can be triggered by any sight, a loud noise, an odor, a stranger or any source of discomfort.

The behavior is different from simple cat squabbling or roughhousing. Redirected aggression is much more violent and extremely loud, and one cat clearly is the aggressor, with much more assertive body postures and facial expressions. The attacks are difficult to stop, and the cat remains highly aroused long after the inciting event is over. When this happens even once between two cats living in the same home, they sometimes will no longer tolerate being together and may fight whenever they see each other.

Can it happen to my cat?

While redirected aggression has not been researched extensively, a study published in 2008 in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association found that cats with redirected aggression were:

  • More likely to be indoor cats
  • More likely to be from small households

The study may suggest that:

  • Indoor cats have fewer opportunities to escape when threatened
  • Indoor cats are less habituated to loud noises and other foreign stimuli
  • Indoor cats are more likely to be near alternative targets, such as other cats and people
  • Cats living in homes with two or fewer people are less socialized, so they are more fearful of people

When is it most likely to occur?

Redirected aggression occurs most often during warm weather because indoor cats are more likely to see cats roaming outdoors. This is another reason, in addition to the potential for being hit by a car, attacked by an animal or harmed by people, that Cat Hospital of Chicago recommends keeping your cats inside and allowing them outdoors only on a leash or in an enclosed environment.

What should I do if it happens?

First and foremost, never attempt to handle a fearful or aggressive cat, as you could be seriously injured. If the aggression is being redirected toward a second cat in the household, the two cats likely will have to be separated. The best thing to do is throw a large blanket over the cats. Once they are separated, maneuver the aggressive cat into a darkened room using a large blanket, thick gardening gloves or a large piece of wood or cardboard to protect yourself, and leave the cat there.

Squirting water or making noise to distract the cats might interrupt the event, but doing so can create fear and anxiety and cause some cats to become even more aroused and vicious in their attacks.

Redirected aggression can be very frightening, but it is absolutely normal, instinctive cat behavior. The aggressive cat isn't misbehaving, so do not punish your cat. If the aggression was motivated by fear, punishment could make the cat more fearful and thus more aggressive, which would only make the problem worse.

In addition, as difficult as it might be, try to stay calm and don't scream at the cats during an attack. The additional excitement will likely make the situation worse.

When your cat is confined, you can go into the room with the cat and turn on the light, or offer food or a favorite treat. If the cat remains fearful or does not accept the food, turn off the lights and leave. If the cat continues to remain aroused for a couple of days, make certain that there is food, litter and water in the room, and offer treats or play with toys each time you open the door.

Because the severity of attacks will vary, some cats may recover after just a few minutes in another room. But it is not unusual for cats to need hours or days, and less frequently, even weeks or months, until they recover and can be safely reintroduced to the other cat.

The most common mistake owners make in trying to resolve redirected aggression between cats is bringing the cats together too soon. If aggression has been directed toward a second cat in the home, it is very important to wait until the cats are calm before reintroducing them. While the aggressive cat is cooling off, carefully read the cat's actions and attitude to determine if he is calm enough to be released.

In some cases, regardless of the length of confinement, the agitated cat may remain aggressive to the other cat even after it is released. This is most likely if the redirected aggression was met with retaliation, punishment or another fear-inducing event (perhaps action that was taken to separate the cat from the victim). In addition, if the victimized cat continues to act fearful or defensive, the agitated cat may continue its intimidating behavior and/or become aroused by the victim's defensive postures.

If the problem is recurrent, devise a way to safely, quickly and effectively confine the cat. The best solution is reward training, inducing the pet to immediately go to its room on verbal cue or by shaking a can of treats. Another option is to put the cat in a leash and harness at dusk, when outdoor animals roam, or before other times when problems might arise, so you can safely maneuver the cat to its room.

How do I make things "normal" again?

First, let your Cat Hospital of Chicago veterinarian rule out or treat any medical problems that could cause or exacerbate feline redirected aggression, including:

  • Metabolic and endocrine disorders, such as diabetes, hyperthyroidism, hypertension, primary brain disorder

And be sure all cats in the home are spayed or neutered. Unneutered males, in particular, are more likely to fight than those who are neutered.

Once that's complete, the next moves are:

  • Slow desensitization. Gradually desensitize the cat by separating it from, or eliminating, all instigators of aggressive behavior
  • Slow reconditioning. Gradually reintroduce cats to one another as if they were being put together for the first time

Keep in mind that it could take up to six months of intense, dedicated, time-consuming effort on your part to achieve a good outcome, and that the severity of the attack will determine how quickly the cats can be safely reintroduced. Observing your cats carefully is an important part of determining how long the separation should be.

To desensitize and reintroduce your cats, follow these tips:

  • Keep fighting cats completely separated (sight unseen) after the initial fight. The length of separation time may vary from days to months. If this isn't feasible, you may need to look into other alternatives, such as finding another home for the cat or keeping the cats permanently separated within the home. In extreme cases, especially when a human is attacked, euthanasia may be appropriate. Your Cat Hospital of Chicago veterinarian can discuss all viable options.
  • Keep the aggressor in a small room with places to climb and hide, as well as food, water, litter and plenty of toys.
  • If the room has a window, try to prevent the aggressive cat from seeing other cats that are outside.
  • Allow the non-aggressor cat access to the rest of the home.
  • While cats are separated, clean any areas that were soiled with urine or stool using an enzymatic cleaner such as Anti-Icky Poo. Urination and defecation often occurs during intense fighting.
  • After the separation period is well underway, but while the cats are still completely separated, start acclimating them to each other's scent. Rub a towel on one cat, then on the other.
  • Let both cats eat out of each other's bowls, but in their separate spaces.
  • Use pheromones such as Feliway in a spray or diffuser to help calm very agitated cats.

As things calm down, another way to reacclimate the cats to each other is to keep the aggressive cat in its room, but bring the other cat close to the door. With the cats close to each other, but still on opposite sides of the door, feed them meals or treats, play with them, groom them and praise them both using a calm voice and tone.

When the aggressive cat is completely calm, you can begin to reintroduce the cats to each other. Follow these tips:

  • Proceed slowly, you cannot rush the process. If you go too fast, the cats may act aggressively, which will set the program back.
  • Allow the cats to see each other only for very short periods of time, as if they are being introduced for the first time. Start by putting them together for five or 10 seconds.
  • Use favorite treats, praise or play during these brief periods to reinforce positive, non-aroused interactions. The goal is to make sure that good things are associated with the presence of the other cat.

When the cats are able to consistently see one another for short periods of time without arousal:

  • Slowly put the cats within sight of one another for longer periods of time. Use barriers, like baby gates, or put one or both cats in separate carriers or crates or on leashes.
  • Keep distance between the cats at first. Consider keeping them apart 10 feet or more at first, and over several days or weeks, reducing the distance to 2 to 3 feet.

Remember: The cats' first interactions should be very brief. Separate them while they're both behaving calmly. Repeat their short visits at this level for several days or weeks before progressing further.

If at any point during the reintroduction the cat exhibits aggression or arousal in any other way, stop the process and begin again at a previous point of the process for several days.

Once your cats are reacclimated, it's important to identify and immediately interrupt a potential repeat redirected aggression episode. Cats that are about to become aggressive may show some or all of the following signs:

  • Enlarged pupils
  • Aggressive facial expressions, such as staring
  • Aggressive body postures, such as crouching and back arching
  • Ears back
  • Tail lashing violently from side to side

When you see any of these things happening, immediately distract the aggressor by calling his or her name and offering the cat a favorite toy or treat.

Other helpful tips to promote peace between your cats include:

  • If loud noises are triggering aggressive behavior, avoid them.
  • If outdoor cats are a triggering stimulus, keep windows and blinds or curtains closed, especially at dawn and dusk; cat-proof any cat-accessible decks or porches; and prevent odors from outdoor cats from entering your home.
  • Stay calm around your cats.
  • Avoid physical or verbal correction.
  • Reward cats with treats and/or play for good behavior. Keep treats readily available around the house (even in your pockets) so you can instantly reward good behavior.
  • When interrupting undesirable behavior, remember the three-second rule: Wait three seconds after interrupting the undesirable behavior before rewarding the desirable behavior. This will help ensure you are rewarding the desirable behavior!
  • Maintain enriched environments for your cats, even when they are separated. Having cat trees to climb, perches to sit on and toys to play with will help reduce stress for both cats.
  • Herbals, such as Bach Flower Essences or Rescue Remedy, and pheromone sprays or diffusers, may help keep cats calm.

If the problem is especially severe, or if a human was attacked, one or both of the cats may need to be medicated to achieve faster results. When medication is warranted, it is best to start it early in the desensitization process rather than simply waiting to see if you can achieve success without it. Before taking this step, discuss all of the risks and benefits with your Cat Hospital veterinarian. Also, remember that medication is only a part of the solution; cats still must be slowly desensitized and reacclimated.

Can it reoccur?

Yes. Unfortunately, redirected aggression can reoccur. Once a cat has been aroused, redirected aggression is often not a one-time event. If cats have been reintroduced and the redirected aggression occurs again, restart the entire desensitization and reconditioning process.

Is there hope for my cat?

Yes, there is hope. The best outcomes occur when:

  • You're determined to make the situation work.
  • You're aware that it may take a few weeks, or up to six months of intense and time-consuming behavior modification, to resolve the problem.
  • You spend a significant amount of time each day with the cats, and you are patient and creative in how you reintroduce them to each other.
  • You understand and embrace the concept that lifelong management and keen observation of interactions between the aggressive cat and the victim cat may be necessary in the most severe cases of redirected aggression, even months to years after the inciting event and after months to years of harmony.

But even if you have a cat that has suffered from redirected aggression, with a lot of patience, dedication and love, it is possible for peace to reign in your cat kingdom once again.

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