When I was a teenager, my family had two cats that didn’t get along. One, a big white longhair named Farfel, had been born right at our house. The other, a scrappy little tabby, I rescued from a man who was putting kittens in paper bags and throwing them off a bridge into the Connecticut River. (I was too late to save her littermates.) We named her Nobody. Farfel took exception to the introduction of a new cat, and by the time Nobody was grown up, it was outright warfare.
We tried behavioral modification techniques to no avail, and finally resorted to keeping them separated, closing off one in a bedroom or the den when needed. It meant everyone keeping track of which cat was where. Crazy, right? Our cats went outside, so when one wanted in, we would first determine if the other was in the house. Visitors who didn’t know the situation were perplexed when I would open the front door, just a crack, and shout “Is Nobody home?”
Now I have had as many as seven cats at one time (my husband married me anyway). Usually everyone got along, despite occasional spats. I have seen farms off-Island with many cats peacefully sharing turf. The most memorable was a mom-and-pop dairy in upstate New York. For more than a hundred years, this family had raised Ayrshires, a dramatic red and white breed of cattle originally from Scotland. They also had a line of cats that had lived in their barns for generations. Although not “purebreds,” these kitties had distinctive physiques and facial features – unusually lanky, pronounced cheekbones, Roman noses – exactly like ancient Egyptian paintings. There were dozens of them, posing in the windowsills, on the stanchions, in the hayloft, like countless statues of the Goddess Bastet. But I digress. If all those barn cats lived in harmony, why not Farfel and Nobody?
Animal behavior is affected by many factors: an individual genetic predisposition toward aggression; environment; and experiences. Cats are naturally territorial. Intact males may instinctively be particularly aggressive. The age at which a cat is neutered may affect its temperament. Female cats who have had kittens may develop “maternal aggression,” a natural behavior for protecting offspring. Cats with medical issues may be grumpy because they aren’t feeling well or are in pain. If you have cats that don’t get along, look at these factors. Is Loner a cat who just can’t tolerate living with multiple animals? Is Tom neutered? Does old Grumpy have arthritis and need pain medication? Once you have changed the things easily changed, it’s time for behavioral modification if you want to try extinguishing the aggressive behavior.
Start by separating the cats. You have to stop the negative encounters so that Nobody isn’t scared and Farfel can’t continue to bully. Then, once things have calmed down, start gradual reintroduction using counter-conditioning and desensitization techniques. Desensitization means very, very gradually getting the animal accustomed to stimuli that used to provoke undesirable behavior. In this case it simply means slowly, slowly, slowly allowing limited, controlled contact. For example, letting them see each other briefly through a glass door. Keep it short. Keep doing this until they start to ignore the sight of one another. At the same time, start counter-conditioning. This means providing positive experiences connected to the stimuli that used to be perceived as negative. Feed Farfel her favorite treat as she looks at Nobody through the glass door. Reserve that treat for just these training times. Farfel starts to think “Hey, when I see Nobody, I get to eat lox. Maybe Nobody’s not so bad.” If it’s affection your cat likes, love ’em up during training time. Nobody thinks, “Why was I so scared of Farfel? I get all these pats when Farfel is around.” Never push it. Just do what each cat can accept. If they get tense, end the session.
Once they tolerate visual contact, we want them to accept smelling each other … from a distance. Rub one cat with a towel. Now bring that towel to the other cat. Add counter-conditioning. Each cat thinks “Hmm, I smell that bad cat, but nothing bad is happening.” Calming commercial pheromone sprays like Feliway may also help combatants to relax. If things are going well, up the ante. Allow contact through a screen door, or baby gate. Once they consistently tolerate both sight and scent without freaking out, gradually try supervised time together in the house. Provide escape routes and places they can hide if necessary. Fancy cat climbing poles with hidey holes are great, but an open closet door will suffice.
If none of this works, consider medication. Your veterinarian will need to do a comprehensive behavioral consult, which is not unlike taking your kid for a psychological evaluation. You don’t just tack it on the end of a vaccination appointment as you’re walking out of the exam room. It’s complex. We need to figure out which cat needs what kind of medication. People assume the aggressor needs drugs to reduce hostility, but in fact it is sometimes the victim who needs treatment. Being scared, hissing, and running away can provoke an attack, whereas if Nobody just remained calmly in place, Farfel might back off. Most psychotropic medications are not officially approved for use in cats, though we use them frequently. Your veterinarian will review the risks and side effects. Many people, however, would rather deal with an occasional cat fight than to try to medicate Farfel and Nobody on a daily basis. You can also seek advice from veterinarians who specialize in animal behavior. Some will consult by phone or online.
In the end, some cats will simply never get along. In that case, you have three choices: 1) Rehome one cat; 2) segregate them, making sure both have their needs met in their separate spaces; 3) live with the fighting … and read my next column, about what can happen when one cat bites another.