Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Redirected aggression in cats

Hero, cats, redirected aggression
Hero gets a bit frustrated when he sees another cat through the window. 

Last night I was the victim of an attack, from a household member. I woke in the wee hours to hear that gut-churning sound of territorial felines trying to out-yowl each other. It’s not the first time.

We have a new cat in the hood, and he pops over the fence at night and looks through the windows, in the menacing Cape Fear kind of way. The first indication this was happening was an unburied cat stool, just outside the window. It’s the carnivore equivalent of throwing down the gauntlet.

Of course, since this has been happening, Hero has set up camp near said windows, so he can be ready for his Mexican stand-off. Both cats (already fluffy) huff and puff and grow enormous.

Last night Hero was letting out a particularly guttural cry, and looked about three times his normal size when I raced out and found him at the window, the visitor on the other side. But Hero hadn’t heard me over the yowling, so turned suddenly and bit me. Hard. He quickly realised I wasn’t the intended victim, jumped on the table, de-fluffed, and head-butted me.

Redirected aggression is common in cats and is a common topic of discussion on feline forums. Cats can get carried away with their emotions sometimes, particularly when an enemy is on the other side of a barrier. The victim may be another animal or even a human.

In a blog post on this topic, behaviour consultant Ingrid Johnson explains that “then every time they see the ‘victim cat’ the aggressor remembers that state of heightened arousal and attacks again all the while leaving the victim extremely confused and fearful. Sometimes this can be fleeting but in more cases than not the aggressor cat continues to attack the victim during almost every interaction they encounter.” (You can read the full blog post here). 


Years ago, Michael and her former catmate Lil were observing a cat walking down the street and both growling, but they couldn’t get outside to defend their territories. Then before I knew it, Mike, whose yowling had reached a crescendo, turned and in her excitement biffed Lil one, and it was on. For the next WEEK it was like they were suddenly strangers to one another. I invested in pheromones, cat grass, cat nip, any form of distraction I could think of, and separated them. They settled down, thank goodness. I was a wreck. Feline politics are stressful for everyone, and male feline stress is even more worrisome as male cats stress out and then get urinary tract disorders which can be potentially life-threatening. I digress.

The thing is, in many cases people don’t realise their cat is redirecting aggression because they don’t witness the visitor – they just see the cat getting worked up for apparently no reason and feel incredibly hurt (physically and emotionally) if they are attacked in the process. Its particularly worrying if cats continue to behave this way, and may require consultation with a veterinary behaviourist (see this excellent post by icatcare on feline aggression). 

Fortunately, it was clear in this situation what was going on.

What to do? I think diplomacy works best. I went to the new cat’s house (he was very sweet and greeted me at the door, figure-eighting me and being thoroughly delightful) and had a chat with the neighbours about it. We’re working on some strategies including cat curfews. Of course Hero was well and truly breakfasted and tucked back into bed while this meeting was held. Don't you wish sometimes your cat knew just how much you did for him or her? I'm limping around the neighbourhood trying to minimise his stress, and he's in bed where I'd really like to be!

Meantime, have you ever wondered why cats don’t wear shoes? Veterinary specialists Richard Malik and Andrea Harvey tackled this curly question in The Conversation. I love the Wolverine analogy.