Sometimes cats who have cohabited peacefully for years – perhaps ones cats who were formerly mutually bonded – suddenly break into fights, with chasing, biting, fur flying and horrendous blood-curdling yowls and screaming. Sudden onset aggression of this type is almost always a result of redirected aggression.
The scenario usually goes as follows: The two cats are sitting by a glass slider or on a window sill when something terrifying catches their attention. Oftentimes that something is an outside cat who comes too close and scares the heebie-jeebies out of them. Both cats “puff up” – hair raised, back arched and ears flat with associated hissing and/or long, low moans.
Trouble is afoot at this stage. If no one is around to break this situation up, suddenly one cats turns toward the other and lashes out. The battle has begun. Some think that the striking out is akin to an angry man punching a wall – an innocent wall that has done nothing to deserve such a response.
This is redirected aggression. Another explanation is that one of the cats interprets its housemate’s affective state incorrectly as aggression directed toward him (or her) – and that triggers a defensive reaction.
Redirected aggression does not have to occur because of an outside cat’s presence – though that is a common cause. It can occur when a cat – even a single cat – is faced with a mightily scary prospect.
Treatment of Redirected Aggression
1. Separate both cats as soon as you see them from becoming incensed.
2. If the sudden-onset fighting has been going on for some time, separate the cats as above but the reintroduction process will take much longer.
3. Medication – do not try this without veterinary involvement and oversight!
If you are sitting in your family room minding your own business and your formerly bonded felines suddenly break into a fight, you now know why that might be. If you come back from shopping to find your cats unexpectedly at loggerheads, it’s most likely the same reason – redirected aggression.
And you now know that early intervention is key is resolution of this problem is to be rapid and that failure to intervene early can set you on a long course of trying to endear the cats to each other once again.
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Dr. Dodman is a Professor in the Department of Clinical Sciences at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and Director of the school’s Animal Behavior Clinic. He is also Chief Scientific Officer for the CENTER FOR CANINE BEHAVIOR STUDIES. He has written over 100 scientific articles and several popular press books, including The Dog Who Loved Too Much and The Cat Who Cried for Help.