Why have these cats started fighting?
September 28, 2010 5:44 AM   Subscribe

Why are these lovely and docile cats suddenly so hostile and agressive?

Boy Bingoes and I have been regular apartment/cat sitters for friends over the years. Their cats (brother and sister burmese, both neutered, 8-9 years old) are extremely lovely and have wooed us both with their gentle and loving nature. The cats have very happily cohabited for many years now.

Recently, we weren't available to apartment/cat sit, so the friends got a replacement catsitter. When they returned from their trip they found an apartment full of fur, flesh wounds and traumatised cats.

When the owners quizzed the replacement cat sitter, she said that everything was fine for the first two days. On the third day both cats crawled into their little cat house in the apartment and stayed there for 24 hours (they woud never normally do this unless they were ill). On the fourth day they started fighting, but there was no traumatic event and nothing else unusual happened.

Since then, both cats are behaving very strangely. Lots of very agressive behaviour (hissing, growling, teeth baring) and fighting every day. Neither seems to be the primary aggressor, but they just can't seem to stand each other. Strangely, when the owners take both cats to their little holiday cottage, the cats return to their former selves and are just lovely, and will even travel in the same cat carrier in the car. However as soon as the cats get back home, the fighting resumes.

The owners have taken both cats to the vet to make sure there is nothing physically wrong. They have spent lots of money making sure their teeth aren't giving them any pain and have even resorted to cat anti-depressants. However nothing seems to be working.

Tonight, we were over there for dinner. The cats were generally lovely, until they saw each other, at which point they started hissing and growling. Just after dinner, the owner was holding the male, who went bananas when he saw his sister and strongly latched onto the owners hand, causing a very deep wound. The owner lost quite a bit of blood and nearly passed out from the shock.

This all seems so strange and quite frankly suspicious. Does the hive mind think this is characteristic of some sort of post traumatic stress event? Could it be physiological? Or can cats just suddenly become deeply cranky, particularly as they get a bit older? The owners are at their wits end, and it's quite disturbing to see such lovely animals obviously stressed out.
posted by bingoes to Pets & Animals (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I've owned cats for over 20 years, having between 2-15 (siblings and non-siblings, old and young), roaming about the house at any given time (I've also fostered 100s for the local shelter) -- and I've gone out of town and needed cat-sitters on occasion. I've seen children turn friendly cats into scaredy cats forever. I have never seen or heard of anything like this.

The first thing that popped into my head (and it may be ridiculous) is that something *smells* very wrong to them at home. But what could possibly smell THAT wrong? Even supposing the cat sitter brought her own cats over or terrorized them, I don't think that would turn them against each other.

The only thing I could think to try, and I'm not convinced it would make a big difference, would be to have the house professionally cleaned (especially rugs, fabrics, exposed wood) and then fill it with feliway plug-ins or spray. (Although reviews among foster parents are mixed on if feliway even works . . .)
posted by MeiraV at 6:11 AM on September 28, 2010

It sounds like they've come to see each other as threats, if only in certain contexts, and the sense is being confirmed and amplified in a self-fulfilling prophecy sort of way. I wonder if it wouldn't help to put them in separate carriers (so they couldn't hurt each other), bring them into the same room and gradually move the carriers closer together, administering treats and giving them time to calm down whenever they get rattled.
posted by jon1270 at 6:38 AM on September 28, 2010

My gut is saying that the catsitter brought another animal into the house. I'm seeing something similar right now as I'm making first socialization trials with kitty #3; my girl and boy usually love each other, but for a few hours after exposure to cat #3, the girl will hiss and growl at her brother, basically switching from "other cat in house is friend" to "other cat in house is threat".
n'thing that this requires a cleaning to remover alien smells and then work towards resocialization. Also try sprinkling catnip throughout the house, putting a bit of butter on their noses before putting them in the same room, cat treats to reinforce "this is a happy thing" when they meet and don't fight. And feliway. At least, that's my current arsenal.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 6:45 AM on September 28, 2010 [3 favorites]

Or, to be kind to the catsitter, maybe another animal got into the house between the second and third day (hiding in the cat houses would be hiding from an intruder).
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 6:46 AM on September 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Were these my cats, I'd definitely want to talk to the cat sitter (again). Another animal is a good guess but the cat sitter should be forthcoming about what went on in the owners absence. I also don't know how well vetted the cat sitter was but if recommended by friends, I might also speak to the folks who recommended the sitter.

Is there any possibility there is a rodent in the house? My cats do get quite predatory when they're hunting and sometimes channel that toward each other when the object of the hunt is unattainable. Mine definitely don't go to the extreme you've described but some wee rodent beast might be a trigger.
posted by countrymod at 6:55 AM on September 28, 2010

Feline Redirected Aggression is a likely possibility.

From the article: One of the most difficult types of aggression for owners to understand is called “redirected aggression.” In this form of aggression, a cat generally attacks the closest object, often a family member or a cat in the same household, when it is frightened or excessively aroused by a stimulus that is inaccessible. The most common stimuli leading to redirected aggression are the presence of another cat, high-pitched noises, visitors in a house, a dog, an unusual odor, and being outdoors unexpectedly.

It goes on to say that treatment can be difficult, but it IS possible with good vet care, time and patience. Feliway and some kind of calming drugs for the cats should help. Also, maybe try keeping them separated for a while and then gradually reintroducing them as if they were stranger cats.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 7:42 AM on September 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm also thinking there was a new scent introduced. I would bet anything that the cat sitter brought along a dog. Possibly a cat- but I'd bet on the dog. Now that scent is everywhere and the cats are reacting as if each other is responsible for it.

That's the only time I've seen this happen: if a new animal is introduced that frightens the existing ones. Then that scent is transferred and the animals turn on each other. It should fade that hopefully they will re-learn each other.
posted by Eicats at 7:53 AM on September 28, 2010

ugg: "it should fade AND hopefully"
posted by Eicats at 7:54 AM on September 28, 2010

Sorry to repost, but I should expand on that and say that even if the cat sitter didn't bring an animal with, if she lives with a dog, she could have brought the scent in with her. Having it in the house is more likely with a reaction this strong, though.
posted by Eicats at 7:56 AM on September 28, 2010

Especially if the maybe-dog peed in the house (perhaps out of fear as well!). Even if it's been cleaned up and not noticeable to humans, the cats would still smell it if a pet odor neutralizer hasn't been used. One can check for urine stains (this would show up anything left by the cats, as well) with a black light to see what areas might need special cleaning attention.
posted by taz at 8:35 AM on September 28, 2010

Nthing redirected aggression. My two cats usually get along, but go berserk on each other if one of them glimpses another cat out the window. It once took TWO WEEKS of separation and very gradual re-introduction to re-socialize them. This is what worked in our household when they got into their worst spiral of "self-fulfilling" (as jon1270 says) aggression:

* Keep the cats separated by a closed door at all times. Make sure each cat has food, water, litter, and comfortable sleeping spots on his/her side of the door.

* Once a day, put each cat in his/her carrier, cover with a bath towel so that they can't see the other cat, and transport to the other side of the door. This allows them to spend time smelling each other's presence without actually facing another cat.

* Frequently pet cat #1, then go on the other side of the door and pet cat #2 without washing hands (and vice versa).

* Plug in a Feliway diffuser (I just used one for the whole apartment, but ideally you'd have one on each side of the closed door).

* Eventually, give the more-aggressive cat some food in her carrier, then set the less-aggressive cat free and put his food a few feet away from, but within clear view of, the other cat's carrier. This lets them observe each other without hurting each other. If the aggressive cat starts snarling, drop the bath towel over her carrier to cut off her view of the other cat and try again later.

* When they can tolerate the carrier-separated feeding without showing aggression, cautiously re-introduce them to the same space with close human supervision. If they do OK with that, separate them at night and when you leave the house for a few days, until you feel totally confident that the Kitty Wars are over.
posted by Orinda at 8:42 AM on September 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

* Once a day, put each cat in his/her carrier, cover with a bath towel so that they can't see the other cat, and transport to the other side of the door. This allows them to spend time smelling each other's presence without actually facing another cat.

Just want to clarify this: I meant that once you get the cats to the other side of the door, you close the door and let them out of their carriers so they can spend the next 24 hours in the same space that has been occupied by the other cat for the previous 24 hours. Basically, create two cat-zones in your home temporarily, and swap positions once a day.
posted by Orinda at 8:49 AM on September 28, 2010

I had something similar happen with a pair of dogs: two near-lifelong buddies suddenly got aggressive with each other. We eventually figured out that one of the dogs had a very mild neck injury (the vet couldn't *find* it, but agreed with my hunch based on his behavior). He'd look up at the other dog sitting on top of the couch...his neck would suddenly hurt...he'd attack the other dog, thinking it was the other dog hurting him somehow. This unfortunately turned into regular fighting, as the attacked dog got defensive and stressed, so it was only later that we managed to put the pieces together.

We never did manage to get them to cooperate with each other again, but fortunately we had a friend who adored one of them, so he's a happy only dog with two loving people elsewhere. One of them had major anxiety issues from before he was rescued, though, and even with Prozac and doggy behavioral therapy never managed to relax, so it's possible that he was a special case; perhaps a different pair of lifelong buddies would manage to get over an issue like this.
posted by galadriel at 9:35 AM on September 28, 2010

My cat hated kitty prozac, and the vet suggested these Composure cat treats. They are a supplement treat, that actually was eaten by my picky eater. It did seem to calm her down, but it may be just a placebo effect. She could try using that and see if that mellows them out some, if Feliway isn't a good solution. It seemed to work better for my cat than the Prozac liquid, with the bonus that I didn't have to track her down and force her to take it.
posted by gilsonal at 10:34 AM on September 28, 2010

Have you considered the existence of a ghost?
posted by custard heart at 2:38 PM on September 28, 2010

Thanks for all these great answers and suggestions. Sorry I couldn't clarify anything until now (wrong timezone).
To me, Redirected Aggression sounds very likely. The cause is obviously still a bit of a mystery, but I'll pass on these suggestions and hopefully something may just work!
Thanks again.
posted by bingoes at 7:05 PM on September 28, 2010

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