Should I interfere when my cats are fighting?
May 16, 2013 6:43 PM   Subscribe

I have two eight month old kittens. Mostly they get along great - they snuggle and sleep together, and they play-fight sometimes, though not as frequently as they used to. Sometimes this lil guy, Res, harasses this lil girl, Essie, and I don't know if, or when, I should step in.

I can definitely tell the difference between play fighting, which is mostly silent with an occasional meow, and Res harassing Essie, which results in Essie hissing at Res. Essie will run away from Res, Res will follow her and bother her, and she'll hiss and swipe at him. This will happen a couple times in a row sometimes, and eventually it seems to resolve itself.

I may be totally making this up, but I think that what is going on is that Res wants to play and Essie does not, and he's just not taking no for an answer.

I have not seen any blood, but I did notice some very tiny scabs under Essie's fur - I can't see them, but they're as if there was a pinprick (or claw prick) and it scabbed over. They are on her neck area and don't seem to bother her unless I touch them. I haven't noticed any marks or scabs on Res.

I (and my fiancee) have been staying completely out of the fighting so far to let them work it out by themselves, but I would appreciate thoughts on whether I should interfere now or if there is a point at which I should interfere (probably by squirting Res with water, which he thinks is the Worst Thing That Could Ever Happen To A Kitten).

The fighting / harrassment has been happening several times a week, but not every day, mostly in the mornings. It hasn't seemed to affect the kittens' relationship the rest of the time - as I mentioned, they still play and snuggle together.
posted by insectosaurus to Pets & Animals (24 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I wouldn't worry about it or interfere. 8 months is around when kittens really become hyperactive little terrors, and it's good for Res to push the boundaries and learn what Essie's limits are.
posted by joan_holloway at 6:46 PM on May 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

What you've described is exactly what has been going on in my house for the past three years, since we adopted our current pair of cats. My male kitty wants to play-fight basically every second of his life and tries to involve his sister, who is much more dignified and mature and wants no part of it. There is yowling, hissing, swiping, and sometimes it does sound alarming. But then five minutes later they're sitting side by side staring out the window, or sharing a bowl of food. My female is never afraid of the male, just annoyed on occasion.

I've lived with two cats who genuinely hated and attempted to hurt each other. You'd know for sure if that was the case.
posted by something something at 6:50 PM on May 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

You don't need to interfere unless there's real injury going on, and moreover, you need to ensure that you're establishing yourself as the "alpha" in the hierarchy.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 6:51 PM on May 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

I would also vote for not interfering. They won't appreciate (or understand) your boundary setting, they need to do it themselves.

They'll figure it out, even if figuring it out means that this continues for the rest of their natural lives. (sibling cats are kind of like sibling people. While we have an idealized version of those relationships, they aren't really universal.)

I would get a water spray bottle to discourage any behavior that is really not okay in your home (maybe that's bringing the chase onto the kitchen table) to keep your sanity.
posted by bilabial at 6:52 PM on May 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

my cats fight a fair bit.. they're not siblings but I got them close together and they're the same age, and one of them definitely harasses the other one, much howling and yowling.

I usually let them do their thing, but I will occasionally clap (and sometimes quack, which I was trying to teach my cats was a negative noise) and yell "hey! cats!" if there's too much drama going on. I don't squirt because I use that as punishment and I don't want to make the cats think I prefer when they don't interact? which is what I'm afraid of, discouraging normal play. a clap-shout is a much gentler reprimand for my cats, so I will sometimes use it as discouragement from being too fighty.
posted by euphoria066 at 7:15 PM on May 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'd make sure she has a few extra defensible lairs to take cover in, scattered around the house. Give her a cardboard box or two with a small entrance, perhaps on a shelf or platform so that the aggressor can't just stand right outside it. Or the right sort of cat tree.

This will give her a few more places she feels safe.
posted by sebastienbailard at 7:20 PM on May 16, 2013 [5 favorites]

It's your house, and when my cats get at it too much, I'm like, "hey, that's enough! Settle down!"

"You guys. I mean it. Settle down. Stop it. Stop it now."

"Max! Stop it! What are you doing?A? Leave Chloe alone!"

:::Chloe hisses and swipes his gigantic paws at Max:::

:::Max hunches sideways and does a dance with his tail raised:::

:::MoneyPenny watches to see if she can get in on the action:::

11:00 p.m. becomes prime time racing time with bed hopping a priority, just when we are dozing off.

Then they all go to sleep until 4:00 a.m. because that is bed scratching time.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 7:44 PM on May 16, 2013 [3 favorites]

Those are some cute kitties. And Essie! That face!

With my cats, I let them sort it out for the most part unless things get really aggressive. At which point, I just clap my hands or yell at them to stop. If things were truly violent between the two, they wouldn't be cuddling.
posted by DeltaForce at 7:49 PM on May 16, 2013

With my last pair, Boo abused Atticus and I did my best to stop it and here is what Boo learned:

"If I am not getting the attention I need and deserve, I merely need to bite my 'sister' and make her scream."

I was in a bad position because he was clearly hurting her but he loved the attention. When you're a cat, negative attention is better than no attention.

My current pair are littermates & are closely pair bonded so they take turns as the aggressor -- even though Cosgrove is about double Little Kiwi's weight now that they're adults. Thankfully, Cosgrove hasn't figured out yet that she outweighs her sister.
posted by janey47 at 7:58 PM on May 16, 2013

My cats started getting into a brawl as I read this question so...

The little one tends to bat at the bigger one until the bigger one has HAD QUITE ENOUGH and starts the beatdown. It's kind of upsetting - a lot of yowling, but when I look it's mostly the little one shedding fur, and running like crazy. When the big one gets the little one cornered...he doesn't DO anything. He just hisses till the chase starts again.

I figure they do this when I am out so I don't worry too much, but I will usually scoop up the little one when I'm around, or stomp in front of the big one - basically any distraction will make him stop as his heart's not really in it. I check them both every so often just to make sure everyone's OK. I've had friends who've had cats who really hurt each other and had to live in separate rooms, but mine seem ok to me.

I don't think little guy will ever catch up size wise, I don't know where he gets the guts to start these things.

Long story short, sounds like it's mostly playing but do check them for marks as you've been doing. Also talk to your vet. They know all the Cats Are Weird behaviors.
posted by sweetkid at 8:06 PM on May 16, 2013

Don't squirt them just for roughhousing. Only squirt if they're climbing the curtains or roughhousing on your dining room table (or whatever space is nominally off limits to cats.)
posted by bilabial at 8:16 PM on May 16, 2013

Cats don't have alphas. That's not a useful metaphor to be working with, IME.

The behavior you describe sounds pretty normal to me. I'd take care to ensure that you're keeping both kittens' claws well trimmed (to minimize the accidental scabbing), and then continue the mostly-hands-off policy you seem to be following.

I found the book Outwitting Cats: Tips, Tricks and Techniques for Persuading the Felines in Your Life That What YOU Want Is Also What THEY Want very enlightening and useful. I've lived with cats all my life (my parents had five Siamese when I was born, and I joke that I clearly imprinted on the wrong species) and learned so much from it. From the first chapter:
Outwitting your cat means learning to look at the world through feline eyes. It means realizing that your cat's behavior, especially behavior that seems naughty, perverse, spiteful, or just plain weird, makes perfect sense—to your cat.

Outwitting your cat means learning to accept his nature, and his behavior, with good grace— or being prepared to offer him a better deal.
posted by Lexica at 8:43 PM on May 16, 2013 [4 favorites]

My cats, who were raised together as mittens, do the same thing. Turtle will start play fighting with Zuzu (actually, it starts as a grooming contest: "I'm going to groom you." "No, I'm going to groom YOU!", etc.), then it escalates into wrestling, and inevitably Turtle runs from the room and complains loudly. That's when I step in. What I tend to do, rather than yelling at Zuzu or handling her, is to distract her with a toy. Her attention shifts, Turtle has a chance to find a safe place, and I don't really reward Zuzu with anything positive -- she's too focused in the toy to realize that I'm even there.
posted by mudpuppie at 8:52 PM on May 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Cats don't have alphas. That's not a useful metaphor to be working with, IME.

Forgot to add -- I completely disagree. Come to my house sometime and I'll show you alpha/beta cat behavior.

Also, I meant my cats were raised together as KITTENS, not mittens.

posted by mudpuppie at 8:57 PM on May 16, 2013 [4 favorites]

I only interfere when one of mine gets cornered (usually Abigail, the only female, although she can give it out as well) or really loud.
posted by deborah at 11:12 PM on May 16, 2013

Yup, we only interfere with our two cats (five yr old litter-mates) if they start seriously growling. Also, we almost always wrong about who "started it"... Our girl does a mean football tackle on her (much bigger) brother, who's a huge pansy.

Cute! Our female looks like the one on the left. Torties are the best =)
posted by jrobin276 at 12:11 AM on May 17, 2013

When I had cats (waah! I am now catless!), I often attempted impassioned reasoning and appeals to group interests, but the cats were not moved. They generally worked things out using their own strategies, a number of which involved vocalizations, feints, bluffing, and the ever entertaining slow walking retreat. I've had 18 cats over the years and never a fatality from conflict, but the alliances were periodically unstable. The only time I interfered I was attacked in the face, which punctuated my wise conclusion to let the combatants resolve their own politics.

They are coiled springs when they prep for fight, and deceptively dangerous for fluffy balls of joy. Best to leave them to their own devices, methinks.

(Once a neighborhood cat, a poop encrusted behemoth named Burton who more than anything resembled a dirty soccer ball used to intrude into my house via the abundant cat doors. Willie, my most aggressive white cat who I swear was a Republican operative on some level, and who hated illegals, rushed Burton the first time with blood in his eyes and bent on death. Burton simply ignored him. Willie was dumbfounded, flummoxed, and immediately deflated. Turned out Burton's house mates were two German shepherd dogs who spent all day screaming and hollering out and he was immune to bluster. Very funny reaction. Had I interfered, I would have missed the interchange and lost out on a personally valuable tactic for my own human/human conflicts. Plus, the combined weight of Willy and Burton exceed mine and I was unarmed. YMMV.)
posted by FauxScot at 2:30 AM on May 17, 2013 [7 favorites]

As long as affectionate play and cuddling are still going on, I'd vote to leave them to their wranglings too. Cats do have hierarchies, and it's one of the things they're working out, especially as they grow and try out their new strengths. It is also a good idea to set boundaries around where fighting can and can't go on, as long as the no-fighting areas also seem rational to the cats and there's plenty of room for them to swat each other elsewhere.

For instance, I have a huge dining table made of solid oak. The cats LOVE this thing. It would be impossible and inadvisable for me to make the dining table a boundary... however, I do also eat. Cats are pretty smart, and can make the difference between "human seated at table with tasty food" and "human not at table". I made "human seated at table with tasty food" the boundary, so the rest of the time they're able to use their favorite wooden platform as bed and wrestle arena. They never bother me when I eat: part of it is also that I give them their evening kitty treats at dinner time, so having the table temporariliy off-limits is associated with FISH, EHRMEGEHRD. They don't bother me at other meal times either, though.

Positive reinforcement works wonders with cats. They really don't grok negative punishment on its own, although loud noises work to distract them. If there is ever a fight behavior you really do not want, for instance one of them decides to ambush the other while napping on your lap, be very sure to follow up negative feedback ("no!!" and a gentle push away) with immediate positive redirection: pick up the offender, put them on the floor and pat them, and use a gentle voice to say, "calm down eh, you can play on the floor but not on my lap". Not because they'll understand what you're saying, but because the long string of warm, supportive human-voice will reassure them that the floor is a safe space, while attacking your lap is what brought on irksome loud voice.

I wouldn't worry too much about injury either, but again, this is so long as the overall relationship is still stable/affectionate (and the injuries are only skin-deep, not huge, that sort of thing). I once worried about my big fluffball when he gained a centimeter-long scratch on his head, and kept an eye on it: wouldn't ya know, miss zoomy-panther was carefully licking it several times a day. It healed very quickly.
posted by fraula at 3:16 AM on May 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

This is normal and you should take a laissez faire attitude towards it. Eartha and Malcolm, are litter-mates. They luurrvvee each other.

They will occasionally get frisky and you'll hear that weird Siamesy growling-yowling. That's when I'll just say, "HEY! Play nice!" That usually takes it down a notch.

Essie will teach Res that it's not okay to hassle her if she doesn't want to be hassled. If you think it's getting out of hand a quick shot with the squirt bottle should divert Res's attention.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:01 AM on May 17, 2013

Yep, normal, and just keep their claws trimmed to prevent any actual (incidental) damage.
posted by bookdragoness at 6:49 AM on May 17, 2013

I think it's also important to let them work out their own hierarchy. Our Josh used to make his sister move if he wanted her place in the sun just by nipping at her. He clearly had first dibs on everything. They got along fine. What I mean is, don't try to protect Essie unless she is clearly distraught, just give her enough hidey holes in case she wants some peace and quiet.

If you think the fighting is getting out of hand, clap loudly. Cats that are play fighting will stop when startled.
posted by Omnomnom at 6:49 AM on May 17, 2013

I'd go with watchful ignoring. Generally, with cats, any kind of attention is positively reinforcing and you don't want Res to harass Essie just because he wants to make you stand up, clap, or do other stupid human tricks.
posted by xyzzy at 8:53 AM on May 17, 2013

Response by poster: Thank you all - I will continue to let them work it out / do their thing as long as no one seems to be getting truly injured and they're continuing to snuggle and play most of the time.

I would love to give Essie a place where she could relax and Res couldn't get to, but that seems logistically impossible - she's bigger. They're equally good climbers I think, and he's better at jumping. We have a big cat tree (the 28x25x57 one here) - they both love it - and Essie loves boxes generally - but I just can't think of a way we could design a box where she could get in it but Res couldn't. If you have a suggestion on that, I'm all ears!

But either way, I feel much better about let them work it out now.
posted by insectosaurus at 1:56 PM on May 17, 2013

I would love to give Essie a place where she could relax and Res couldn't get to, but that seems logistically impossible - she's bigger.

It's an old idea.

Put the box on a shelf with a 1-2" lip, high enough that a cat can't stand on the floor and bat at the opening. Make the opening 6-8" wide.

Now Essie can climb into it, but, when she is in it, Res can't stand on the lip and mess with her - he's tottering on the 1" lip and flailing while she's braced in the box and can sit on her hind legs and whale on him.
posted by sebastienbailard at 11:37 PM on May 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

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