Cat(s) behavior issues...what to do?
May 8, 2014 12:28 AM   Subscribe

Sister cats, adopted from the shelter very young (~couple months)...are now around 3 years and thriving. Problem is they will randomly get very...agitated? Upset? Freaked out may be the best way to describe this. Not sure what to do or how to go about explaining it to vet without having to force pills down their little throats (this causes more trauma and anxiety!) Tedious details inside.

Some background: Syd and Blue are, as I said on the front page part of the question, about 3 years old. They're sisters, adopted from the shelter while very young. Both had some minor health issues (mainly fleas/wormy-things due to fleas/one respiratory infection) early on, but nothing bad or critical. They're indoor-only cats with occasional supervised outdoor time on the screened porch during the nice days/nights. Both are kept up to date on shots and vaccines and the like. Both are in quite good health and lead normal, lazy cat lives. There is nothing out of the ordinary that has happened in the last year or so for them to suddenly start freaking out, no major changes to trigger a freak out, and yet they have.

The best way to describe their "freak-out moments" as we call them: Sydney (who I might add is the Alpha of the two) will get VERY mad, start growling and howling, hissing and slinking low to the ground while puffed up. She swats at or will even attack anything near her (an object that moves, her sister, or one of the humans in the house). She is provoked by the most random things, and sometimes things that we humans can't even figure out. For instance, I received some bad news one morning and started bawling. She FLIPPED out, and while I was (sobbing and) trying to get into the bathroom to get a tissue, she attacked my leg. I had to hide in the bathroom until my mom came home. It was lucky I was living with her at the time or I'd have had to stay in there who knows how long. Syd left rather impressive scars. Another time (and this will now about happen once a week per my mom), my mom came in from work through the screen porch into the house and they completely lost it. Both girls got irritated and slink around puffed up and growling and the like.
Blue's "freak-out moments" are not quite so dramatic...I blame this on her not being the Alpha of the two...but she still lets out a quiet hiss or growl and in doing so will unintentionally provoke or further upset Syd.

You can't separate'll just cause a physical fight with them and either you or one of them will get bitten/clawed/etc. We've tried the pheromone spray, which seems to do nothing but take their minds off whatever triggered the freak out long enough for them to squint their eyes since we sprayed the pheromone spray (even if it's done in a different room...they're drama queens). Using a spray bottle is the easiest way to get them to get out of your way long enough to get out of the room, but we hate to do that as it seems to be mean to spray them when they're already upset and we don't want to do the "punishment" for something they technically aren't doing wrong (ie scratching the furniture would be worthy of a spritz). The easiest way to deal with these little moments of freaking out is to just walk out of the room. They sort themselves out after a few minutes (maybe even a minor scuffle if both are in the same room/are both involved) and things are OK, albeit a tad on edge for a while. Both girls are not always involved in this will get upset and the other will come in to investigate the noise, and in return become upset. It's an exhausting little cycle.

Has anyone got any suggestions for how we could go about speaking to our vet regarding these problems? Anyone had similar issues? Ideas for treatments or things to try and help calm/ease the tension, so to speak? These two have a WIDE OPEN HOUSE all to themselves when my mother is at work, and when she's home it's just the three of them. I can't imagine it's anything revolving attention or lack thereof, because they get plenty of it equally. They're both loved dearly, and both are very kind, loving girls outside of these little mood swings. Putting them down is NOT an option, nor is taking them back to the shelter. We aren't opposed to giving them medication again, but pilling cats is such an absolute nightmare and these two cause even more drama than normal cats would over the whole ordeal. Injections, maybe? Do they even make injections that owners could give to kittehs? 0.o

I no longer live with my mom but she wanted me to ask the MeFi community for help since I still regularly visit her (and the cats). Any thoughts would be greatly appreciated by myself, my mother, and Sister Syd/Sister Blue! =)
posted by PeppahCat to Pets & Animals (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Are the kitties in any region affected by earthquakes? My cats began to behave bizarrely towards each other during the onset of an earthquake.
posted by Hermione Granger at 1:35 AM on May 8, 2014

Response by poster: No, we are in East TN. The news will occasionally report of minor quakes in parts of East TN but most are never near us.
posted by PeppahCat at 2:16 AM on May 8, 2014

1. Cats are weird
2. You might want to give Feliway a try.

I've used Feliway to dampen some rather nasty behavior between a couple of unrelated cats in the house. Seemed to make a difference.
posted by HuronBob at 2:49 AM on May 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: 1. YES. Most accurate statement EVER. (They do this thing where they suddenly stare down the hallway with their ears perked up in "alert" mode as if something/someone is at the other end of the house...I hate it, freaks me the hell out. I think they do it solely to mess with humans.)
2. Yeah, she's tried it several times. Didn't seem to do much but I understand there are different varieties. She has used the spray/mister version. I'm going to buy the wall plug-ins next and give those a shot.
posted by PeppahCat at 2:56 AM on May 8, 2014

Best answer: If you go the Feliway wall plug route, shop Amazon, you can find a price that is typically half of what you pay at your local chain pet store.

And, let me add, the behavior you add (other than the attack the people and make them bleed part) is pretty typical cat stuff. We have four of the creatures and I've seen all of what you describe, on and almost daily basis.
posted by HuronBob at 3:08 AM on May 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Have you noticed any correlation between the porch time and the freakouts? My cats, who generally get along great, will turn on each other if one of them gets outside even for a second, or sees another cat through the window, or hears something that might be another cat in the hall...basically, some cats will just regress to their wild selves with certain kinds of stimulae. Sounds like Syd thought your crying was some sort of unfamiliar animal noise, and your mom coming in through the back made them nervous for some reason. Cats, as they say, are weird.

I would separate them if they seem freaked out, just so they don't rile each other up further. And they do make Thundershirts for cats, pretty well reviewed on Amazon.
posted by chaiminda at 4:18 AM on May 8, 2014

Best answer: Are there any neighborhood cats marking the outside of the house? They'll be able to smell it, and be on constant alert that their territory is being threatened. They also might have seen or even just smelled a scary animal (foxes, coyotes, heck, even a moose) through the screened porch and been traumatized, and are ever so slowly working their way through it. They're spayed, right? Just checking. Do they have lots of places to hide, both up high and down low, scattered throughout the house so their "safest" option when they feel threatened is to hide, and not attack?

As for the speaking to your vet part of your question, what you're describing is not uncommon, I don't think. It sounds to me like they're feeling unsafe in their home. I'm sure it's not any real fault of you or your mom's. I've certainly heard of it and experienced it in extended family households before. Each time it's been kind of a mystery but eventually their weird cat brains work it out and once they feel safe again they stop, although it can take a really long time. I'd just tell the vet the same things you've written here. You've done a pretty good job describing the problems.
posted by Mizu at 4:20 AM on May 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks, all. I've had cats my whole life but I swear these two are a whole different puzzle to work out. I'd never even thought of the Thundershirts...Syd is pretty fat so I'd have to take photos of squeezing her large behind into one. LOL.
They have lots of hidey holes inside, several of which we don't know about til we happen upon them by accident (under the warm, freshly washed towels in the hamper, curled up in a ball being my favorite spot!) and seem to be pretty at ease in general. I think the outdoor time may have something to do with it as there is Neighbor Cat who lives next door that occasionally comes to the screen to sniff...though never that we've seen while the girls are outside. (Maybe he/she is marking and we haven't noticed? Who knows with cats.) Both our girls are spayed, and they definitely will hide over attacking.

Got to thinking while at work (3rd shift provides that kind of philosophical time...) and wondered if maybe my mom's work schedule shifting around somewhat has also got them all in a fuss. She went from leaving the house around 5:45am and coming home about 3:00pm, and had different days off than she does now and also leaves later/returns later now (by a few hours). Seems like these two are slow to adapt to changes anyways, so that may be part of the issue.

Thanks for all the help! I'll definitely bring all this up with the vet...
posted by PeppahCat at 4:37 AM on May 8, 2014

Best answer: Sounds like a really rough situation for you and your mom - and the cats! I hope you can get a vet to look at them soon - if one of them were in pain, that could trigger her to be aggressive.

If it's not physical (and it very well might not be), it sounds like you want to look up information on something called redirected aggression. This can lead to the kind of behavior that you're describing in Syd and Blue, and it can come on very suddenly. Basically, a scary moment (and because they're cats, this can be anything, but neighbourhood cats outside that they can see/smell but not get to seem to be a common trigger) will freak your cat out and "reset" its poor little kitty mind so that it literally doesn't recognize life-long friends or friendly humans anymore because it's been so overcome by this one single perceived threat.

This might sound silly, but you can find episodes of Animal Planet's My Cat from Hell on YouTube, and there are several that deal with cats that have been getting on fine with each other and their humans and then something (anything, sometimes the humans don't even know what it is) changes and the cats have these freakouts you describe. It might be nice to not just read about the phenomenon, but watch a cat behaviourist walk both cats and humans through it. So far, it's always ended very happily.

If you want to get more information from people who might have dealt with similar things, I also recommend asking this question on TheCatSite.
posted by harujion at 4:52 AM on May 8, 2014 [6 favorites]

If they were shelter kitties, they might have some semi-feral issues. This could be the cause of the sudden redirected aggression (good links harujion!) But basically, my guess is: Cats don't like change. Different arrivals and departures could for sure be related. As could outside smells. Cats can be territorial, and something like a coyote or other cat outside would likely get them going.
posted by Jacen at 5:13 AM on May 8, 2014

I don't have any insight into the behavioral issues, but for a temporary fix, just wanted to nth Feliway, especially the diffuser if you haven't yet tried it. It worked better for my cat than the spray (which if I'm understanding your correctly, it seems you've already used and it wasn't so helpful). Some people also report success with Bach Rescue Remedy for Pets, so that might be worth a shot too.
posted by ladybird at 5:13 AM on May 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's redirected aggression, and it could be a vestage of who-knows-what that happened who-knows-when.

Our cats will be lounging in bed with us, and suddenly one will be startled (because I moved my foot) and the next thing you know, they're tearing-ass down the hall meowing like idiots. Then they come back like nothing happened.

It's a thing, the My Cat From Hell videos are pretty great and can show you techniques for helping them overcome the issues.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:28 AM on May 8, 2014

I had a cat that suffered from redirected aggression, as described by harujion above. In her case, the proximate cause was easily identifiable - our neighbor across the hall got a puppy, who often peed in the hallway and/or building alcove. So Bertha would spend all day alone in the apartment, hearing and smelling this dog, until I or my girlfriend would come home, bringing with us a fresh wave of dog smells. This started to trigger frighteningly vicious and sudden attacks - torn jeans, deep wounds, the whole deal. The vet diagnosed her with redirected aggression and put her on Buspar for anxiety. Dosing her was super easy, as the pills were small and could be crushed up and mixed with a little wet food. She had no more episodes of attacks after that, and a few months later we moved to a new, dog-free building, and she lived a long, happy life surrounded by people who knew to give her a wide berth.

This was 20 years ago, so treatment with Buspar/anti-anxiety meds was still new and somewhat experimental, so your vet might have even better options. The idea back then was to get the anxiety under control so everyone could feel safe in the apartment, and then work on ways to reduce the stress - the internet is full of good ideas for helping your cats feel safe in your home. I would definitely look at that porch as a trouble spot - animals marking it, lurking under it, perhaps a general fear of being almost outside but still confined? A cat tree could be helpful - something with a high perch and a box for hiding, maybe?

Good luck, and let us know how it turns out.
posted by Banky_Edwards at 5:28 AM on May 8, 2014

I had a cat whose anxiety symptoms were completely resolved by feeding her a Composure Cat Treat once a day. They apparently taste pretty good because she'd remind me if she didn't get hers. My friend used it for her cat who was spatting with another cat and found that helped as well. You can find them on amazon. My vet recommended them and I'm so glad, because it was way easier than trying to pill her.
posted by gilsonal at 6:08 AM on May 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

A wonderful veterinarian I know has a cat who had periodic, unexplainable freak outs, including randomly attacking her leg. She and some specialists determined that the kitty had Feline Hyperesthesia Syndrome.

It is believed to have a neurological component (ie. like a mini-seizure) as well as a behavioral component (obsessiveness).

While I can't speculate as to what is going on with your kitty cats, you may want to put this on your lists of differentials for when you talk to your vet. Consider seeing a behavioral specialist.

I have yet to seen a veterinarian conclude that a cat's strange behavior could be attributed to an impending earthquake or proximity to fault lines.
posted by Seppaku at 6:16 AM on May 8, 2014

nthing My Cat From Hell as a good resource; Jackson Galaxy is often able to pin-point trigger moments that other people can't see. So I would look closer at the patterns of behavior to see the exact sequence of events.

Finally he usually tires them out with a feather on a string and that works wonders for getting that extra energy out of a cat.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:17 AM on May 8, 2014

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