Cats are weird.
November 22, 2020 8:10 AM   Subscribe

We have a 5 y/o and 3 y/o cat. The 3 y/o (male, altered) came to us at 9 weeks old and grew up with the 5 y/o (female, altered) cat. Indoors only. Don’t love each other, but live together amiably and snuggle most days. Three nights ago the female saw another cat outside and warned him off with a moaning yowl. It seemed to trigger something in the male, who started shrieking (we thought that there was a raccoon in the house, he was flipping around and biting at the air). Turned on the lights, and he was chasing the female around the house. He retreated behind the couch, where he intermittently growled at all of us (2 humans, 1 cat) for the rest of the night. Next night - same thing triggered him. Third night, we put her in a room with no windows and we had a peaceful night, but on day 4, he just randomly flipped out at her, and once he started freaking out he couldn’t stop (so even after she was out of his sight he was hissing and growling at us). This morning - day 5 - same deal. What the heck happened to our peaceful household? Advice (other than cats are weird, which they definitely are)?
posted by arnicae to Pets & Animals (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Also I should mention - she is completely unmoved by this. Just kind of watches him doing his thing as if she is riding the subway and some random person decided to start licking the walls. A bit curious, a bit put off, but not at all alarmed or engaged. She doesn’t join in the fight other than to just get him to leave her alone.
posted by arnicae at 8:12 AM on November 22, 2020 [1 favorite]

Cats are weird. :( I currently have two cats, and one of them seems to have seasonal mood swings during which she can't stand the other cat. Over a period of weeks she becomes more and more aggressive and unfriendly towards both her and me, until at her lowest point she's behaving like a feral cat -- runs away, hisses, doesn't like to be handled, etc.. Then after some months matters start improving gradually until she can tolerate the other cat's presence, until one day it's as if a switch flips in her tiny cat brain and they are suddenly BFFs again. At least that's how it's happened before; it's about time for the magic brain realignment again and I'm holding thumbs.

This seems to be correlated somehow with shedding and overgrooming, but I haven't been able to nail down the precise relationship. And of course correlation is not causation. Various medications have been tried; after almost a year of plague-induced isolation I'm not convinced that any of the medical treatments were significantly better than doing absolutely nothing.

In conclusion, cats are weird.
posted by confluency at 8:21 AM on November 22, 2020

Have you considered a hormonal scent like feliway to calm the waters?

We have two cats (siblings), and they like to race each other around and play fight with tails floofed out, not understanding it's survival mechanism reason. My old barn cat never did this.
posted by nickggully at 8:25 AM on November 22, 2020 [4 favorites]

Maybe the incident with the strange cat has associated the female cat (and you, to an extent) with the stress/fear involved in the incident? It's not always in the front of his mind but it comes to the fore when in a similar situation? Not unlike someone having anxious thoughts in bed trying to fall asleep, it becomes habit, pretty soon in your mind going to bed means anxiety.

I definitely recommend the Feliway mentioned above and maybe try sequestering the male cat for a few days if possible somewhere peaceful and re-introducing him over the same amount of time while making the experience as positive as possible. Sit next to your sister peacefully? Treats! Be quiet next to the scary dark window strange cats appear in at night? Catnip and feather toy! And so on.
posted by mochi_cat at 8:55 AM on November 22, 2020

Same thing happened with our two (now long passed) boys. They were litter mates, the best of buddies and our mid-20s surrogate children. So it was really disturbing when after seeing an outdoor cat Charlie flipped out and decided to murder James. They were drawing blood, it was awful. We kept them isolated from each other because anything less and one of them probably would have been maimed or worse. I worked 5 minutes away from home at the time and would come back over lunch to switch out which one was locked in a bedroom and conduct kitty therapy sessions. These consisted of putting them both in their carriers, door to door and inching them closer and closer over time. We'd pet one with a towel and then rub the same towel on the other one.

I did this for a couple weeks. Then one lunch break I was able to let them out and it was like they were best buddies again. I sent a picture to my spouse and she cried. It had been so stressful.

Anyway, neighborhood cat wandered by again eventually and we had to do it all over, but this time we put up plastic "privacy wrap" on the window so Charlie couldn't see out anymore and that sorted it out.
posted by roue at 10:45 AM on November 22, 2020 [5 favorites]

Something very much like this happened to me and my then-partner some years ago with a previous cat. She was in her upper single digits in age and an only cat, and something outside freaked her out and she turned on him, growling, yowling, etc. It went on for quite a while, by which I mean weeks or months, not hours. We started sleeping with the bedroom door closed, out of fear, and were quite anxious and sad for quite a while about it. She was scary!

We enlisted our vet, who was only somewhat helpful in that a lot of her techniques really seemed to escalate the situation. She had us attempting to show dominance and stop the behavior and suggested things like blowing a whistle when kitty was really acting out, or guiding her into a closet for timeout using a broom. I don't know if you've ever tried to guide a furious cat into a closet using a broom, but, um, honestly a lot of these techniques just increased the stress level.

We ended up starting her on Prozac, and while it didn't immediately reverse the situation entirely, it did knock the aggression back to a level we could live with without fearing for our lives. She was on Prozac the rest of her life; we covered over one window in particular where a stray cat would come and look in sometimes; and generally though she was always extremely aggressive at the vet and never really tolerated anyone but us, we pretty much got her back.

It was really terrifying to us, she was our first cat and we just wanted love dammit. <3
posted by Occula at 1:19 PM on November 22, 2020

If Boycat didn't see Aliencat, then all he knows is that Girlcat suddenly got aggressive for no discernible reason. Not speaking English, he is unmoved by any English explanations. Now, all he knows is that he lives with an insane scary Girlcat.

Maybe try:

- Make sure that outside cats aren't going to be visible at a near enough range to upset Girlcat;

- If Aliencat shows up again before the view is blocked, maybe try to make sure Boycat gets a look at him -- it's possible (perhaps not probable, but worth a try) that he will put two and two together.

- Definitely deploy all the anti stress pheromones, lots of play, anything to make everyone feel better.

- Keep anti-anxiety vet medication as an option

- Play with the two of them together, gently (not savage-catch-bird-toy play) once things calm down enough. Let him see her behaving normally, and let her get used to him being not aggressive too.

- I know I always recommend clicker training, but I think it really helps cats be less stressed in general.

- Do keep them apart for a while when you can't supervise them or distract them.
posted by amtho at 6:39 PM on November 22, 2020

The same thing happened to our two cats and we found out it's called redirected aggression. Here is a brief description. We had to keep them separated for a long time and gradually worked with them, getting them to play near each other and eventually together through a gate, gradually re-introducing them to each other. I have also heard of putting motion-activated sprinklers outside the ground floor windows to keep the neighbor cats from getting too close.
posted by one at 9:20 PM on November 22, 2020 [1 favorite]

Sadly, this happened with our boys about a year and a half ago. It involved a cat outside upsetting the anxious territorial one and ended up with me at the emergency room for bandaging and a course of antibiotics. We had thought it was a one-off thing until it happened again a month later (minus the need for antibiotics).

As far as we and the behavioral vet can tell, it's the result of a very high level of anxiety as evidenced by overgrooming and other anxiety actions. We were able to catch the outdoor cat that was spending time in our backyard, so we helped with removing the trigger. We haven't found feliway particularly helpful in either dispenser or collar form, though it sounds like it's very useful for others. We've also had the cat on prozac, but intermittently as he has become the most picky eater on top of everything else. I think that the medication helps the most when we can get him to take a pill or let us put the cream on his ear. We also cat-proofed a safe room in our basement bathroom with a heated bed and all the necessities of cat happiness where we can put the anxious boy when he needs space or the one day a week that our other cat comes downstairs.

Mostly, we've been keeping the cats separate, since one of them is 18 years old and not able to escape or protect himself well and in this era of maxed out emergency rooms we aren't willing to experiment with reintroductions. Luckily, we can WFH, so the cats can live on separate floors and we spend time with them. Roue's use of two cat carriers sounds brilliant for when we psych ourselves up to try reintroducing again.

In short, my understanding of how to "press button to reset cats" is:
-Separate them for a bit (hopefully much shorter than what's up with ours)
-Feliway might help with feelings of anxiety
-Prozac may be warranted if there is long-term anxiety underlying this (check with a vet)
-Help them smell each other through swapping things
-You can feed them on opposite sides of doors to get them used to the other as not a threat
-Then follow standard processes for reintroducting them
posted by past unusual at 11:01 AM on November 23, 2020

Circling back to say that if you go that route, Prozac is really inexpensive, or it was for cats eight years ago, at least. As past unusual said, I understand there's an ear cream, but our vet gave us tablets that we could crush into her food - she was picky, so we used a spoonful of wet food for it when she usually just ate dry. No way we were giving that cat a pill.
posted by Occula at 12:47 PM on November 23, 2020

is he by chance getting his nails stuck in something and they are tearing in a painful way when he is startled?

I'd check his feet and if any of the nails look torn then trim the tips of the rest down

when out cats freak out as you described, it's almost always because they got a nail stuck when they were trying to zoom
posted by Jacqueline at 1:41 AM on November 24, 2020

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