FORTY DAYS AND FORTY NIGHTS!
Redirected aggression in cats; what do we know about it?
A few years ago I placed two kittens, a brother and sister pair, with wonderful, loving clients. As usual, I like to stay in touch with kittens I place and their families. Over the years I attempt to be a source of information and support. So, when I was contacted by these clients with a kitty problem, I flew into my usual frenzy of research. I knew immediately what to call it: “redirected aggression.” And, yes, I’ve seen and dealt with aggression in my own cats. What breeder hasn’t? It soon became apparent, however, that I had never dealt with anything of this magnitude. After reading every article and watching every video on the subject that I could find, I felt that the information available fell woefully short of what was required for this situation. Nowhere did I discover a similar situation, or any advice that carried a solution through to a satisfactory conclusion.
The purpose of this article is to simply tell the story. It’s a case history of redirected aggression between these two specific cats. If there are any conclusions to be made from this they are:
1. It takes as long as it takes. If you enter into this with the normal human mind set of a time frame, you are already in trouble.
2. Each case will vary and some cases will tax your patience, love, and commitment to the max.
3. Analyzing the situation as it unfolds and adapting accordingly is essential.
4. Failure is not an option unless you are willing to re-home one of the cats. In this case the cats are an integral part of the family unit. Which one of YOUR children would you send away?
5. Set-backs are to be expected and taken in stride without recrimination if at all possible. No one is going to be able to do this perfectly or smoothly or non-emotionally.
Throughout this article I will use the word “we,” but make no mistake, I was only an observer, and sometimes not as silent as I probably should have been. It was the clients who were in the trenches and who were ultimately seeing this through. They are my new role models. I like to think that I have helped with support and advice, but the truth is they managed in spite of my ‘helpful’ interference. However, I appreciate that they kept me in the loop every step of the way. If nothing else I’m very good at helping other people worry!
Definition: redirected aggression is when something happens to an individual that triggers violence towards a third party. Unfortunately, due to their sensitivity to sounds and odors, this is not uncommon in cats. Illness or a painful injury can also trigger redirected aggression. If the cats were friends before the incident, chances are good that they can recover their friendship, but it often takes weeks or even months.
A short history: the cats are full brother and sister and will be referred to as “the male” and “the female.” They are approximately 3 – 5 years old at the time of this article, and have been raised together. They’ve been best friends–eating together, sleeping together, grooming each other, and playing together. They live in a spacious apartment with two care-givers (aka servants) who have given them excellent care and love from the onset. The apartment is arranged essentially for the kitties’ quality of life with cat trees, toys, and a small balcony turned into a safe catio. Both cats have always been extremely affectionate to each other and to their care-givers. I will refer to the care-givers as “the client” or “the clients.”
When this first began, I think we all believed it was going be a small glitch to fix. I didn’t take notes until about two weeks into the saga, at which time I began to keep detailed notes in the event that the clients might be open to sharing their story. As it turns out, they are and have proofread this article for me, making changes and additions to flesh it out. Here we go….
Begin case history as reported to me by the clients (first 10 days or so recreated from memory):
Day 1 (June 23) – The incident! As seems to be common in many redirected aggression cases, we never really know what started it. It was discovered soon after the incident that the female had torn out a rear claw. How this happened we don’t know, but certainly this would have been something to set off anyone, especially a cat. And throughout the entire ordeal, it has been the female who was the aggressor. In any case, a vicious, bloody cat fight broke out suddenly. This included urine spraying by one or both cats (something neither had ever done before under any circumstance). One of the clients was badly scratched in the process of breaking up the fight. The cats were separated. Naturally it was assumed that all would be well in a few minutes, or a few hours at the most, between two cats who had previously gotten along so well. I’m not sure of the time frame, but the two cats were brought back together which culminated in an equally vicious fight, more spraying, and further injury to the client. This was probably when I was contacted and also when the seriousness of the situation began to sink in.
Research into redirected aggression on the Internet began. Most information on this agreed that a slow reintroduction needed to be done through a closed door, as if we were introducing a new cat into the household. Other suggestions were: using Feliway, applying vanilla extract to both cats as well as various other substances, exchanging scents via towels wiped on both cats, using Cat Calm cd music, switching litter boxes back and forth, and using food/treats as a motivator. ALL of this was implemented.
And THIS, folks, is where all information stopped. We (the clients and I) felt that it would have been very instructive if we’d found a case history or something of that nature that described how very LONG this might take and what to you do once you get the cats eating on either side of a closed door. Further therapy was obviously necessary.
Day 10 (July 2) – It’s taken approximately 10 days. The clients now have the female eating her treats within a few inches of the closed door, but any visual of the male sets her off. Interactive play attempted by the clients (not the cats) under the door is interesting the female, but she doesn’t participate. The male does.
I suggest something transparent between the cats at which time the clients purchase a screen door.
Day 11 (July 3) – The screen door is installed across the two separation rooms (bedroom and living room) with a solid wood slab that can slide in and out to block visual as necessary.
Day 12 (July 4) – I receive a video update from the client: The female has been slowly worked back up to the doorway with a visual of the male through the screen. She is very hungry, I’m told, and so, on day 12, eats her treats within a couple of feet of the door with visual of the male, eating his treats on the other side, and with the client’s constant reassurance.
Day 13 (July 5) — There is a breakthrough! The female shows signs of wanting out of the bedroom, and either manages to escape into the male’s room or is let into the male’s room. They are able to be in the room together within a few feet of one another. She seems relaxed and even shows signs of playfulness. We are very encouraged! Could the worst be over?
Later the same day there is a setback. The male wants to engage in play. The female takes the motions as a sign of aggression and starts hissing and growling. The client scoops up the female and retreats to the bedroom. The male follows after and a huge fight ensues.
Note: although the female may be the main perpetrator, by now the male is equally on edge and can be aggressive in return. In general, he is more fearful, not knowing what to expect from his former best friend.
Day 15 (July 7) – After the setback, the screen door is removed and the solid door is kept closed for a couple of days. Then the screen door is brought back but the solid slab of wood is needed because the cats will attack through the screen and it’s not sturdy enough to hold. During this time one of the clients was out of town for five days so it’s understandable that the remaining client awaited further action.
I think at this point both clients are exhausted and discouraged and just holding this line to take a breather.
Day 22 (July 15) — A Plexi-glass panel is installed to replace the wood panel in the screen door so that the cats can live with a constant visual of each other. The female has backed away from the door, growling. The process of working the female back up to the door for treats begins anew. The male is also upset and not much better than the female. The protective coating is left on the Plexi-glass for now so that their view is blurred. It will be removed later.
My suggestion for the future is to push the limits of the cats as much as possible—to be less sympathetic to the cats while they are separated and make sure that their reward for being in closer proximity is affection and food, with the next step being to get them in the same room on harness and leash. I don’t know yet if this suggestion will take root or even work. This situation is overwhelming and utterly upsetting to the clients, which I understand.
Day 24 (July 17) – Today I received update videos showing that the clients have devised and implemented an interim therapeutic step before going with the harness and leashes.
The two cats are in carriers within a few feet of each other. The cats look miserable and are shaking. The client reports that there was a bit of yowling at first with strong attempts to escape by the female. The client is talking soothingly to them both. There is a blanket underneath the carriers in case of spraying. The male is calming down a bit. The female is growling but will eat her treats in the carrier.
The clients wish to emphasize that at no point did either cat show aggression toward the clients. If anything, the cats showed a desire for comfort from their staff. The only exception occurred when one of the clients had handled a strange cat, whose odor was on clothing and hands, eliciting a hissing fit from the male. In fact, the client had to put a blanket over him as it seemed he might cause serious injury to the client. The client wishes to make the point that cats can be VERY sensitive to strange odors/aromas/scents and one needs to take that into consideration during the whole therapy process.
Later the same day, another update video: we are seeing some progress with the male in a carrier and the female out at large in the room. She’s relaxed (or exhausted) and is stretched out asleep not too far from him. I think this is good progress. But at this point, though encouraged, we are not taking anything for granted.
Day 25 (July 18) – More update videos today.
Morning shows that they have put the male in a carrier in which he seems comfortable (resigned? Sweet boy!) and they have let the female out to roam in the same room with the male in his carrier. The two cats continue to be separated by the screen door at night and when not monitored. The video shows the female walking past the carrier, no hissing or growling. She then stops to sit about ten feet away, watching him. I don’t know the length of time this lasted, but the clients report that the male eventually moved at which time the female went on alert again with hisses/growls and was put back into her room. Still, PROGRESS!!
Mid-morning video shows the male in his carrier and the female looks to be about 7 – 10 feet away. The female is sitting and looks relatively relaxed.
The afternoon’s video shows that the female is now in the carrier. She looks a little worried but is responding well to the client. The male is outside the carrier, free to roam. He chooses to get closer than she did when it was her turn to be out and he is about 4 feet away from the female in her carrier. He’s looking relaxed and responding to the client’s reassurance and caresses.
Day 26 (July 19) – 7:05 pm update video shows the male in his carrier. The female is out, free to roam. She is acting relaxed and has come within a few feet of the male.
8:00 pm update video – THEN the female walks up to the male (in his carrier) and touches her nose to the carrier, and saunters off to use the scratching post. The client sounds in tears, and so am I.
8:30 pm update video – The female is wandering back and forth in front of the male in his carrier and at one point went full body against the carrier. The male sat up, they touched noses, she chirped, then rubbed against the carrier again. The male laid back down.
Note: as wonderful as this sounds and as encouraging as it is, the cats are still on edge. Any little thing sets them off. They continue to be constantly monitored by the clients and are still separated at night.
Day 27 (July 20) – It had been hoped, with yesterday’s promising progress, that they might be able to continue the therapy to the next level with the cats in their harnesses. However, last night once the female was put into the bedroom with visual of the male on the other side of the screen door, the female again became fearful and uncomfortable–hissing, growling, etc. This morning the female was brought out of her room (with the male again in his carrier). She is fine with this—bumping noses, rubbing against the carrier, etc.
Note: at this point, the male is viewing the carrier as a safe place which makes confining him in it a bit easier on the clients. In fact the male will often now retreat to the carrier when fearful.
The carrier door was opened and the two cats were face to face with the male in the carrier, they sniffed noses, the female was fine, went to eat, and cleaned herself. The male was put in his harness on leash and allowed out of the carrier. It was at this point that the female once again became uncomfortable, growling, etc. Putting the male back into the carrier did not calm her down, so she was given a ‘time out’ back into the bedroom. It is noted that the female becomes very uncomfortable when she sees the male walking and moving around. Her anxiety triggers are now thought to be visual and not significantly through odors, hence the vanilla treatments were not improving the situation. Also, the odor of the Feliway seemed to cause more anxiety rather than ease it.
The client now believes, and I concur, that the bedroom is becoming too much of a comfort zone for the female. They are planning on making some changes in the therapy progression, which will possibly be putting the female in the carrier or into the bathroom for her ‘time outs’ instead of the bedroom. In addition, the client thinks that the next step will be to have both cats in harness and on leash at a distance from each other. The client expects there will be discomfort and fussing, especially from the female. This will take time and patience, but the female now needs to see the male out and about being a more or less normal cat, but from the safely of harness and leash. The two cats need to get comfortable seeing each other in various rooms without the comfort of the carriers. The Plan sounds good. The clients are doing great in analyzing the situation as it progresses and adjusting as necessary.
Day 31 (July 24) – The client writes: “They are like quicksilver. One minute fine, the next hissing at each other. It is constant surveillance. We dare not allow them to come close to each other without some sort of barrier or harnesses for a quick grab and run. Outside noises can really set them off. It is really tough when they beg and cry at the door to come out. The male broke through the bottom of the screen so we had to put the plastic back in the door. You should have seen the looks of amazement on our faces when he sauntered into the living room out of the blue. Silly boy.”
Day 32 (July 25) – Update video from the clients shows that the cats are both in the same room about 3 to 4 feet apart. The male is on the cat tree, the female on the back of a chair. Neither looks very happy. The male’s tail is twitching. Both are wearing a harness with leash attached and tethered. No hissing or growling — at least in the video.
Note from client in regards to the above: “Yes, we’re going to be forcing them to be in the same room at almost all times. This is the only way we can think of to get them used to each other. As you could probably see, they each are in their harnesses and leashes. They cannot reach each other. Even in one day, there are some improvements. It’s especially tough for the boy kitty, but if it helps, we’re willing to try it! The only time (at this point) that they won’t be in the same room is when we go out. Litter boxes, food and water are at hand for each of them. Of course, it’s a bit annoying to have a litter box right here by the sofa… oh well!”
Additional note from client on the leash arrangement: “Yes, the leashes are tethered so they can’t get to each other and they each have food, water, litter box. If they wish to get close, they can get within a foot of each other. So far, that’s not happened.”
7:30 pm the client writes: “We are determined to see this through. We’re taking a little break now. She’s in the bedroom for an hour or two, then back out on the leashes. We’ll be sleeping out here, and will see who sleeps where. It’s been over a month, and she needs to face her fears. We are there for her all the way. We’d also like to get our lives back to normal… it’s unbelievable the time this takes up, day and night.”
Day 34 (July 27) – I receive a video update from the client which is a simple narration saying that the depression of the cats in their separation has been heartbreaking. They look and act extremely depressed, and they were never like that before the incident. Yesterday, day 33, the clients were out all day, so the cats were separated by the screen door. When they returned, the screen door was opened and the male entered the female’s room. It was fine for a bit then the female began to hiss and growl, so they were separated for the evening. Today the clients decided to leave the door open and come what may, but separate the cats if it gets too bad. The male entered the female’s room and she was fine … no big deal. The male walked out and began to play and run around like his normal self. No hissing, no fuss, door open, and they ate their treats in near vicinity to each other.
Cats continue to be separated at night.
Day 35 (July 28) – Video update from client shows that things are looking good. Both cats have full access to the apartment and to each other with harnesses on for ease of grabbing in case things get sketchy. It’s not 100% integration yet as far as getting along, some hissing, etc. The clients are letting the cats work it out with an occasional reminder if it seems as if they might be starting to engage. They are playing it by ear from here and hoping for no set-backs.
Another video later in the day shows the female is relaxed and enjoying a good cuddle with the client while the male is across the room … I think the worst is over (?)
Interesting observation from the clients: the cats still need to be separated at night as aggression grows as the sun goes down.
Day 36 (July 29) – Video update from the client shows the two cats are on a small cloth about 24” – 36” square within about a foot of each other, each calmly eating their treats.
Later the same day a short video shows the two cats in close vicinity of each other. One is on client’s lap being combed while the other is sitting next to the client cleaning himself.
Early evening, its treat time again. The two cats eat their treats, heads together. The male finishes first, then goes in to steal what’s left of his sister’s treats and she allows it with what looked like an affectionate lick to his face.
Day 37 (July 30) – The clients report that the cats started back into hissing fit last night—a disappointment given the day’s positive progress. This morning the two cats are keeping their distance from each other after having treats together without any issue and the female went over and sniffed faces with the male. Then late morning, the female had a serious issue with the male when he walked by near her. She was put in the bathroom for a time out. The bathroom has now become the first “time out” zone for the female when necessary. She obviously doesn’t like this. After a brief time she is moved to the bedroom if she is still acting edgy. It’s becoming clear that one of the most powerful motivations for the female kitty is to be near her humans. This is definitely working in favor of resolving this problem between the cats.
Cats continue to be separated at night.
Day 40 (August 2) – Last night was the first night the door was not closed between the two cats! The client reports that “They (the cats) were actually pretty sweet to each other last night. Face licking. Some playing. This morning at about treat time they were very busy face-bathing each other.”
End of case history.
Of course the story doesn’t end here. It will be going into a new chapter, but I’m confident that things will work out well. How can they not with these two people at the helm?
As a breeder, I cannot say it often enough or loud enough that these are the kind of people we seek to place our kittens with. Their commitment was unwavering. A disruption of this nature is beyond upsetting as well as extremely scary and discouraging. The clients feel that though there may be issues that arise in the coming days, weeks, and months they have successfully brought their two beloved cats back together. They understand that “normal” now might be a bit different than “normal” before the incident. I can only imagine the relief they must be feeling at this point. Success may not have come about on our time schedule – as us cat folks know: CATS RULE – but it has come about. I applaud them with all my heart.
A few details the clients wanted to add as part of their story. I’m paraphrasing some of this: Both cats lost weight since their lives were so disrupted and overcome with anxiety. This might be a consideration in that food as a motivator might not be very effective at the height of something like this. Also, the time and disruption in the lives of the clients was major. Quite literally, hours were spent at each phase of therapy. Hours coaxing the cats to the closed door, hours spent coaxing the cats to the screen door, hours spent sitting with the depressed cats tethered in harness and leash, and on and on. In addition, since the cats had never been separated from the care-givers, one client was always with each cat at night which meant that, until day 40, one or the other of the clients slept in the living room.
The client’s latest words were “We are keeping the screen door!” And added “It was SO WONDERFUL to come home and see the boy at the window, waiting for me today. Then he ran to the door to greet me. It was NORMAL!