Cat Fight! Is Détente Possible When the Fur Flies?

Even cats who have been BFF's for years can become enemies

Published: May 02, 2016

In most households with multiple cats, the feline inhabitants work out those things that are most important to them.  For example, who gets the windowsill seat to keep tabs on the squirrels and who gets first dibs on breakfast. There’s an order to that universe, with a “top cat” who is a benign despot of sorts, and subordinate cats who are happy to acquiesce to his demands.

However, in homes where the cats haven’t been able to agree on those and other matters, piercing shrieks, tussles that often end in bloody tufts of fur flying, and even cat bite abscesses appearing on the wounded a few days later are the norm. Most of us ailurophiles can tolerate the occasional feline altercation, but our anxiety and general unhappiness are often considerably ramped up when two or more cats in the household don’t see eye to eye in a very big and consistent way.

Even when there’s not a problem, social play between cat “besties” can often be fairly rough and tumble. As long as the participants aren’t hurt in the process, there’s no harm in letting them have a go at wrestling and chasing.

Intercat aggression is the term veterinarians give to situations in which conflict arises between two or more cats. At the first signs of trouble, the best plan is to seek the advice of your cats’ veterinarian. Like most behavioral and medical issues in veterinary medicine, prompt attention to a problem usually carries a better outcome and prognosis.

Even cats who have been BFF’s for years can become enemies seemingly overnight. This might be due to redirected aggression. A common scenario for this is when two BFF cats are sitting together and one is frightened by something, such as a sound or noise. The frightened cat reacts, often slapping the other kitty, who reacts by doing the same. Redirected aggression isn’t uncommon in cats and while some cats can revert to their normal social interactions, others can’t seem to rise to the point where they forgive and forget.

A feline bully can wreak havoc in any cat family. This can be a male or female who repeatedly makes life miserable for the other cats in the home, even when the victims do all those things that a good, subordinate cat is supposed do, like divert the eyes or move from that preferred windowsill or seat when “asked” to do so. Bully cats act out even when they don’t necessarily want that preferred seat or a spot at the food bowl. They do it because... well, they’re bullies and, in cat lingo, jerks.

Preventing bullies is easier than rectifying the situation and making sure that the introduction of a new cat into the household is done carefully and slowly often prevents bullying behavior in cats. Dropping a new cat into the midst of your clowder isn’t usually appreciated by the new or resident cats. Instead, allowing the newcomer to have a room of her own for a week or so and slowly giving the other cats in the home time to get used to the fact that there’s a new member is a much better and safer protocol.

However, if you’ve done your due diligence and are still working with a bully in your midst, behavior modification and medication can be helpful. Make sure there are adequate numbers of cat boxes (one plus the number of cats in the home) and sufficient water and food bowls, so that the bully doesn’t torment the other cats when they are trying to go about their cat box business or attempting to eat. Make sure there are adequate shelves and other places for the cats to rest and escape from the bully. Medications, including Prozac and Paxil, can be used as additional treatments, but only should be given under the direction of a veterinarian. Punishment that is consistent can be used, but is best done under the supervision of the board certified veterinary behaviorist or a veterinarian who has had extensive education in behavior, as the wrong kind of punishment can make a bad situation worse. Before you pick up that water spray bottle, think again.

It is possible for cats who have not seen eye-to-eye to be reintroduced, although (again), this needs to be done carefully. Generally, this is accomplished by placing the cats near each other (but not too close; farther is better here) and offering them a favorite food. Each cat is kept on a harness and leash so that a safe intervention can be made if things get out of hand. If the cats are willing to eat, then over time, the cats can be moved closer together (six inches each meeting), until they can learn to tolerate each other. It needs to be pointed out that the harness and leash are critical here. No one should place their hands, arms or face near cats who are riled up and ready to rumble.


Deborah J Patrick
June 29, 2016

I just added a 3rd cat; I now have 1 male & 2 females. My male cat got used to the first female easily & they play together. My 3rd (tiny) cat is a bully. I have put soft claws on her & the other 2 are declawed in front, so no one get scratched. I use a diffuser with calming essential oils, catnip, have playtime, 3 large clean kitty litter boxes, plenty of places to hide & sleep. I think she needs a new home where she's the only cat.

Deanna Sava
June 28, 2016

Great article.  One of my youngest cats misdirects her aggression on another younger cat when neighborhood cats come onto our deck (our cats are in the house).  Our cat makes a whoo whoo sound when she sees a cat outside (it's the only time she makes that noise) and we immediately put her in the basement as a cool out time and to break them cycle of stress that she'should in.  After a short while when she's calm, we bring her back up and she's forgotten about the incident and doesn't take anything take out on the other cat.

Rescue-cat owner
June 27, 2016

Owner of [now] six indoor rescues!  These methods DO work - we have successfully integrated ours as adults & while we get the regular play-time wrestling, we've had no open wounds in 10+ years.  The biggest helpers - make sure each cat has his OWN space (bed, basket, blanket, etc) and set up many litter boxes that are cleaned daily.  Thanks for the article, it was thoughtful, insightful, and amusing.  :)

June 27, 2016

Wow!  Just read the article & realized our *bully* cat isn't so bad, after all! What has worked for us (when things get too agitated) is to put our bully in *time out*!  I close him in a room for about 10 minutes which seems to calm him down.  When I open the door, he's thrilled to see me!!!! (& forgets to mess with our other cat! :-)

Marlene Crumley
June 24, 2016

Every time I try to put a harness and leash on either of my two cats they go into "dead cat mode", rolling over onto their sides and not moving.  I've given up on getting them to like each other.  Luckily, my submissive 14-year old just makes sure to stay away from the younger, dominant one and vice-versa.  I guess they're both anti-social.

Dan Street
June 18, 2016

Really enjoyed this Newsletter!

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