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Why Cats Fight and How to Calm the Aggression

November 6, 2019

cat fights

Does a new kitten incite hissing and swatting from a senior member of your feline family? Or maybe relations soured between two cats that once got along just fine. Either way, when cats start hissing, chasing and getting into full-on fight mode, it's a stressful situation. Noise and ruckus aside, the last thing you want is the cats to hurt one another.

Fighting between cats is not an uncommon problem for pet parents. More than a quarter of cats surrendered to shelters are given up by their owners because of ongoing aggression issues, according to a study cited by the Cornell Feline Health Center.

Both fear and aggression can incite an attack and a fight. This guide will help you understand why cats do battle, and what you can do to help broker a peace agreement.

Why do cats fight?

It can help to understand that feline social structures are complex, and there will be times when it's impossible for humans to fathom what makes some cats "acceptable" housemates and others not.

Feral cats hunt and live independently, but they may assemble into a social colony. These groups are mostly made up of groups of mother cats and their kittens, with the occasional male joining as a "periphery" member. Even though they may socialize in a neutral area, colony cats still stake out individual territories for hunting and sleeping. In a domestic setting, "kitty politics" can be downright baffling to humans. But this guide can help you narrow down just what's fueling the fight.

  • Territory: The most frequent cause behind cat fights is territory, which is why introducing new cats into the home can be fraught with conflict.
  • Inter-cat aggression: Especially common between un-neutered males when they reach social maturity between the ages of 2-4 years. Because hormones play a part, neutering at the right age may solve the problem, or at least lessen it.
  • Maternal: This occurs when a female attacks to protect kittens against a perceived threat.
  • Pain: When sudden aggression flares up, the first thing you'll want to do is rule out injury or infection (such as an abscess). When cats are in pain, they'll lash out to protect that part of their body. In older cats, this could be a sign of the onset of joint inflammation. It may help to know that some cats continue "attacking" when touched in that part of the body long after healing. They may be trying to protect themselves from the return of the pain.
  • Status-induced aggression: Directed toward another cat to assert social dominance. Classic signs of a low-stakes attack from the dominant cat include swatting and blocking access with his body.
  • Petting-induced aggression: Sometimes cats bite, hiss and scratch merely because they're feeling over-stimulated and want to be left alone
  • Bullying: Another source of aggression is a form of bullying that arises when one cat begins guarding resources. Learn more about this form of cat aggression in the Raising Your Paws podcast, episode 49.

Before the attack: Signs of cat anger and fear

Before a fight breaks out, your cats' body language may show signs of aggression. If you can, separate the cats before the combat begins.

These are the warning signs that a cat has entered the aggression mode:

  • Dilated pupils
  • Intent staring
  • Ears flattened against the head
  • Tail erect
  • Arched back
  • Hair standing on end
  • Posturing to look larger

When cats are fearful, on the other hand, the cat takes on a more "contained" and self-protecting posture:

  • Ears are held outward and flattened
  • Whiskers are flattened against the face
  • The tail is wrapped or tucked under the body
  • Cat is lying down

What you can do about cat fights

Now that you know why cats get into their tussles, you can take the right action to put a stop to them. Whatever you do, don't let the cats "fight it out." Aggression can escalate from chasing, yowling and swatting to full-on scratching and biting.

Breaking up the fight: When cats feel aggressive (or fearful), it's natural behavior for them to lash out. The target could be a nearby cat that isn't involved with the situation, or it could be your outstretched hand. This behavior is called redirected aggression. Meaning instead of attacking whatever's causing their amped-up state, the cat attacks whoever's nearest. For you, that could result in bites and scratches. (In episode 50 of the Raising Your Paws podcast, we explore two common, surprising causes of displaced aggression.)

  • Whether you're trying to separate the cats or just want to soothe your growling feline, keep yourself well out of range of swiping and biting distance.
  • Gently wedge a physical object between the fighting cats, such as a large piece of cardboard, or some other light, sturdy barrier made of wood or plastic.
  • If you must pick up an agitated cat to remove him from the room, protect yourself. Put on a thick coat and gloves, or use a thick blanket to pick them up without getting bit or scratched. (If you do get bit, cat bites can lead to serious infection and you might need medical assistance — find out why and how at our Raising Your Paws podcast website.)

Have your cat examined by a vet, especially if the fighting comes on suddenly. As referenced above, cats may be lashing out to protect an inflamed or injured part of their body, and cats excel at concealing injuries from their humans.

How to reintroduce sparring cats

How do you get two fighting cats to live in harmony with each other? It's a slow, gradual process, sometimes taking several weeks before the cats agree to a ceasefire, so be patient.

  • To start with, house the cats separately, closed off from each other, each with their own food, water, bed and litter box. If one cat must live in a smaller, more confined area, be sure and provide plenty of enrichment and playtime.
  • Since cats form positive associations over food, try placing their food dishes on either side of the door that separates the two. Allow cats to sniff each other under the closed door.
  • After a few days in their separate areas, move the cats to each other's space for one minute apiece. Then, swap them back. Make sure they don't physically encounter each other during the swaps. During and after these sessions, they'll likely be focused on the scent left behind by the other cat.
  • Once cats become acclimated to the above, it's time to help them get used to being in the same room with each other.
  • Contain the cats in harnesses and carriers, placing them on opposite sides of the room.
  • Feed them a meal. If they're too agitated or too anxious to eat, try increasing the distance.
  • As they become increasingly calm with the presence of the other cat, place them nearer to each other in the following session.

Once the cats respond calmly to the other's presence (no signs of aggression or fear), release them in the same room, on opposite sides. Again, feed them a meal. Gradually increase the time spent together in the room until you can be sure they can handle each other.

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