When Redirected Aggression Takes Over Your Multi-Cat Household

If your inside cat displays aggressive behavior out of the blue, they may have felt threatened by an animal they saw outside.

An unfamiliar animal lurking outside could set your cat off. By: Tomi Tapio K

Kristen’s cats don’t go outdoors. For them, the outdoor world is a kind of Shangri-La: a chipmunk- and bird-filled place they can only dream about.

Her neighbor’s cat has outside privileges, however, and he takes full advantage of them. He “lurks by my house every day,” Kristen says. “He comes up to my window, looks in, backs up and sprays my sliding glass door.” Her cat, Blaze, “literally screams and throws himself against the door” whenever Gunslinger Cat shows up. Or he starts a fight with his housemate, Claudia, as he did this morning: “Now they are yelling at each other.”

Blaze may not go outside, but he still views it as his yard. And he gets angry when he sees intruders. “Indoor cats get upset about another cat entering what they perceive as their territory,” says Kristen. “They will then turn and attack someone they normally regard as a friend.”

Redirected Aggression

Redirected aggression is, as cat behaviorist Pam Johnson-Bennett explains, “often misdiagnosed as unprovoked aggression because it appears as if the cat is lashing out for no reason whatsoever.” You, the (normally) beloved human and dispenser of good things, just happen to wander by, “not even looking at your cat, when suddenly you’re the target of her aggression. Redirected aggression can also be directed at other companion cats or dogs in the home.”

Basically, your outraged cat isn’t seeing you, the other cat or the dog. They are seeing the strange cat/dog/raccoon/fox — a potential rival or threat — who pushed their way into their yard, and whoever’s in the room with them has become a substitute for all that pent-up aggression.

Dr. Nicholas Dodman tells the story of 2 of his cats — mother and daughter and “the best of friends” — who suddenly found themselves “almost face-to-face” with a visiting tomcat on the other side of the screen door. Dodman reacted quickly: Just as the mother-and-daughter team were getting ready for a fight, he managed to separate them, using a chair “like a lion tamer.” He herded them into different rooms and keep them separated overnight.

In the morning, he “put his trust in what I knew, reintroducing them once they were acting calmly…. The storm was over and they never ever exhibited hostility to each other again to each other again for as long as they lived.”

Consider using opaque window films if outdoor animals freak your indoor cat out. By: JeHu68

Not-So-Friendly Feline Fire

When it comes to redirected aggression, our instinct is to rush in, grab the cat and soothe them.

Don’t. In one case that Animal Friends of Connecticut dealt with, Sabrina, a young Abyssinian mother, went ballistic when she saw a tomcat lurking around outside and lunged at the screen door. Her human’s girlfriend tried to run interference and got badly clawed and bitten. The boyfriend pitched the cat outside, saying that she was “mean.”

Sabrina was, of course, nothing of the sort. She was simply protecting her kittens from a perceived threat. By stepping in between her and the screen door, the girlfriend had unwittingly redirected the cat’s maternal fury to herself. The organization in turn stepped in and placed Sabrina in a far better home.

Helping Out Spooked Cats

According to Ingrid Johnson, redirected aggression is “one of the most common forms of aggression among cats living in the same household.” She believes that it shows up most frequently “in households with 5 or fewer cats. It rarely occurs in homes that are very saturated in cats.”

Oh boy — this cat apparently saw a fox outside the house and lashed out at his housemate:

Personally, I don’t think that it matters how many — or how few — felines you have. Cats are highly sensitive animals and react strongly to all kinds of outside stimuli. They’re contradictions in fur suits. They’re predators, so they tend to be territorial; on the other hand, like horses, they can be easily spooked.

Cats and other animals wandering through the yard aren’t the only cause of redirected aggression, but they’re a major one. So do what Johnson-Bennett calls “environmental modifications to reduce your cat’s chances of exposure to the triggers”:

  • Cover the lower half of key windows with an opaque material or decorative window films. Kathie Cote uses the latter in her house: Her Titan gets agitated when he sees an outdoor cat and “goes from window to window with this horrible miaow.” Once he gets to the treated windows, he’s fine.
  • Have a squirt gun on hand for your backyard visitors.
  • Medication is always an option, but please consult your vet first.

These are only a few ways of dealing with the problem. But the point is, there are ways, and they’re worth trying.

T.J. Banks

View posts by T.J. Banks
T.J. Banks is the author of several books, including Catsong, a collection of her best cat stories, which was the winner of a Merial Human–Animal Bond Award. A contributing editor to laJoie, T.J. has received writing awards from the Cat Writers’ Association (CWA), ByLine and The Writing Self. Her writing has been widely anthologized.

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