An opinionated feline in Edmonton, Canada who lived with a retired cat behaviourist, Greyce provided behavioral advice to cats in need until her death in July 2014. Because her entries are useful even today, the blog remains posted.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Pungent Scents of Comfort. Urine Marking #4: When Your Feline Relationship Goes Down the Tubes

Continuing with the Urine Marking series, this blog entry is about Territorial Threat #4: Changes in the Relationship with Others in the Household. Since this usually refers to changes in your relationship(s) with another cat IN your home, I'm going to focus exclusively on that.

I'm going to introduce two cats, Mick and Moby (pictured here), who have given me purrmission to reveal the details of their situation so I can illustrate my points. And I will continue to talk about them and their case in further blog entries. But let me begin with an overview of today's topic: How your relationship with your feline companion goes astray.

Your relationship with your fellow cat companion can get on the wrong paw for one of three reasons.

The First Reason for a Change in Relationship: Improper Introduction.

You were not properly introduced in the first place (when either you or s/he - whoever was the newcomer - arrived on the scene). Even though you may have seemed to get along for the first several weeks, signs of strain would be noted by the discerning (human) eye. Alas many humans are not discerning enough and next thing they know, there are out-and-out cat fights, pee fests and the like. The only solution is a proper introduction (see the blog entry May I Present? A Cat!) even if that means backing the whole thing up and staring over and month or two AFTER the newcomer has arrived.

The Second Reason for a Change in Relationship: 
Re-directed Aggression Followed by Lack of Appropriate Intervention.

You and your feline companion get along splendidly until something upsets the mouse cache. For example, say you are both looking out the screen door and an INVADER cat comes into view. The invader refuses to back down and your companion gets very agitated. He'd like to whump the tail off that upstart but can't - the door is in the way. All nerved up, he takes it out on the first thing that moves - and that just happens to be you, conveniently located next to him. You get socked in the chops, swatted, chased (or all three). If there is no appropriate intervention (and this does require proper human intervention), then the relationship between the two of you will be on edge. Suddenly you are not friends anymore and it doesn't seem that anything will bring that friendship back. And even if you first played the victim you may, in time, start to retaliate until your home is a war zone.

Why? Well I already stated that your companion (and likely yourself) became unnerved (in my example, by the presence of a stranger). And that was made worse because neither of you could direct your agitation at the source - you couldn't open the door and get to the invader cat. So you (or your companion) took that frustration out on the first moving target (and that could have been your purrson's leg, the family dog, or your feline companion). A similar thing happens with humans who have had the proverbial 'bad day at the office'. They come home and take their frustration out on the very family members that they are said to love dearly (usually in the form of flying off the handle at some relatively insignificant matter on the home front); for humans it is seen as safer to be mean to the spouse, children or pets than to the boss - though Herself assures me that this is no longer seen as an appropriate stress management technique in the human world, even though it continues to be a popular one.

With humans, the so-called magic solution is a phrase "I'm sorry" usually followed by "I had a hard day at work" (or whatever). If this caper isn't pulled too many times and if the angered reaction wasn't too stinging, this form of placating will work. That is because the members of a human family, like their canine counterparts, see themselves as a unit and work to function in this way.

And so when cats get into this sort of difficulty, their purrsons expect them to behave in the same way - the so-called 'kiss and make up' scenario. BUT we cats are different. We are NOT dogs. We are NOT purrsons. We have no pack mentality or sense of the needs of the whole unit (unless we are a mom with young kittens). We get along together in households largely because our territory is abundant enough to enable us to share. But once the relationship is broken (and unless appropriate human intervention is taken as soon as possible) it is very difficult to repair. Frankly, we just don't have it in us!

Solution: Should you or your feline companion find yourself in such a situation - where one or both of you becomes agitated though no fault of your own, then you must take the following action: Swat your purrson on the pantleg and get him to follow you to the source or the problem. The wise human will remove the agitated cat (aka Mr Huffy) from the situation.

Physically separating two cats can be difficult and hazardous. Which cat to grab becomes a matter of which is easiest (to grab) and which way is safest. The most agitated cat is likely to bite and scratch anyone who comes near. If possible, said cat needs to be ushered to a safe room with the aid of a broom (literally to herd the cat) or piece of cardboard. Herself has sometimes resorted to wearing a thick jacket and oven mitts and wrapping the offender in a towel to be carried away. (This method, of course, has never had to be used with me because I am purrfect.) Whatever. The key is separation. Mr. Huffy needs to cool down; and a cool-down after agitation can take over an hour and sometimes even longer. So Mr. Huffy needs to stay in a separate room (with litterbox and water, perhaps even food) with the door shut, until he is back to normal. Be prepared for it to take up to a day. And if you are agitated as well, then you, too, need recovery time.

If you live in a household with many cats, then it is definitely Mr. Huffy who needs to be separated from all of you until he can become calm enough to behave in a civil manner.

If this has only been one incident and the intervention is timely, chances are that all will be well once the cool- down has taken effect. If there have been several incidents or there has been no provision for sequestration and cool down, then you can expect relationships to be ruptured and very difficult to heal. A specially-prepared action plan will be needed; yep, you'll need a cat behaviourist for this one. If not, you will need to be kept permanently separated (e.g., on two separate floors of the house with a door in-between) or one of you will need to be re-homed.

The Third Reason for A Change in Relationship:

The two of you are getting along quite well and then 'something' happens as one or both of you go through adolescence. In cat society this would be a time when the kittens separate from their mother. Even in cat colonies it is not unusual for male cats around 18 months of age to be banished and have to search for their own territories. They go from being friendly littermates, to becoming competitors. In other words, from age 18 months or around 4 years, we are more like teenage humans (in terms of finding ourselves, strutting our stuff, and testing boundaries) and thus even those with whom we may have had a wonderful relationship may end up in the doghouse so to speak.

This change in relationship may be pushed to a head by a change (like a move to a new home or the introduction of a dog) that changes territorial dynamics and gives you both purrmission to re-negotiate your relationship (through aggression and counter-aggression). In other words, the stage is set for cat fights.

These fights may be out in the open or they may be covert. The overt fight is easy to identify: There is growling, hissing and possibly yowling. The fur flies. Claws are out. Biting and scratching are not unusual. Infections or stitches are not unusual. The covert fight is less easily identified by humans (though we cats know it very well). As you know, most attempts at assertion of power and control in the feline world are done through body posturing, especially via the mechanism of the direct stare.

The direct stare is a challenge thrown out by a confident cat. Humans may notice two cats sitting some distance apart and engaged in a staring contest: one gives the direct stare to the other, the other looks away (or purrhaps licks a paw) and then stares back, at which point the initiator turns his head away, and so on. At some point, one of the two cats will slowly back away, turn and leave. Most cats do not choose to fight and indeed will do what they can to assert (or deal with power and control) by other means, using a fight only as method of last resort.

Just as in the human world, most power and control techniques involve social signals - status markers and body postures. We may not wear Armani suits and Rolex watches to flaunt our social position; but we do very well with a smooth coat, knowing that one which is ruffled or rippled signals agitation. We'd never use a booming voice or a firm handshake to establish our presence, but a slightly raised rump or a head set well into the neck, narrowed eyes, clamped mouth and ears that look like steer horns let everyone know we mean business. In some households, one cat just sprawling a few feet in front of the litterbox can force all the other cats in the household to pee elsewhere. Innocent? I think not!

Many humans don't know the signs of aggression (until it results in an out-and-out fight) so I asked Herself to provide some body and face sketches based on work cited in John Bradshaw's book, The Behaviour of the Domestic Cat (C.A.B. International, 1992). While she is no artist (and that's saying it mildly) I hope these sketches will help your purrsons understand the subtle nature of some aspects of feline communication. Of course I don't want to tell them everything (and spoil it for us), but they need to know a few things if we are to rely on them for help. So here goes.

Common Body and Facial Postures in Cats
When you look at these sketches (other than not being impressed by their rendering), note that there are many other postures cats use; these are just examples. And the faces may change more quickly than the body (because it is easier for us to do so). That means that when humans use these sketches as a guide, they may find that the body sketches and facial postures don't always match, in real life.

The Relaxed Cat
Here is you average relaxed cat in transit. Her tail is half-lowered and her back is flat.

Ears are up and may be forward if she is interested in something. Pupils of the eyes are of a size suitable for the lighting conditions.

On the Offense - But Subtly (just to show who is in control)
The cat pictured at the right is showing subtle aggression with the slightly-raised rump and a lowered, straight tail.

Ears look like steers' horns - rotated backward and pointed up.
Eyes are focused on the object of interest.

Don't Pick On Me, Please!
The cat on the left is fearful and in the defensive or submissive position, trying to make himself appear smaller and non-threatening by crouching low to the ground. Head is drawn into the shoulders and body is at right angles to the threat (rather than directly facing it, which is a more aggressive posture).  Coat is flat. Feet are pulled next to body and tail is wrapped closely.

Ears are flat, folded sideways and down against the head to protect them. Pupils are dilated (large and round) indicating anxiety or fear.

I'll Take You On!
The cat on the right may be fearful but is on the offensive as well. Fur is piloerect to make her look larger than she is. Tail is raised and shaped like an inverted U.  

No, this isn't Gollum from Lord of the Rings. It's the face of someone getting ready for a big fight. Mouth is open (and probably yowling). Ears are so flat against the head (for protection) that you cannot see them. Pupils may be dilated.

Common Human Reactions to Feline Aggression
As I've already said, many humans miss the boat when it comes to covert aggression. They don't know what to look for so they don't see it. And by the time it has turned into out-and-out fights or pee fests, it's a bit late in the game.
The wise human would be on the lookout for subtle signs of aggression or defensiveness so that problems could be nipped in the bud, rather than when they are in full flower. But before I discuss how to solve the problem, let me talk about common human reactions because you won't believe the level(s) of denial of which the human is capable. Just look at the first four reactions on the list below:

(a) "This is entertaining." This remark is usually made in households in which gladiatorial fights are seen as sport. It's considered a diversion to witness a cat standoff and do nothing about it because it is seen as fun. Some teenagers and young adults seem to find this the most fun of all. However if you suggest to them that the next time they hang out at the mall and someone pulls a knife on them, that everyone around should just watch because it is entertaining, they might think differently.

(b) "They are only playing. It's just a bit rough because they are bigger now." Many humans cannot tell the difference between cats who are engaging in rough and tumble play and those who are fighting. So let me provide a guide:

It's play if:
- there is no vocalization; cats don't 'talk' while playing and in fact, seldom 'talk' to other cats at all (unless they are mothering them or are fighting).
- the cats take turns pouncing and being pounced on.
- claws are kept in.

It's fighting if:
- there is hissing, growling or yowling.
- the same cat is always the victim.
- claws are out.
- fur flies (yes, literally, there will be bits of fur on the floor).
- after the fight, one cat hides (or stays under the furniture).
- either cat is scratched or bitten.
- veterinary treatment is required for an abcess or a wound.

(c) "He should fight back." Obviously the victim is trying his best to protect himself. If he is not able to rise to the challenge, that is just the way it is. Besides does your human really want you to rise to the challenge? Does your human want a cat fight where you cats fight until one or both of you is so badly injured that you require emergency treatment? That if s/he attempts to intervene s/he, too, has to stop at the hospital? For such humans I say: "What ARE you thinking?"

(d) "Let them fight it out." See (c). Humans with this opinion should NOT have cats.

(e) Concern (with or without an attempt to do anything about it; 'without', because the purrson doesn't know what to do).

If you live in a household where anything other than (e)  is the likely response, then I suggest you start looking for a new home immediately. With (e) there is hope. Okay, maybe with (b) there is hope because ignorance can be corrected with information. It's much harder to 'correct' attitudes. But the fact is, you need your purrson to understand the serious nature of the situation, and be concerned enough to take action, and to know enough to take the right action. Such is the case with the purrsons who live with Mick and Moby, two very handsome cats.

A Real-Life Case: Mick & Moby

 Mick is a two-year-old tabby who has lived with his purrsons since he was a kitten. He is dynamic, energetic, intelligent and outgoing. He has excellent predatory skills and is a wonderful, interactive play partner. In fact he is so energetic that the veterinarian advised his purrsons to provide him with a feline companion with whom he could vent his energy.

Enter Moby: a seven-year-old, ginger cat who has been in and out of animal shelters all of his life. (This is his fifth home.) He likes people and is a cuddler. He is rather anxious and lacks confidence.

The boys were introduced immediately and got along like a house on fire, with Moby taking the lead. But over time, things began to change. They started to go outdoors (with supervision). They moved to another apartment in the same building. Mick became quite the predator and loved to spend hours outdoors. If he was made to come in before he felt ready, he made sure everyone knew it - and took it out on Moby. Indeed, Mick started to play really rough. Moby started to spray and when he first wrote me, he had covered 12 locations in a two-bedroom apartment. In addition, he was saving his urine for his favourite bush (about 30 feet from the patio door) and so didn't bother using the litterbox.

So what have we here? Well their first introduction was very short before they were out and about with each other. I wonder if it may have been too short and thus set the stage for some of the unfolding tension. And there is an element of redirected aggression, when Mick takes out his frustration at being put back indoors, on Moby. And there is definitely renegotiation going on - with the new apartment and the fact that Mick has become an teenager. There are many aspects with which to deal in a case like this. And for today, I want to focus on solutions for such situations (making reference to what is working for Moby and Mick).

Solving This Case - And Others Like It
When there is a bully and a victim (no matter what the cause), it is a situation in which you need human help, IF you wish to continue to occupy existing territory and are required to share it with that other feline. Basically someone like Moby needs to be given confidence to deal with the situation and Mick's energy and focus needs to be taken off the Moby and put to more appropriate use.
Here are some things to consider:

Interactive play: Aggression results in raised anxiety levels for both parties. And raised anxiety (once it passes a certain point) is difficult for any of us to lower. The solution is interactive play, that is, sessions in which the human dangles a fishing pole type toy, uses a laser pointer, or some such -- NOT sessions where you are given toys and told to play with them by yourself (see the entry, Only on My Terms). The wise human will provide one (or preferably two) such sessions for each cat, every day. Separate sessions are ideal, otherwise the victim cat is likely to sit back and just watch the bully play with the human (and thus not get the workout that will lower his anxiety - and help increase his confidence). Moby's and Mick's purrsons took my advice and developed their own solution: one 30-minute play session every day. And since there are two humans in that household, each one focuses on one cat at the same time, even in the same room.

Distraction: For this to be most effective, your human must know something about cat signalling systems so I provided some diagrams to show when a cat is up to no good (in a section up above). A purrson sensitive to cat dynamics can then know when trouble is beginning to brew. Ideally, dangling a fishing pole toy in front of the offender to get his mind off his victim - or throwing a ball or felt mouse for the bully to chase in the opposite direction of the victim can work, as well. The main point is to refocus the bully's attention on something of interest - away from the victim. This is a technique I recommended for dealing with Mick should he get up to no good.

More Resources: Some of the tension between cats can be eliminated by the provision of more resources. Here are some examples: the cat who guards the litterbox can be foiled if another such box is placed in another location in the house, since it will be impossible to stand guard in front of both at the same time. The same principle holds for food dishes and water sources. Of course, I assume there are plenty of toys and that your purrson doesn't expect you both to share one measly felt mouse! Now on to the more important stuff. Allowing you to increase your VERTICAL space through provision of shelves on which to sit or cat trees can go a long way to easing tension. Bart, Nicky and Bud demonstrate the appropriate use of a cat tree in the multi-cat household (see photo). Anxiety levels lower when cats in a household have the option of placing themselves at different levels in the room. And providing hiding boxes (or small corridors that hug the walls behind furniture, can help the less confident cat navigate the room.

Mick and Moby are fortunate cats, for they have large cat trees: one in front of the patio door and another in front of the dining room window - prime viewing areas. In addition they've worked out a reasonable sleeping arrangement: Moby takes the bed (with their purrsons) and Mick takes the higher level, on top of the dresser.

Time-Out: Okay, so your purrson tried distraction and that bully still persists. It's time for a time-out. A time-out is simply what it says: the bully is picked up unceremoniously and carried to another room and the door is closed. There is no eye contact; the purrson resists the temptation to either scold the bully or say something to the effect "this hurts me more than it hurts you" and just gets on with it. Five minutes later, the door is opened (again NO visual or verbal interaction with the offender) to allow the bully to leave the room. If the bully is back to his old tricks in short order, another, longer time-out is provided.

The point of the time-out is to help the bully learn that as soon as he has trouble on his mind, he will be put out of commission and thus not be able to get his way. The sooner in the aggresssion cycle that the purrson can intervene (for example, when she notices the bully beginning to stalk the victim, or sees the bully lying in wait for the victim), the better. It makes it much easier for the bully to learn. You see, we cats learn best when interrupted from undesirable behaviour within 30 seconds (YES seconds) of that undesirable behaviour.

Sorry, but I have no information to share with you on how this applies to Moby and Mick. But it IS an option.

Temporary Separation: If the bully is just having a bad day and cannot resist attempting to torment the victim, then a day spent in sanctuary is usually advised. Ditto, if relationships between two cats are uneasy, it is best if they are both kept physically apart when there is no responsible purrson available to supervise their interactions. Yes, this means when your purrsons go to work for the day, each of you may be spending your time in separate parts of the house. Exactly who gets which part of the house depends on the individual situation but regardless, the basic principle is to keep said cats apart when they cannot be supervised, to prevent a permanent rupture in their relationship.


Physical Punishment. If your human only learns one thing from this entry it should be NEVER physically punish a cat. Cats do not learn by physical punishment. The only thing we learn from that is to fear the purrson who delivers the punishment. Not only will that destroy the bond we have with the human but also our anxiety can escalate from such punishment, resulting in a pee fest, self-mutilation, or other forms of emotional trauma.

Yelling: Many humans are tempted to yell at the bully cat when s/he is caught in the act. Or they are tempted to make a loud noise as a distraction. Herself used to recommend that but has since mended her ways, because she observed that usually when this happens, both the bully and the victim are present. And the victim usually lacks confidence already (and may be a shy and nervous type). And that means that yelling or noise making will actually make it worse for the victim (and cause his anxiety to build even more). And this is what was happening with Moby. While yelling is a natural reaction amongst humans trying to get one's attention, it was making Moby more anxious; he would hide behind the TV or go up to his purrsons for comfort when he sensed anger in the room. That was then . . . things have changed.

I'll continue with the adventures of Mick and Moby in later entries. Stay tuned!