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.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Tonkinese in Trouble

Dear Greyce, We are two-year-old Tonkinese brothers named Zeus and Ukko. Usually we are incredibly affectionate with each other (though Zeus is more the alpha cat). We were fine until two nights ago when a strange cat entered our backyard and came up to the screen door where we were sitting. We started hissing, growling and attacking at each other.

Ukko has been the main aggressor so he is now confined to a spare bedroom. It’s really hard on him because he likes to be out with everyone; but he keeps on attacking me (Zeus) whenever I get near him.

We both love being with our humans. And we used to love being with each other.

How can we reconcile? I've read that this could take months. Does that mean Ukko has to be locked away for months? We are dismayed! Zeus & Ukko

Dear Dismayed Brothers, What the two of you experienced with that invader in your face is called redirected aggression. Simply put, both of you wanted to attack the invader – after all your territory was at stake – but were blocked by the door. Because your arousal levels were so high, you went for the first thing in your view that moved and was accessible – your feline companion. My goodness, I can imagine that the fur flew!

The problem is that unlike growlers, we felines are not pack animals. So while we are happy to share our lives when resources (food, water, safe territory) are plentiful, our bond can easily break under threat. And if careful measures are not taken, that bond can be ruptured for good because we have no innate need to belong to a group. The bad news (along with the incident involving the invader cat) is that you are also at an age when litter mates often start to assert themselves with each other; those who were once close start naturally going their separate ways. It’s a developmental thing. But don’t despair!

Your purrsons did the right thing by immediately separating the two of you. In most cases, keeping you separated for several hours (or up to 24) should do the trick. Everything usually goes ‘back to normal’. In your case, it has not; Ukko still has his knickers in a twist.

Let me give our readers some examples from our private correspondence:

Zeus was sitting on the cat tree and Ukko ambled up; all was fine until Zeus noticed. Then he started to hiss. Ukko slowly walked away and watched from a distance. Any approach toward the tree and Zeus would hiss and Ukko would retreat. In other words, Zeus, you were telling Ukko that you were not comfortable with him nearby and that he should back off; and he did. Good work boys!

Now I also understand that when Zeus came off the cat tree, Ukko leaped off the couch and charged at him – eyes dilated, tail puffed up in the air. And that this kind of behaviour has happened more than once. Not so good, boys. Ukko's behaviour shows a lot of defensiveness which makes me wonder exactly what you 'told' him with your body language, Zeus.

On a brighter note, I understand that tonight each of you was on a different side of a closed door and you both played mouse. Zeus took a deep sniff of Ukko’s paw and Zeus didn’t run away from the door (as he had the previous day). This is great news!

All of this tells me that there is room for optimism.

So here is what I suggest:

Continue to Keep Separated, As Outlined

Continue to stay physically separated when you each cannot be directly supervised AND controlled. As Martha Stewart would say: “It’s a good thing.” It keeps you both safe.

That doesn’t mean that Ukko has to be locked away all the time. Purrhaps there are times when Zeus can be put in a safe room and Ukko can have the run of the rest of the place. It will very much depend on your folk’s schedules and your own prefurrences.

If each of you has a different secure room, then transfer will be easy. One of you is put in the secure room and once that door is closed, the other of you can be let out to have the run of the place. However if you need to time-share the secure space (i.e., one of you is in it while the other has the run of the place), then the transfer needs to be made using your cat hard-sided cat carrier. One cat is put in the carrier and placed out of the way while the other is let out; and then the one in the carrier is put into the safe room and let out of the carrier AFTER the door is secured.

Regardless of whether or not you have individual or time-shared secure space, the benefit of this approach is that you will both continue to view the rest of the house as joint territory – rather than having one of you suddenly decide that he owns the place.

Build Positive Joint Experiences, Safely

As has already happened, I suggest you continue having positive experiences under the door with your folks’ cooperation. These include games like ‘chase the mouse under the door’ and can also include having a few treats or a small snack together – on each side of the door.

Only Stay Out Together When You Are Supervised AND Controlled

By all means try to get together each day (even more than once a day if you can) depending on your folks’ schedules and you own tolerance levels. However when you do so please wear your leashes and harnesses; I understand the both of you have one (though it is not Ukko’s prefurrence). However in this case it is an essential piece of equipment for both of you because it is the best way to keep you some distance from each other, so that neither of you can physically contact and hurt the other. Each of you must be supervised by one of your folks. So yes, this is a two-purrson, two-cat deal. If that is not possible, please let me know and I will think of another way of achieving this.

On leash and harness, you can both be in the same room. Each of you will be with your purrson but some distance away from your litter mate. The distance selected needs to meet two criteria: 1) far enough away that neither of you reacts to the presence of each other (that is, that neither of you stares at the other, dilates your pupils or shows other signs of anxiety, aggression or distress; and 2) far enough away that neither of you can physically contact the other. If you are unsure how far that is, start with about 15 feet apart and adjust as needed.

Now at that distance you can be occupied by any or all of the following:

a) Your purrson can pet you or talk with you, or do whatever it is that helps you remain calm.

b) Play an interactive game with your purrson: fishing pole, mouse, whatever. Don’t involve your other purrson (who is supervising your brother) or your littermate. Just get used to the idea that playtime can occur when your brother is in the room.


c) Have a snack or a meal together (cats definitely, purrsons optionally). Have your folks put a dish of food down in front of each of you (at your respective distances). Eating together is a bonding experience. If you usually free feed, your folks might have to withhold part of your daily ration for this.

While any of these three options is happening, ask your purrson to pay close attention to your body language. If you show signs of distress: dilated pupils, hissing, growls, fur standing up, whatever, then the interaction time is up and you need to be separated. (Yep, back to the separate room.) Make sure your purrson does NOT reward you (by fussing over you or trying to give you a treat); it’s not wise to reward distress or aggression, unless you want more of it. So train your people to monitor so you that they can intervene at the very beginning of your distress (or close to it), if need be. The sooner the better.

When your joint session goes well, each of you should receive a small treat. Again, if you are used to getting treats, your folks will have to reserve the treat stash for these sessions.

I have no idea how much time the two of you could tolerate each other together in this way. And I understand you have already been out in each other’s company since the incident – from time to time. If your folks have an idea, then let them go with their time estimate as a baseline. You will all soon learn whether or not it is too long or not. We are looking for a distress-free amount of time that the two of you can be in the same room, at the same time (while supervised and controlled). At first, that may only be a few minutes; but with patience it can build. Build up your time together in increments (like an added minute or two) so that you can get to say, 30 minutes without needing intervention.

When you are at around 30 minutes, then have your folks decrease the distance between the two of you. Again this goes in increments – six inch increments. Go at the pace that the most distressed cat can stand. And if that means you have to back up a bit after having made some progress, so be it.

When you get to the point that you are able to lie together side and side as well as eat together, bring out the catnip champagne. At that point, you can gradually be left alone together for longer periods of time (staring with a few minutes and working up, in increments). I would, however, recommend that you not be left unsupervised for long periods of time (like while your folks are at work, out shopping, etc.) for at least 6 to 8 weeks after that.

Make Sure Each of You Gets A Work Out as Well as a Chill Out with Your Purrson Every Day

To keep you guys on an even keel, you each need an interactive play workout each day; it will keep your arousal levels under control. And a chill out time with your purrson (massage, pets, whatever is calming) is also in order. Less stress is best.

Now if you try this regimen and it isn’t working for you. Or if you are concerned with the amount of time it is taking, call your vet and inquire about anti-anxiety medication. It is always an option. Just remember: it is NOT a replacement for my plan only an adjunct IF you anxiety levels are getting the best of you.

About That Invader

In the long run, your folks need to do something about that invader – to make sure he, or someone like him, doesn’t come poking around your door again. Have then read my entry, The Invading Stranger (January 17, 2010) for some ideas.