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.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Aggression Between Cats Who Used to Get Along: Ziggy & Pearl

Dear Greyce,

I am writing on behalf of my sister, Pearl, and myself, both age 7 and a half.

Pearl is a spayed female who has fluffy grey, mottled fur. She is intelligent, very curious and also shy - or shall I say, purrhaps lacks confidence? For example, when we first arrived here (almost 7 years ago) it took 6 months before she let anyone pet her. Now she enjoys being petted but when it gets to be too much, will walk away. Pearl is a cat's cat; that is, she prefurrs the company of a cat to the company of a human.I was her number one being in her life.

I am a spayed male with short fur in a stunning black and grey, tiger-striped pattern. I'm intelligent and can listen to commands - though I do play dumb when I don't want to cooperate. I'm a people-oriented cat. I adore my folks and like to have them around me; I also love to cuddle with them.

When we were adopted (at 6 months of age), Pearl and I were inseparable. As we felt more secure in our home, we'd spend some time together and some apart. Pearl has always wanted to spend more time with me than I do with her.

We both enjoy play. When alone, we both like small mice and balls. With the folks, we love Da Bird (a fishing-pole type toy with feathers at the end) or reasonable facsimile thereof. Pearl especially likes cat-to-cat play, but I prefur to play with the folks. Sometimes I'd have to give her a look to get her to back off, because she was getting annoying. But all in all, we got along quite well.

And then . . . I went to the dreaded vet . . . alone! And since then, life as we knew it has never been the same.

When I came home I immediately ran to the bedroom for safety and hid. When I encountered Pearl later that afternoon, we had a fight. Our folks broke it up.

We were at it again in the early hours of the morning. They tried wiping us with each other's scents to give us a sense of belonging but it didn't work. Our vet had us try Valium and later Paxil. Neither was effective.

So here is the problem: I stare Pearl down, stalk her and run up to her. Need I say that she is fearful? She'll hiss if I get too close, linger too long nearby, or try to invade her safe places. Playing together is a thing of the past.

Our folks do a pretty good job of intervening before things get out of paw. When Herself sees any signs of aggression, she will say, "No," or "Stop" and I usually do. Himself distracts me with a toy if he catches me engaging in a staring match.

Some days I behave well and others, not so much. It's the staring that Themselves have difficulty with because they don't always catch it when it starts to happen. 

This has been going on for two months and the situation is NOT improving! To keep Pearl safe, we have been separated while the folks go to work.

I know you like details Greyce, so before I meow pitifully for help, I'll fill you in on our home and routine.

We live in a two-bedroom, two-bathroom condo. We have a cat tree and many scratching posts. And we both enjoy looking out of windows. One bedroom is off-limits but other than that, we have the run of the place. The other bedroom is prime space because that is where we both liked to sleep with our folks every night - until the dreaded incident. And it remains my prime space.

I want access to the bedroom 24/7! It's where I spend most of my time and I'd prefur my folks with me there, thank you very much. I even try to herd them in there when I can. If I'm shut out of that room, I just take it out on Pearl when I get the chance. That's why the bedroom is MINE!

Since I love suitcases, there is now one for me in the living room on which I like to rest.

Now, Pearl likes to be under the skirted chairs in the dining room - under which she can hide; and she likes to be on or under the sofa table.

The most important aspects of our daily routine are as follows:

Our folks work outside the home.

After Herself leaves for the day, we are on our own for about 9 to 10 hours. I'm confined to the bedroom (yippee!) and Pearl has the rest of the place.

When Herself returns, we get fed and them I'm allowed to leave the bedroom. We have play time.

And when it is bedtime, we are separated again.

I should mention that there is more than one problem here. Apart from the obvious, our folks have cancelled several trips away for fear of what might happen in their absence.

They do have relatives who can check in on us, but we fear strangers and will hide from them. Our folks are okay. The vet is tolerated. But that's about all.

The folks are scared that I'll want to get out of the bedroom when someone comes to check on me. And it would be next to impossible to get me back in. And then what would happen to Pearl?

Meanwhile, some of Themselves' friends have suggested getting rid of one of us felines. Themselves are insulted. More importantly, they are very worried.

We need help, Greyce.

Meowing pitifully,


Dear Ziggy,

If you have read my blog before, you know that there have been other cats in your situation - Yoshi and Taro, for instance. You will also know that there is hope - not a guarantee mind you, but hope.

Before I can outline a plan of action, I really need to respond to those well-intentioned friends who say things like: "Cats not getting along? Then get rid of one and the household will be happy." Crueler and more thoughtless words were never spoken!

You see, Ziggy, this comes from living in a society where every thing and every one is considered disposable. Most people think that happiness is the most important goal to achieve and that the way to do it is by getting rid of the things that stand in the way of that goal.

It gets tricky when people believe that happiness is some kind of good feeling that should be with them at all times. The moment something goes awry they try to identify the fly in their jar of happiness ointment and get rid of it, so to speak. And they then assume all will be well.

Many people have made a great deal of money milking this assumption and encouraging people to get rid of any thing or any being (even including another human) who seems to be getting in their way. Cat turds I say! Even a kitten wouldn't be so juvenile.

Ziggy. You and Pearl are lucky because your humans think otherwise. They know that you are both part of their family. And that  doesn't mean getting rid of a cat like a paper napkin just because of an unexpected problem. It means having the maturity and guts to work the problems out in the best way possible. It is called commitment.

Of course if after all I recommend and your household diligently tries, there is no progress, then the situation will require review. BUT and this is a very large but, I know of very few instances where cats who cannot get along remained so, IF their purrsons were committed to making the situation work.

So don't worry Ziggy, I'm a long way off from advising a change of address.

Now back to business.

Here is what I'm going to do:

1. Identify why you are having problems re-integrating.

2. Outline the basic steps you need to take.

3. Give you detailed homework.

That homework is your first step. Once you have mastered that, you need to contact me and we will proceed to the next step.

Patience is a virtue in this business. So start off by saying: It doesn't matter how long it takes it just matters that we are heading in the right direction.

1. Why You Are Having Problem Re-integrating 

Problem: Punctured Bonds are Difficult to Re-establish.

You are a cat. Pearl is a cat. And cats are usually a solitary species.

In the wild once you reach the age of 12 to 18 months, you would go off and establish your own territory. Cats have a territory just large enough to support one cat (with enough food, water and safe resting areas) which is why territorial invasion is such a big deal.  Only during mating would you wish to meet. And females, of course, would cluster with their babies until they are ready to leave the nest.

We know that when resources are abundant (that is, there is more than enough food, water, safe resting areas and places to eliminate) territory size can shrink and even be shared. This is the basis for the cat colony or the multi-cat household.

In a domestic situation, such cats if properly introduced (or if entering the home together as kittens) get along quite well. HOWEVER if something happens to puncture that relationship and immediate, appropriate action is not taken, then the bond breaks down.

Unfortunately there is no need on the part of the cats involved to necessarily re-establish that bond. We are not like dogs who have a strong pack instinct and will modify their behaviours just to stay in the group.

In your case, your folks want both of you to stay. So we will try to make that happen.

This means getting Pearl and you used to one another by assuming you are strangers. Strange cats will do everything they can to avoid meeting face-to-face without a lot of background preparation. Preparation is the key. Stay tuned.

Problem: You are the Emperor of the Household and Pearl has Become the Peasant

As emperor of the household - yes, you Ziggy, who has a hissy fit if you are denied 24/7 access to the prime space of the household and whose folks have bowed to your whim. You have made it clear to your folks that re-integration is not going to be easy.

You have also made it clear to Pearl that you are the top cat. You get the prime space in the house on an unrestricted basis. You also get to time-share the rest of the house for the time when it becomes valuable to you (that is, when your folks are home and using it - because you love being with the folks). Then you engage in subtle though highly aggressive combat with Pearl to let her know that she is not wanted.

No wonder she confines herself behind the ruffles of the dining room chairs or under the sofa table. Even when she goes on top of the sofa table, she is not out of your reach.

In other households, cats in your situation would time-share all space. While they may be kept separate, efforts would be made to have them switch spaces daily (or more frequently depending on schedules and family routines), so that no individual gets the impression that a particular area is his and only his.

In other words, right now you rule the roost and we have to change that if anything is gone to work.

Problem: Pearl is Suffering

Pearl needs some special time and attention. In a few short months her best buddy has become the man-from-hell. She has no one to play with - of her own and prefurred species.

She has no exclusive area that is really hers (though she does have exclusive rights to the common areas when the folks are away, which means that during the work week she has a safe time; but I wonder about the weekends). She is not completely safe when you are out and about.

And it wouldn't surprise me if she is getting the short end of the stick during play time. I know I wouldn't feel much up to playing and cuddling if you were hovering in my space.

We really need to work at getting Pearl's confidence up AND at strengthening her bond with the folks, who have now become her prime source of support.

Problem: Untimely Intervention 

When you are out and about the common areas, your folks keep an eye on you and intervene with verbal commands or distract you with a toy when they catch you being up to no good. And that's great.  From what you have told me, I believe your folks are reasonably well-versed in reading cat signals so I don't think they need to go back to school.

But you obviously aren't learning a lot from their efforts. And I think the problem is with timing. They don't always catch you before you have done the deed. And they usually don't catch your stares in time.

Because you are not directly supervised each and every moment that you are out and about, learning (or should I say, correction) opportunities are missed. And instead you get inadvertently reinforced for bad behaviour.

The reason is simply this. Interventions with cats must occur within 30 seconds of the onset of undesired behaviour for us to understand what the 'no' is all about! - in other words, to match that 'no' with the bad behaviour. Interventions after that time mean we don't learn what our humans intend us to.  We think the 'no' relates to something else. And sometimes if the intervention is a toy or the chance to play, we accidentally get rewarded!

We have some work to do in this area.

2. The Basic Steps You Need to Take
It is probably obvious from the problems I've mentioned, what you need to do. But don't get ahead of yourself. You need to focus on the fine points.

First, take another look at time-sharing. This will be your first homework assignment, so I'll go into great detail in the next section. Hear me out because I'm going to suggest options.

Second, re-structure what happens when you and Pearl are together. We need to do several things here: 1) look at ways to keep you physically separate at a safe distance from Pearl, that is, a distance at which she is comfortable; 2) change the intervention system somewhat; 3) encourage play or treats as a way to keep both occupied so you might be able to ignore each other, and 4) consider the merits of the time-out.

Third, we need to look for ways to give Pearl exclusive attention, starting when you are separated from her so that she can fully relax.

3. Your Homework - Taking the First Step

Your mission - should you choose to accept it - is to take a hard look at time-sharing, that is, keeping the two of you physically separated when you cannot be directly supervised AND switching the areas in which you stay on a regular basis.

Option 1: You both get exclusive use of the Master Bedroom and exclusive use of the common areas, but at different times. When folks are working: one cat gets the Master Bedroom and the other, the common areas. When the folks return, the cats switch areas except for brief periods when they can be out and about, and directly and carefully supervised. Who gets the bedroom and who gets the common area when the folks are away varies daily.

Day One - folks away: Master Bedroom - Pearl, common area - Ziggy
Day One - Herself returns: Master Bedroom - Ziggy, common area - Pearl
Day One - bedtime: Master Bedroom - Ziggy, common area - Pearl
Day Two: reverse

I understand that this may not work in your case. But read carefully: If you continue with the present scheme, Ziggy, you will maintain the Master Bedroom as your exclusive territory with rights to the common area as well. Pearl will always be the second-class citizen and there will be nothing your folks can to do change that - because territory means everything to a cat.

I know you make a fuss, but it would really help if you could tell me exactly what kind of fuss you make. Do you beg? meow incessantly? hurl yourself at the door? scratch the door? These are valuable clues so please let me know. And once I know this, I can get a better sense of whether or not this option should hit the trash can.

Before your turn off the idea of time-sharing completely, consider the next option.

Option 2: During the work week, no one gets the Master Bedroom until Themselves return. It becomes off limits during the working day.

When Themselves return, one of you is given rights to the Master Bedroom for an hour or more and the other remains in the common area. (We can work at building up tolerance for the time if that is the issue.) When the time is up, you MAY try a re-introduction session (I will outline this further in another blog entry - you have enough on your plate for now).

Option 3:  Either one of you stays in the dining room and the other in the living room - provided the connecting area can be securely, though temporarily blocked off. You need to provide me with more information before this is truly considered.

A variant of this option is to give Pearl an apartment within the living room, so that if the bedroom is off-limits to you both then she will be safe. 

An apartment is a refitted, very large, wire, dog crate with room for a litter box in the back, food and water bowls, and a soft mat or pad on which to sleep. I recommend one that has a floor as well (which can be covered with a lino offcut or a piece of carpet) and is a good size -  such as for large breed dog, because you need to put stuff in it. You can even rig up a secure shelf so that there is a chance to rest off the floor.

The top and sides are covered with a blanket (unless you are very skilled and can sew a cover), so that you feel safe and protected. Usually the top of the apartment also has a  multi-folded blanket or piece of thick cardboard on it, because the other cat may feel the need to jump on it and this keeps everyone safe.

I have worked with cats for whom this option has worked well, largely because the cat is kept safe from harm. I have Pearl in mind for this - for obvious reasons.

Once Pearl adapts to this set up, she can be confident that you will not be a position to harm her physically and your folks can leave the two of you in the common area without having to be there each and every single minute of each and every day.  I'm not crazy about this for a 9- to 10-hour stretch. But first, think about the concept and then we can discuss details.

Other Uses of a Cat Apartment: 1) Without the food dish you could use it from time to time, especially when the folks are home. Pearl could parade about the common areas in complete safety (getting her confidence up) and yet you'd still be in the area with the folks.  2) It could even be a time-out space.(More about time-outs later.) 3) During the re-introduction process, you each might take turns using it and allowing the other to prance about freely. The great benefit is the reduction in the need for supervision. This is a better idea than putting you into the cat carrier (something I know you don't like).

(Note: If you decide on an apartment you might want to get one with double-doors. That way, a petsitter can change litter or food and Pearl can still have a bit of a place to hide. If you are thinking of this, please contact me before so we can make sure this make sense.)

Option 4: Still stuck on your current system?

If push comes to shove (and it really would have to), we could consider a small variant of the current mode of operation:
- When the folks are away, you get the Master Bedroom and Pearl gets the common area.
- When the folks return, Pearl gets the Master Bedroom and you get the common area. Any fussing on your part is ignored. Pearl gets it for at least a few hours UNLESS she wishes to leave. (Again, we can work on increasing tolerance levels for time spent in this way.)
- Bedtime: You can have the Master Bedroom again.
In this system, Pearl won't ever be your equal, but at least she won't be chopped liver either!

So your first step to is consider these options.Provide me with the added information I requested and let me know your concerns and thoughts. Hopefully we can build on one of these alternatives.

HOWEVER if you end up with this Option 4 then I vote also for the cat apartment. Because this option means that every one acknowledges that you are a smart, demanding, dominant cat. And in that case, I think we need to take a great deal of care in re-introduction - especially during the times when you and Pearl are in the same room together. So I'll let it be known that if you choose Option 4, you'd better spend your catnip dollars on a cat apartment instead.

But I Really Want To Get Into the Bedroom!

Ziggy, since you love human attention, begging, meowing, hurling yourself at the bedroom door should be ignored. No loud reprimands. Nothing. Because a cat like you likes attention - and even negative attention would fill your need. And this is a need that should NOT be filled.

If you are in the common area and want to get into the bedroom and persist, consider a time-out - being carried to the bathroom (with gentle firmness and without eye contact or verbal interaction) and left there with the door closed for about 5 minutes. After that, the door is opened (no eye contact or verbal interaction) and you can come back in on your own steam. If you continue to engage in inappropriate behaviour, you get another, longer time-out (say 7 minutes).

I'm thinking a good time-out space would be the foyer bathroom but you need to verify that it would be okay. Since the adjoining bedroom is a smoking area, I don't want you to have to deal with a lot of smoke or the residue smell if we can avoid it. And if there is another option, let me know.

Now, while you are thinking this through, I have some other tasks for you.

Cats Who Eat Together, Get Along Together

I want to change your feeding routine regarding wet food, starting today.

Right now you both get fed wet food in separate areas of of house.

Have Themselves move your food bowls by six inches, each and every day, toward the Master Bedroom door. Eventually (and it will take some time), you will get to a point where your are eating together, though separated by a closed door.

When you are about to get to that point, let me know and I'll tell you the next step.

Exclusive Play and Cuddles Are Essential

When your folks come home (and have the chance), I want them to have a play and cuddle session with each of you separately (BEFORE you cats get any chance of being in a room together). When feasible, one human can go for a play/cuddle session with one cat, while the other human gives exclusive attention to the other.

A 15 to 30-minute quality-time session is what I suggest. If you are not in the mood for play or cuddles, the purrson should just sit in the area - purrhaps talking to you from time to time.

Of course, this means that if only one human is available, it is incumbent on said human to give each of you special time. Play is especially important - not only for bonding (with Pearl) but also because it will reduce the predatory arousal levels which rise in its absence and contribute to high reactivity and anxiety - which could set either of you off. My previous entry on Interactive Play has details.

Yes, I can see some problems if only one human is at home, is in the bedroom with Pearl and you are meowing at the door. But still, this has merit. If that is your only concern let me know and we will work directly on that.

Your Together Time

I know you are now used to being in the common area together when the folks are home.

If at all possible, I want to either 1) restrict this time so you can both be directly and very carefully supervised (details to follow later) and/or 2) for the cat apartment to be in place.

And just to repeat: When you are allowed out together, I'd prefur that you each had already had a play session with a human so that some of your excess energy/anxiety could have been dispersed (without the temptation of taking it out on you-know-who).

I know this is a lot to take in. No doubt you'll have concerns. And you do have some more information to send me, as well.

Think this over and send me your thoughts. And I'll send you back the details. Because, re-introduction is all about the details . . . and patience, of course.