Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:
We have two male cats, a ginger and a black. The ginger one was neutered two weeks ago, and the black one is not yet neutered. The ginger cat has become extremely aggressive towards the black cat in the last couple of weeks. This has become so extreme that the black cat has taken to hiding under a cupboard and won’t come out, not to eat or to use his litter tray. He seems seriously depressed. Both cats are house cats, but since we’ve moved to a more rural location two months ago we are planning to let them out. I am considering letting the ginger cat out now so that the black cat can relax a little; he is terrified of the ginger cat. I am worried that if I let both cats out together, the black cat will not come back, as he is obviously very unhappy right now. We had planned to get the black cat neutered this week but I am concerned that the trauma would upset him even more. He hates the cat box and the vet. Any ideas?
Siouxsie: You’ve definitely got yourself a tough situation there, Joy. But we think it can be resolved.
Thomas: First of all, let me tell you that you’ve got two very stressed-out cats on your hands. Moving house is as stressful for cats as is it is for people–and perhaps more so for the cats since they’re less in control of the situation than the people are. Then take into account that one of the cats has been neutered, so the stress of the vet visit and the surgery has compounded that problem.
Dahlia: Then, of course, the black cat, who’s also been stressed by the move, is now suffering from the aggression of his housemate, and you’ve got yourself a serious kitty problem.
Siouxsie: We suspect that the ginger cat became aggressive toward his housemate after his surgery because he has taken his stress and redirected it into aggression. Perhaps the ginger cat was more outgoing or playfully aggressive in the past and the black cat was shyer, and this has contributed to their reactions.
Thomas: But rest assured, Joy, you’re doing the right thing by having your cats neutered. If they became sexually mature tomcats, you’d see some serious fighting–probably accompanied by bite wounds and other injuries. Any vet visit or surgical procedure is stressful for us cats, but particularly when it comes to neutering or spaying, it’s the right thing to do in the long term. I hate going to the vet myself, and when I get home I have to hide for a while too.
Dahlia: Hey, I hate going to the vet, too! The last time I was at the vet’s office, I dug my claws into Mama’s sweater and trembled, and I wouldn’t let go for anything!
Siouxsie: One thing you should know about neutering is that although the cat’s testicles, which make the vast majority of male hormones, are removed, it takes a few weeks for any of those hormones in circulation before the neutering to go away. Therefore, any part of the ginger cat’s aggressive behavior that’s related to androgens and testosterone will abate over time.
Thomas: We strongly recommend that you don’t let the cats out until both cats are neutered and the aggression problem is resolved. Often when there’s aggression between two cats-articularly two male cats–the dominant one will run off the other one, and you don’t want to have a situation where you lose one of your cats because of their fighting.
Dahlia: So what can you do to curtail the aggression and make the black cat more comfortable? We think you’re going to have to start by reintroducing them. That means you need to put one of the cats in his own room where the other one can’t get at him, so it has to be a room with a door that closes firmly. We think the black cat might be a good candidate for having his own room, so that he can have some time to regain his confidence before being faced with the ginger cat again.
Siouxsie: Ideally this should be a comfortable one, but one that’s not “emotionally loaded” with connotations about status. An office or guest room, for example, would be a better choice than your bedroom.
Thomas: It shouldn’t be an isolation room or a “kitty prison” like the cellar or another lonely and unpleasant place, either. The room should have at least one window where the cat can look out at his environment and it should be a room where you want to spend time so you can play with the cat and give him the affection he needs.
Dahlia: In the special room, make sure the black cat has a bed, his own litterbox, food and water dishes, and an assortment of toys. Make a point of visiting with him at several times a day and playing with him or petting him … or at least just talking to him if he insists on hiding under furniture while you’re there.
Siouxsie: If he hides, just spend time in the room. Bring something to occupy yourself–a book, knitting, a movie to watch, or whatever, and stay there for at least half an hour at a time. He needs to know he’s not being neglected or isolated and that you love him and are trying to help him feel better.
Thomas: With this treatment, the black cat should start coming out of his shell again and may even be willing to approach you for petting and love.
Dahlia: We’d also recommend that you invest in a couple of plug-in feline pheromone diffusers. These products, sold under the brand name Feliway Comfort Zone, mimic the “happy cat” pheromones cats produce from the glands on their faces. Veterinarians usually sell these, and you can also find them at major pet retailers or online pet supply stores. Use one in the room where the black cat is staying and the other in the room where the ginger cat likes to hang out the most.
Siouxsie: Mama has used Feliway before, and it really helped us when Thomas moved into our house. We all just felt calmer about the whole situation. My sister Sinéad–may she frolic forever in the mouse-filled fields beyond the Rainbow Bridge–stopped spraying, Thomas felt less shy and scared, and I even felt a little less grumpy!
Thomas: Once the black cat shows signs of feeling more comfortable and confident, and wanting to leave the room, switch the cats. Put the ginger cat in the room and let the black cat wander the rest of the house, adding his scent to the rest of the place so that he can feel more at home in his home.
Dahlia: In the room, the ginger cat will get used to the black cat’s smell again and he’ll begin to realize that the black cat doesn’t have to trigger his worst instincts. Again, you’ll need to spend time in the room with the ginger cat, just as you did with the black cat.
Siouxsie: Once the black cat seems to be feeling more comfortable in the house at large, you can reintroduce the two cats with a supervised visitation, so to speak. Bring the black cat into the room with the ginger cat and observe them very carefully. Play with the cats together so they begin to associate good times rather than terror or anger with their housemates.
Thomas: If they play well together, let them enjoy one another’s company for 20 minutes or so–about as long as a good game of Thing on a String takes. But if the ginger cat gives any sign of aggression, remove the black cat from the room and leave the ginger cat there. Take time to pet and stroke both of the cats and tell them it’s okay, you’ll take as much time as needed to make sure they can live together.
Dahlia: Gradually build the exposure time, and if the cats do well for half an hour or so in the room together, let the two of them have the run of the house again. Keep an eye on the situation and make sure the ginger cat isn’t backing the black cat into a corner again.
Siouxsie: We would recommend that you have the black cat neutered before you begin this process so that his recovery from surgery will take place at the same time as the recovery of his relationship with his housemate.
Thomas: This process can take several weeks, so you’ll need to be patient. Take whatever time the cats need to start feeling comfortable together, and you should find that they will become friends again.
Dahlia: Of course, we’d recommend that you discuss the situation with your vet, too. He or she may have some other insights or ideas that will help you restore peace in your household. If the reintroduction doesn’t go well, you may need to resort to medications to calm both of the cats and take the edge off whatever is triggering their anxiety.
Siouxsie: Do let us know how things turn out. We’d love to get an update on the situation.