How to Handle Displaced Aggression in Cats
By Melissa Lapierre
Although I’ve lived with cats my entire life, I’ve always had just one at a time. My current cat Mudpie earned quite a reputation for not playing well with others at the shelter. She even had to be sequestered in the administrator’s office because she caused so much trouble!
Life is peaceful at our house until a neighbor cat walks past a window Mudpie is looking out of; that’s when the kitty litter hits the fan. She starts hissing and growling, and sometimes even throwing her body against the window.
Thankfully, once the “trespasser” has left the premises Mudpie immediately calms down. For some cats, the return to normalcy isn’t as easy and they lash out at those around them. This is known as displaced (or redirected) aggression.
What is Displaced Aggression?
Displaced aggression occurs when a cat is agitated by something they can’t get to, usually something or someone outside their four walls. In their over-stimulated state they vent their frustration, aggression or fear onto whoever happens to be closest, either another pet in the home or a human. It’s one of the most common forms of aggression among cats living in the same house.
An example of how this plays out is when an indoor cat sees a neighbor cat, bird or squirrel in their yard and they want to get to it but can’t. Another feline resident happens to walk by at the same time only to find themselves the victim of the first cat’s wrath. Now you have a confused and fearful cat who has no idea what he did to cause his housemate’s ire. Moreover, while the two may have been the best of friends for years, the aggressor may continue beating up on his victim at every opportunity, remembering the heightened arousal he felt that started it all. It’s a vicious cycle that can threaten to divide a previously happy home.
The most important thing to remember in a situation like this is to never attempt to come between the cats or try to pick either of them up. Comforting the victim isn’t going to work either, even though it’s natural to want to do so. Everyone is upset and agitated, and you’re only going to end up getting hurt yourself.
Separate the Warring Parties
Getting the two cats out of each other’s sight is the first step in diffusing the situation. Position a large piece of cardboard, pillow or towel between them and use it to “herd” the aggressor into another room.
The kitty causing the ruckus is going to need a quiet spot to be alone and cool off. Supply the area with food, water, litter box, toys and treats, and give your cat all the time he needs to calm down. Keep the room dark and close the windows to keep out stimulating noises. The use of pheromones in a spray or diffuser may also help calm very agitated cats.
Displaced aggression can be a traumatic event for both parties, and the last thing you want is for the two cats to associate the incident with each other, destroying their relationship. Reintroducing them must be done slowly and carefully, similar to when you’re introducing two cats to each other for the very first time.
Scent exchanges, eating and playing on each side of a closed door will help the cats become comfortable with each other again. If this goes well, begin supervised visits for a few minutes at a time. If either cat shows signs of stress or aggression, separate them and begin the process again.
The biggest mistake you can make in trying to resolve the problem is to bring the cats together too soon.
Once peace has been restored, you’ll want to take steps to make sure you and your cats don’t have to go through something similar again. Avoiding exposure to the arousing stimuli is the safest and most practical means of preventing further aggression. It can be difficult to convince a neighbor to keep their cat indoors when they feel it’s happier and “more natural” to be roaming free, but it’s a conversation worth having. Until then, it’s up to you to control what your cat sees. Keep the curtains closed so your cat can’t see the offender walk by. If the view is from one room only, keep the door to that room closed to keep your cat out and away from the window.
You can also make your yard unwelcoming to trespassers by removing any food and food odors, setting up motion-activated lights, sprinklers or ultrasound devices, and putting out fragrances that keep cats away such as fresh orange or lemon peels (cats dislike the scent of citrus).
Displaced aggression can be triggered by other factors, including something that has startled a cat like a loud sound on the TV, or something falling and crashing near them. It can even be caused by pain, and the cat associates the pain they’re feeling with an animal or person near them.
Whatever the cause, never wait for your cats to simply “work it out” or hope things will get back to normal on their own. It’s a situation that must be addressed as soon as possible and not allowed to fester, making things worse. Displaced aggression can have serious, long lasting implications for everyone involved if not properly handled.
Read more articles by Melissa Lapierre