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Smell Matters: How to Keep the Peace After a Cat Returns Home

Cats carry scents from places such as vets' offices, which can make enemies of feline friends.

Marilyn Krieger  |  Aug 19th 2016


Cats who are best buds can become sworn enemies when one comes home after being away. The trip might be a quick visit to the veterinarian or an extended stay somewhere outside the home. It doesn’t matter where they’ve gone or for how long they’ve been absent. Instead of welcoming head butts and licks, violence erupts — often escalating from hisses and vocalizing into serious aggression.

Two cats fighting. Photo by Shutterstock

Two cats fighting. Photo by Shutterstock

Here’s why this can happen:

All felines have highly developed senses of smell. They have to — it helps them survive. Scent identifies who family and friends are, and it helps cats avoid rivals and potentially dangerous situations. The returning kitty, having picked up smells from outside the household, looks familiar to the cats who stayed home but smells like a stranger. Her fur is saturated with the scent of the vet clinic or another environment she visited. Scents from medications, shots, and cleaning agents typically found at vet clinics are especially intrusive. Essentially, the cat who was away is not recognized and may be mistaken as an intruder — she smells weird.

Cat being examined at a veterinarian clinic. Photo by Shutterstock

Cat being examined at a veterinarian clinic. Photo by Shutterstock

It is easier to prevent potential violence before it begins than to mend relationships. Here are some tips that will help you keep the peace between your cats:

Use the cat’s scent

A simple massage can help prevent World War III. Before taking your kitty away from home, massage her with a soft towel. Make it an extended massage. Take your time; it’s important to heavily saturate the towel with your little one’s scent. Then place the scent-infused towel in a plastic bag, squeeze the air out of it and seal it closed.

As soon as you return home with your little one, put her scent back on her so that the resident felines will recognize her smell. Keep her separated from the others while you gently massage her with the towel that was in the sealed plastic bag, rescenting her with her own recognizable scent. Let her socialize with the other stay-at-home kitties only after she smells like herself again.

Collect your cat's scent by massaging her with a towel. Photo by Shutterstock

Collect your cat’s scent by massaging her with a towel. Photo by Shutterstock

Your scent can keep the peace

It’s easy to forget to pet your cat with a towel when faced with the daunting task of rounding up an uncooperative feline and depositing her into the carrier.  It’s not a big deal if you overlook the kitty massage. You can achieve the same result by scenting your kitty with your concentrated smell when you two come home. The shirt you’re wearing works perfectly. To be effective, it needs to be an item of clothing that has direct contact with your skin. Take it off, turn it inside out and massage and pet your cat with it — transferring your smell onto her fur. Because the other resident cats will recognize your scent, the once-absent cat will probably be accepted back into the fold with a minimum of angst or stress.

Three cats relaxing together. Photo by shutterstock

Three cats relaxing together. Photo by Shutterstock

If it doesn’t work, do this

You can let them socialize with each other after either applying your scent or rescenting the cat with her own smell. Be extra cautious, though, and supervise the kitties while they hang out together. Occasionally the cat who’s been away still carries the smell of the place she visited on her fur — enough to agitate the stay-at-home kitty. At the first sign of a problem, separate them and place the upset cat in a darkened room to calm down. The relationship might mend after they are separated for a few hours or overnight. If tempers still flare, you will need to gradually reintroduce them to each other.

Cats may need to be separated from each other and gradually reintroduced to each other. Photo by Marilyn Krieger

Cats might need to be separated from each other and gradually reintroduced. Photo by Marilyn Krieger

Although it’s upsetting when cats who were best friend declare war on each other, the catastrophe can be prevented with a little foresight along with using your and the cat’s scent.

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Do you have a cat behavior question for Marilyn? Ask our behaviorist in the comments below and you might be featured in an upcoming column. If you suspect a behavioral problem, always rule out any possible medical issues that may be causing the behavior by first having your cat examined by a veterinarian. 

Marilyn, a certified cat behavior consultant, owner of The Cat Coach, LLC, solves cat behavior problems nationally and internationally through on site and Skype consultations. She uses positive reinforcement, including environmental changes, clicker training and other behavior modification techniques.

She is also an award winning author. Her book Naughty No More! focuses on solving cat behavior problems through clicker training and other positive reinforcement methods.  Marilyn is big on education—she feels it is important for cat parents to know the reasons behind their cat’s behaviors.

She is a frequent guest on television and radio, answering cat behavior questions and helping people understand their cats.