Learn to Recognize the Subtle Effects of Aggression Among Cats


Cat fights are traumatic for everyone, cats and observers alike. Although the assailants may think they have good reasons for rumbling, usually the recipients would rather not engage in combat. This isn’t limited to felines who live wild — our little household kitties, when given the chance, will also avoid conflict using the same subtle and overt behaviors that their wild cousins display.

They have good reasons for avoiding conflicts. It’s difficult for cats to de-escalate while they’re intensely fighting. The brawls are usually serious — often ending when one or both of the fighters are hurt. Injuries can compromise kitties, slowing them down and affecting their alertness. Hunting can be difficult for wounded kitties; additionally, it is harder for them to escape life-threatening dangers.

Cats who would rather not rumble will engage in avoidance and distancing behaviors that help them steer clear of conflicts. Many of these behaviors are blatantly obvious to people; others are subtle and easily overlooked. Overt or subtle, these behaviors serve the same purposes — avoiding conflicts. Cat lovers who live with more than one cat need to recognize and take action when these behaviors occur. They’re stressful for kitties and can escalate into violence.

A cat avoids a confrontation by slinking past an antagonistic cat. Photo by Shutterstock

Passive conflict

Avoidance behaviors are often misunderstood or not recognized by people. Based on what they see, the observers sometimes inaccurately assume that one of their cats is “alpha” and another “submissive” and that conflicts are unprovoked and “come out of nowhere.”  They might label kitties who slink past their antagonists with lowered tails and those who vacate areas when the other kitty is present “submissive.” These same kitties may also hug walls. Instead of venturing into the center of rooms, they stick to the perimeters when the antagonist is present. They aren’t submissive — they’re avoiding conflicts. Other ways that kitties evade altercations are by withdrawing and hiding. Although there may be other reasons for these behaviors, these cats are not submissive.

One way cats avoid confrontations is by hiding. Photo by Shutterstock
One way cats avoid confrontations is by hiding. Photo by Shutterstock

Another way cats avoid conflicts is through distancing behaviors that include blatant and subtle marking. Marking by scratching, rubbing objects with cheeks, middening and spraying helps keep strangers away and discourages unwanted social interactions. Cats are complicated — depending on the context, their behaviors have different meanings. Although scent marking can be effective distancing behavior, the same acts are also useful for identifying relatives and friends, attracting mates and delineating territories. Although our household kitties mark for the same reasons, when they’re spayed and neutered they aren’t as likely to use urine and feces for marking as their wild cousins are.

Spraying is often a distancing behavior. Photo by Shutterstock
Spraying is often a distancing behavior. Photo by Shutterstock

Feral cats avoid conflicts by steering clear of areas that have been freshly marked by felines who aren’t relatives or buddies. They will time-share though, spending time in the areas and partaking in the resources when the other felines are elsewhere. Our little indoor kitties also room- and time-share. They will hang out in the same areas the aggressors do, but only when the aggressors are not around.  Both will mark objects by rubbing and scratching.

Cat marking by rubbing objects. Photo by Shutterstock
Cat marking by rubbing an object. Photo by Shutterstock

Actions you need to take

Kitties who are constantly vigilant usually are chronically stressed. Chronic stress can cause medical as well as behavior problems. Pay attention to your cats’ behaviors and take actions to improve their relationships. There may be a pattern to the behaviors — they might occur around the same times every day or in specific areas. If you notice that there are times when one cat seems more vigilant, supervise them. Also focus both felines on other activities, such as play, clicker training and treasure hunts, or you may find at times it’s best to separate them.  In tense hot spots add vertical territory, scratchers and toys.

You can also help decrease the squabbling while easing tensions by increasing the resources throughout your home. Add more feeding areas, scratchers, toys, sleeping places, litter boxes and vertical territory. It’s important that your feline residents can time-share resources and rooms.

Play as well as other activities can help ease the tensions. Photo by Shutterstock
Play as well as other activities can help ease the tensions. Photo by Shutterstock

Cats experience different levels of aggression — from all-out violence to subtle, passive expressions. Subtle or overt, the behaviors cause tensions and stress and need to be addressed.

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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.

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