D.S., via email
Answer: Top behaviorists consider feline aggression to be an outward manifestation of the internal emotional state of the cat. They believe that cats may direct aggression toward people due to fear, anxiety, frustration or even misdirection of their predatory instincts.
Aggression between cats, on the other hand, is usually due to competition for food, water, mates or just space.
Fighting among cats in the neighborhood is usually associated with social stress, which can be caused by:
• The introduction of a newcomer
• The presence of a feline despot (a cat that is aggressively expanding its territory by displacing other cats)
• The presence of one or more non-neutered male cats
• The presence of female cats in season (queens in estrus)
Feline territory is usually divided into three zones: the core territory (usually the home), the home range (your garden or a neighbor's garden, including defecating areas and platforms shared by all cats in the immediate neighborhood) and finally the hunting ranges, which are shared by cats roaming the local vicinity. Defending their territory is natural for most cats.
Signs your cat has been fighting
Cats are seldom observed fighting; the awful noises that accompany most cat fights may be the only clue. Or you may discover your cat has a bite wound or abscess.
An abscess is a localized collection of pus that has built up, usually within a cavity in the body tissue. The teeth of cats and dogs can inflict deep punctures in the skin and underlying muscles. These small wounds heal quickly, but bacteria carried on the teeth can be injected into the tissue at the time of the bite and lead to an abscess two or three days later.
Cat bites are commonly seen on the tail, head, limbs and back. Any sudden onset of lameness, swelling on the head, hissing when stroked, the tail held low or just not eating after being out the night before may be symptoms of a bite or abscess, and usually warrant a trip to your vet.
Pus oozing from a swelling on the skin is a clear indication of an abscess and can be easily diagnosed by a watchful pet owner. However, abscesses in cats are often hidden by fur, so thoroughly check your cat or take him to a vet to be examined if you suspect he may be injured from a fight.
There are various things you can do to try to stop your cat from getting into fights. Here are some of the most effective options.
Dawn and dusk are high-risk times in terms of cat aggression, so consider keeping Bruiser inside between 7pm and 7am. Alternatively, if you notice that Bruiser is fighting with a particular neighbor's cat, try to come to an agreement with the owner and let the cats out at different times to avoid altercation.
Getting Bruiser neutered might stop him from getting into fights. Research has shown that hormonal influences are more significant than learning in male-to-male aggression. Neutering can reduce fighting by nearly 90 percent.1,2
Catch the despot
If there is a stray, non-neutered male cat terrorizing the neighborhood domestic cats, it might be possible to catch him and take him to the vet to get neutered. However, strays can be dangerous to catch. The easiest way is to lure them into a cage with food.
If your cat happens to be the aggressor, you can attempt to modify his behavior by reducing potential sources of stress in the home and providing plenty of places for him to hide, escape, play and scratch. You can also employ calming herbs to ease aggression and anxiety.
Here are some good options:
- Catnip toys. Giving your cat toys to play with can help channel his natural predatory behavior. Catnip toys are especially good as cats love the scent and will often play with them for hours. Some mass-produced catnip toys have very little aroma, as the herb has passed its shelf life, and consequently cats ignore them. Try making your own for greater potency (see box, right, for instructions).
- Chamomile and lavender pillow. This can help to ease anxiety as well as help deter cat-loving insects and eliminate pet odors. See box, right, for how to make one.
- Valerian. This is another calming herb that may be beneficial for aggressive or anxious cats. Many valerian-based pet products and remedies are available online.
- Traditional Chinese herbs. As a TCVM practitioner, I have used the herbs Shou wu pian and Xiao yao to reduce hostility and aggression. Usually a good TCVM consultation is necessary before deciding on dose and duration.
- Bach Flower Remedies.
Bach produces a pet version of its popular Rescue Remedy that might help calm your cat. Add four drops of the remedy to one ounce of spring/distilled water in a brown bottle and give three to four drops of this mixture three to four times daily. You can add this to your pet's food or water. It can take four to six weeks to see a significant change in your pet, but some cats appear more relaxed after just a few doses.
If your cat's aggression stems from anxiety, then pheromone therapy can be helpful. Feline facial pheromone complex, found in products like Feliway, which comes as a plug-in diffuser or spray, can be effective in relaxing and relieving anxiety caused by social tension among cats.
Acupressure and massage
Energy imbalances can lead to aggressive tendencies. Correcting them by massage or acupoint therapy can therefore help reduce aggression. Acupoint LI4, located in the web of skin between the dewclaw (located higher up than the other claws) and first toe on the forefoot, can be massaged in a downward motion for 30-60 seconds once daily. You can also stimulate the LIV2 point, located on the hind foot in the area where the inside toe meets the foot bone. Again, using gentle pressure to stroke in a downward motion for 30-60 seconds a day will stimulate this point. (See my book You Can Heal Your Pet for more information on giving your pet acupressure.)
Most vets tend to prescribe a 7- to 14-day course of antibiotics for a bite wound, along with a course of painkillers or anti-inflammatory drugs. If the abscess is very large, or your pet is too fractious or aggressive, then the vet will have to anesthetize or sedate him and surgically lance and drain the abscess. Some larger bite wounds may need stitches.
In most cases, you can treat a small abscess or bite wound at home. Treatment will depend on which stage you first noticed the problem. Usually it starts as two puncture wounds caused by the bite, which, if left untreated, results in an abscess, which may then burst and leave an infected open wound.
For bites and other wounds: Clip or trim the fur around the wound area with blunt scissors dipped in mineral oil (to prevent fur from falling into the wound), then wipe the wound with gauze. Rinse the site with warm salt water or water with a bit of added turmeric (a natural anti-inflammatory), then apply Calendula ointment to the wound twice daily for the first two to three days to keep it moist. After two to three days, if the wound appears clean and non-infected, apply some manuka honey to it, which speeds up wound closure.
For abscesses: Give a single dose of one pellet of homeopathic Hepar sulfuris 30C once you see the abscess—this will cause it to rupture and drain. You can also apply a warm moist compress for 10-15 minutes, two to three times a day. This will help burst the abscess.
Cats can be quite vicious when in pain, so only try this if your cat is friendly and will permit it. It's best to leave the abscess open and flush it every day with saline. Give homeopathic Silica 30C—one pellet twice a day for the first three days— to remove debris and prevent scar tissue from forming.
Give one pellet of Arnica 30C twice daily for two days for pain relief and to ease the bruising.
Herbal helpers Catnip cat toy
• Sew together two 100 percent cotton squares (each 6 × 6 in), leaving a small opening.
• Stuff full with dried catnip and then sew up the opening.
• Alternatively, take a clean 100 percent wool sock and stuff with dried catnip before sewing up the opening.
• Give to your cat to play with, always under supervision.
Chamomile and lavender pillow
• Take an old 100 percent cotton sheet and cut into two 10 × 10 in pieces.
• Sew the pieces together, then turn inside out, leaving one side open.
• Fill with 4 oz dried chamomile and 4 oz dried lavender.
• Sew the remaining side.
• Place on top of your pet's bedding, so he or she can choose to sniff it, lie on it or ignore it.