Redirection of aggression is a phenomenon that isn’t often recognized by pet owners, but can be a significant cause of aggression problems.
It occurs when an animal becomes aggressively motivated but is blocked from actually aggressing against the initial target. That aggressive motivation is then expressed to another individual who wasn’t a part of the original encounter, that is, an “innocent by-stander.” For example, a cat sitting in a window may see a neighbor cat outside and become threatening. She can’t get at the other cat, but redirects her aggression onto her owner who stops to pet her. Redirected aggression may seem to be unprovoked and “out of the blue” if the primary target of the aggression isn’t recognized. Furthermore, cats can hold the aggressive motivation for up to an hour after the original conflict.
Redirected aggression problems between cats who have previously lived together amicably is a problem we see fairly often. We received an email about two female littermates who had been best friends and playmates for 2 ½ years. Subsequent to a visit to the veterinarian, both cats began hissing and growling at one another, with one cat also chasing the other. The owners separated the cats for two days, but the same thing happened when they tried to re-introduce the cats. These pet parents were stumped as to why their cats – who had gotten along so well together virtually all their lives -were now suddenly angry and upset with each other. While both cats supposedly tolerated the veterinary exam, our guess is that both cats were agitated and frightened by the veterinary visit. In addition to being poked and prodded, they were bombarded by sights, smells, and odors of other animals. Cats are particularly sensitive to odors. We've had cases where cats have been to the veterinarian, kennel, or groomer and later been attacked by another resident cat, apparently because of the unfamiliar odors clinging to their fur.
It often isn't simple to resolve aggression problems with cats. Cats don't seem to have the same ability to repair relationships as dogs do. With the Siamese cats we described earlier, and with other cat cases we have seen, one bout of redirected aggression can result in long-term social conflicts between cats. The Siamese owners reacted correctly by immediately separating their cats. The more the cats "practice" these hissing/growling behaviors, the more ingrained they become. So the first step in working with redirected aggression problems, and any kind of aggression problem for that matter, is to prevent any more social conflicts from occurring, which means separating the cats from each other, at least, when they are likely to fight. From there, counter conditioning and desensitization techniques can to be implemented to help the cats re-learn their friendly responses towards one another. Sometimes veterinarians may prescribe anti-anxiety medication to help the behavior modification. It's not uncommon for these problems to require several months of management and behavior modification until the cats can get along together again.
Redirected aggression problems in cats that previously have a good social history with one another usually have a good outcome.
You can Learn more creating and maintaining great relationships among your cats in our DVD “Helping Kitties Co-exist”
If you want a more technical understanding of cat aggression to other cats, take our On-Demand webinar “Feline aggression to other cats.”