Treating Aggression Towards Other Household Cats

What is the best way to safely introduce (or reintroduce) a cat into the household?

Introductions and re-introductions for cats who have been fighting must be gradual and systematic. Except when you are directly supervising, each cat should have a safe space. This will prevent any possibility that one cat might chase the other—it is essential that neither cat is frightened. The safe space should be comfortable and meet the cat’s needs—food, water, toys, and a cozy resting spot, ideally with a nice view. Provide each cat with sufficient play, social interactions, and reward-based training. If you have a room with a glass door, it may also be possible to allow the cats to see each other through a secure partition as long as there is no hissing, growling, or lunging.

Provide each cat with an opportunity to explore the entire house safely, with no risk of being chased. Cats deposit pheromones as they walk about, even more so when they rub on objects. Pheromones allow the cats to communicate and learn about each other when it is their turn to explore. If you have just adopted a new cat, your veterinarian may recommend a complete isolation or quarantine period. Once that period has passed, you may allow the new cat to explore the home while the resident cat is safely confined.

"Pheromones allow the cats to communicate and learn about each other..."

The behavior modification technique that is most often used to introduce or reintroduce cats is systematic desensitization and counterconditioning. Schedule training sessions in a neutral area rather than in one of the cat’s safe spaces. Keep a heavy blanket handy for an emergency. (See the handouts “Behavior Modification - Implementing Desensitization and Counterconditioning” and “Aggression in Cats - Aggression Toward Other Household Cats”.)

You will need a barrier that will allow the cats to see each other without being able to get too close for either cat’s comfort. The barrier can be a tall baby gate or cat fencing. Another option is to use a large wire dog crate, or if both cats tolerate leashes well, the cats can be restrained using a leash and harness. Use care as some cats become aroused, and when one cannot reach the other, he may redirect aggression toward the person holding the leash. If you plan to use a crate or a harness and leash for exposure exercises, first train the cats to accept the harness or get accustomed to their crates.

During the training session, offer each cat a small tasty meal on opposite sides of the barrier. Begin with the dishes far enough apart that each cat can eat willingly and comfortably. After two or three successful sessions, move the dishes slightly closer to the barrier. After the cats have eaten, if they are not showing signs of fear or aggression (hissing, growling, lunging, or trying to escape), you may extend the session by offering each cat toys, treats, play, or any other rewarding activity. If the reward is sufficiently appealing, the cats will focus on their rewards rather than each other. In addition, if the rewards are saved exclusively for these introduction times, the cats will quickly learn to expect good things to happen in each others’ presence (counterconditioning). Keep the cats’ attention so that neither approaches the barrier.

Another way to integrate cats is with play therapy. Many cats will begin to bat a toy back and forth by reaching under a barrier. You may also use a wand toy to encourage chasing and pouncing. Begin by having both cats play at a distance from each other. Over time, put the toys between the cats and let them take turns playing.

"Over time, put the toys between the cats and let them take turns playing."

If one or both cats will not eat or play, even after several attempts, separate them. Consult a veterinary behaviorist who can identify and treat the anxiety, fear, or frustration that might prevent one or both cats from improving.

Desensitization can take time—if there is any sign of fear or aggression, move the dishes further apart. Eventually, you should be able to feed the cats close to the barrier and then remove the barrier altogether. Begin to increase the cats’ time together but continue to supervise so that you can identify fear and aggression early. Cat body language can be subtle.

In the long term, your cats may become neutral, mostly ignoring each other, or they may become best friends, snuggling, grooming, and playing. Working with a behavior professional to ensure they progress appropriately is always helpful.  

Can pheromones help my cats accept each other?

Pheromones are chemicals that are secreted into the environment. The information in these chemicals is species-specific and may be used to communicate with other species members. Pheromones can help cats learn about each other and enhance harmony. Cats part of a cohesive social group often deposit pheromones on each other by rubbing each other’s body with their cheeks.

Cheeks are a significant source of pheromones, but there are other scent glands on the body. To familiarize the cats with each other’s scent, wipe a towel gently over the areas where scent glands are most prominent (e.g., the face, back, and tail), and then rub this pheromone-scented towel on the other cat. Then leave the towel with that cat. Repeat the process in reverse so that each cat has been rubbed and has a towel to investigate. The Feliway® MultiCat (Feliway® Friends in Canada) diffuser, an artificial pheromone, may also be placed in each cat’s safe space and in the neutral room used for training sessions.

How long does it usually take to introduce or reintroduce cats?

It can take a week to a year to introduce or reintroduce cats—you cannot rush the process. The cats must remain separated unless supervised. If there is steady progress but still specific contexts in which aggression continues, you likely need to consult a behavior professional who can recommend other strategies. Alternatively, the cats may need always to be supervised or separated to prevent conflict at high-risk times.  

Can other training or management tools reduce tension between my cats?

It can be helpful to teach cats to come when called and to move away to a place on cue. If you notice one cat staring at the other or one of your cats trying to back away, you can call one or both cats to reduce social pressure. (See the handout “Behavior Modification – Clicker and Target Training”.)

"Provide plenty of social and environmental enrichment in the cats’ living space."

Provide plenty of social and environmental enrichment in the cats’ living space. Provide easy access to several feeding stations, litter boxes, climbing areas, and resting places. One way to provide a safe haven is to install an electronic cat door through which one cat can retreat to a private room. These cat doors will only open for the cat wearing a coordinated collar or chip.

What if neither cat seems to get comfortable with the other?

Although free-roaming cats live in social groups, they have the option to leave a group if they do not feel welcome. The social groups we create for them within the confines of our homes do not provide these opportunities. Sometimes, cats’ personalities make them incompatible housemates despite slow and careful training. The options for a safe resolution include finding a new home for one of your cats or providing separate living quarters for each cat within the home. Though cats do not tolerate stress very well, as long as they have a safe and wonderfully enriched environment, they can be very flexible, whether in a new home or a new area of your current home.