Rescue Story: An Unwelcome Visitor!

orange cat in garden
An unwelcome visitor!

I posted the photo and text below on Instagram today, then decided to share it here as a post. While this isn’t quite a rescue story, the activity and its aftereffects have often landed cats permanently outdoors. It’s a wonder how much we know about feline behavior that we did not two or three decades ago when I first encountered redirected aggression, but in rescue have found it to be more common than I ever realized, and it was through this topic that I learned about calming collars well over a decade ago.

black cat mad face
Bella is mad!

Bella’s face when she sees a neighbor cat outside in our catnip garden. You think the unwelcome visitor would disappear into a puff of smoke under the laser focused gaze.

Growing catnip right there is very new. It’s a native plant and self-seeded. I let it grow to see how it worked for my cats indoors. They love the fresh nip and mad faces are so far the worst consequence. And I love it in my pollinator garden.

For indoor cats, the entire inside of the structure they live in is their territory, but they also consider what they can see outside the doors and windows as part of their territory as well. As you can see, many cats don’t care for intrusions of any sort in their territory.

While many cats will watch and mildly react and then wave this off as part of their daily enrichment, other cats want to defend their territory to a certain extent, from meowing, growling or smacking the window to attacking housemates or humans as their aggression is redirected to the nearest being they can get their paws on. And sometimes it will lead to inappropriate urination around the window where the outdoor cat is seen.

In all the years I’ve lived with cats, I’ve seen all of these things happen. My Stanley was constantly aggressive in this way through all his 21 years with me, and in that time he peed on just about everything there was to pee on in the house.

From all of those experiences and consulting with veterinarians and finding early articles about this behavior in magazines and on the internet, I learned the signs. With a large household like mine has always been this can snowball into something really frightening, and sometimes permanently change relationships and behavior among members of the household. When I see trouble beginning to develop I try to redirect it by distraction, usually with something that indicates food, like gently shaking a treat container, or even heading into the kitchen and calling them to come with me.

Redirected aggression

Instagram only permits so many characters in a post, so this is a little condensed, but it’s a good summary of redirected aggression. When cats want to defend their territory and can’t get to the intruder the stress and reaction will stay with some cats. It’s an extreme reaction, but there are those cats who will literally redirect that aggression to the nearest, usually living, thing to them, be that another cat or another pet, or a person. The results can be damaging physically and behaviorally, and it’s something to take very seriously. A sudden and violent act of redirected aggression has broken up housemates, even littermates, who can’t release themselves from the trauma of the event. The two cats usually need to be separated and slowly reintroduced as if they were strangers. I have also seen cats who had to be permanently separated or even rehomed, and a few who were rehomed out to the street over the years.

House soiling

Aside from redirected aggression cats also have other behaviors they engage in when they are stressed in some way, house soiling being the most common, especially urine marking of things in a cat’s territory, and also defecating, as in nature this is one of the ways cats mark the boundaries of their territory. And house soiling is always at the top of the list for reasons why cats are surrendered or abandoned, hence rescuing more than a few, and also helping people with cats who do this.

This leads to my introduction to calming collars. In conversing with a woman who had rescued a kitten we also discussed her current feline, a big long-haired ginger who she obviously adored by the way she described him. And it was clear she was very grateful for the veterinarian who had given her the solution to his urinating on the back of her couch because the alternative with no solution was not something she even wanted to think about.

Her veterinarian helped her to define the conditions of his behavior, when he urinated and whether it was urinating or spraying, and what his behavior was at the time, how he acted afterward and in between. She noticed that he was often pacing on the back of the couch looking out the front window, and sometimes growling and meowing. When she looked out as he did that, and she tried to distract him with talk, she often saw a cat outside, sometimes close to their house, sometimes distant. Her veterinarian explained that he felt the cat was in his territory, he couldn’t get to the cat, and did what cats do when they are stressed, and when they mark their territory with their scent—he either sprayed or urinated on the couch, drapes, wall and window. The veterinarian suggested she try a calming collar which contains the pheromone emitted by a mother cat when kittens are nursing, which signals to kittens that they are safe and secure. She said it started working immediately, though it took three months and three collars to get him to completely stop.

Calming collars

tabby cat at door
Stanley at the door.

I thought of Stanley and how much time and money I could have saved if I had had this available to us! Over the years I replaced computer monitors and printers, pieces of furniture, rugs, and spent time and money cleaning and deodorizing things I wanted to keep, and I put up barriers where I could, like plexiglas panels on my interior doors and plastic covers over my computer equipment and things near windows when I wasn’t using them.

After I talked to her I researched this and asked several veterinarians if they had any experience with calming collars or pheromones. While they’d been around and studied for a while they weren’t in very common use then, around 2011 or 2012. But I did learn about the uses and suggested them to a few people who had cats with house soiling issues, and if they did get them the collars seemed effective.

I started to use Feliway, the first pheromone available as a spray about that time as well when I began trapping and socializing again. As the kittens I socialized became more challenging and I learned more about how kittens socialize with their mother it seemed to me that kittens were in the presence of that nursing mom pheromone all the while they were learning about the world, whether friendly or feral. Perhaps the pheromone could help them with socialization, especially if they seem to get stuck at some point, and also with integrating these same cats into a new household, and the collars did help many cats.

Back around to redirected aggression

Sienna and Basil on the chair.
Sienna and Basil with their collars.

I had an incident of redirected aggression a couple of years ago in this household, in part because of the number of cats and how small my house is. As we gathered in the kitchen for dinner, someone knocked down a collection of enamel trays I had near the basement door, and it made a series of noises as they fell and then some slid down the basement steps. Cats were everywhere, I think they were flying through the air, but it was not funny, it was terrifying. Somehow Giuseppe got hold of Sienna and would not let her go, when I finally separated them she ran upstairs under my chest of drawers. Basil is easily traumatized and the noise and the chaos frightened him into hiding.

I fed everyone but Sienna in the kitchen, but everyone was spooked. Later, when Sienna came down to the kitchen after I had fed her upstairs, Giuseppe went after her again. I fed her under the chest of drawers until I could move her to the bathroom. Basil started spraying in the kitchen and started acting aggressive when anyone came near him, and I decided it was calming collars for all three. In a day or two it dampened a lot of the stress, but it was a week before Sienna could join us again and I had to keep them separated for part of the day for two weeks. I used two cycles of calming collars, and by the time I tried everyone without them we were pretty much back to normal, and they’ve never gone back to that behavior. Thank goodness!

Read more about redirected aggression in cats.


Read other stories in my Rescue Stories series.


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Cat Book Trio

I find my feline inspirations in my rescues. Here’s a trio of books of my artwork and also with some stories. Read more.



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Bernadette

From health and welfare to rescue and adoption stories, advocacy and art, factual articles and fictional stories, "The Creative Cat" offers both visual and verbal education and entertainment about cats for people who love cats, pets and animals of all species.

2 thoughts on “Rescue Story: An Unwelcome Visitor!

  • October 21, 2022 at 8:04 pm
    Permalink

    I learned about redirected aggression when I broke up a cat fight and got a bite.

    Reply
    • October 24, 2022 at 9:25 pm
      Permalink

      That’s how many people are bitten by cats, and it’s really hard to keep your hands out of the fight even if you know not to do that.

      Reply

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