Ask Ethel: Help! My Cat Is a Bully

Ask Ethel: Help! My Cat Is a Bully

updated 06/08/2010 at 04:38 PM EDT

originally published 06/08/2010 04:21PM

Dear Ethel,

There's some serious sibling rivalry going on in my two-bedroom Brooklyn abode. I have 2 cats. We adopted Mylo at age 4 and, now 8, he's been an amazingly loving, docile cat. Almost 2 years ago, I brought home a rescue kitten, whom we named Mickey. From the second he was introduced to Mylo, his instinct was to bite him.

They live peacefully for the most part, though they tend to hang out in different parts of the apartment, and they never cuddle, ever. About once every two or three weeks, the two of them have a drop-down, drag-out fight. Fur flies. Mylo screams. Usually when this happens, I also scream and my husband grabs Mickey's scruff. But the last time this happened, I was home alone, six-months pregnant, and, as I grabbed Mickey, he scratched me on my belly with his back claws -- the wound was awful.

I want to know if there's anything I can do to prevent these cat fights from occurring. I'm just worried that this will happen when the new baby comes along and that I won't be able to handle it. My mom has offered to take Mickey, but we love him so much that I hate to even think about that. Please help!

–Fearful of Cat Fights in Brooklyn

Dear FoCFiB,

Let's be real here. You're three months away from having a baby. In between doctor's appointments and getting everything in order for the baby's arrival, do you really have time to be thinking about how you're going to help your occasionally aggressive cat? Love makes us do crazy, absurd things – and I'm here to suggest that you might want to reconsider that. Your desire to work with Mickey and protect Mylo may not be worth putting yourself and your new baby in danger. A scratch on baby skin – would you want to risk even a slight chance of that happening?

But let's backtrack for a second here and talk about why this is happening and what you might be able to do to help. I reached out to Dr. Jacqui Nielson, DVM, DACVB, of the Animal Behavior Clinic, and though she can't diagnose or treat Mickey without actually meeting him, she can say what she might think about in cases like these.

Nielson says that redirected aggression is a common cause of cat-on-cat attacks. Mickey might see another cat outside and get mad at it, but have no way to express those feelings other than to take it all out on Mylo. Is there anything you can think of that triggers the attacks? Is it a noise outside? The fridge kicking on? The neighbor's dog?

Or, it might be an issue of territorial aggression. Small space, two cats, not enough places to call one's own, perhaps? Your attention is also a resource, and if there's less of that going around now that there are other things to think about, it may be upsetting Mickey. There's also the possibility that something is bothering him physically. Mickey might have an underlying medical issue that's causing him to be agitated, so make sure he's been checked out by the vet.

There's also this to consider: "Sometimes, two cats just don't like each other and really don't get along," Nielson says. "We can't solve it."

In other words, it could be anything. And you don't have much time to figure out what it might be.

Still, there are ways to ease the situation. In general, Nielson recommends using Feliway as a means to reduce overall stress levels in the space. If a fight does break out, don't scream and get hysterical, because that only adds fuel to the fire. Try to break up the fight remotely, either by using a canned fog horn, or by dumping some water on Mickey – anything that doesn't involve getting physically between them.

When you see Mickey showing Mylo friendly, affectionate behavior, reward him for that with a treat, or praise, or extra play. Increased play in general may be good for Mickey, since he's an adolescent and might have lots of pent-up energy.

Another thing you could try is to "explode the environment with resources," Nielson says. Introduce lots of single-sized cat resting places in elevated perches around your house, and have plenty of toys, food and watering sites available for the two of them so that they wouldn't ever fight over resources. Or, you could just separate them in the space so that they don't really come into contact with each other.

But then we bring it back to your baby, who, let's face it, is going to be more important to you than your cats.

"If there's a safety concern for someone in the house, she may have to consider placement for one of the cats," Nielson says. "There is a good chance that the cats would be happier separated."

–Ethel

Got a thorny pet (any pet!) problem that you can't figure out? Try Ethel – she'll do her best to help. Send your questions to helin@peoplepets.com. Include your pet's age, breed and sex, and try to give as much context to your problem as possible.

Previously in Ask Ethel:
Ask Ethel: Why Does My Dog Eat Like a Squirrel?
Ask Ethel: The Pet Insurance Lowdown

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