Redirected Aggression: A Case Study

By Jackson Galaxy

From The Galaxy Files – “Trouble In Paradise”

When I received the phone call for assistance, the voice on the other end was not just frustrated, as I am accustomed to hearing. She was utterly bewildered, and on the verge of tears. Diane had shared her country home with littermates Cherokee (female) and Mallo (male) for their entire seven years. They were beautiful Himalayan mixes, and in the pictures she E-mailed all one could pick out was four eyes, and an entanglement of fur on the couch, their favorite snoozing-together spot. Mallo had always been the alpha cat, dictating who would get favored sunning spots and when, who got which bowl, and so forth. I assured her that this was not just normal, but a necessary function of cat society, so there were no worries there.

The problem was an “incident” that happened about two weeks before her call to me. The incident resulted in a complete turnaround in their personalities, their relationship, and resulted in her veterinarian putting both of the cats on psychotropic drugs.

We had to do some re-tracing of events to get a correct diagnosis, but I had my suspicions from the start. Diane said that there was a large bay window off her great room that faced a large backyard. Cherokee and Mallo would often sit together in the window after dinner and watch birds at the feeder until the sun set. On this evening, Diane suddenly heard the horrible noise of the fight. When she ran to the scene of the crime, both cats were gone. There was fur plastered to the window, which let us know that the fight happened right there, and a small amount of blood on the floor. Upon closer inspection, there was a trail of urine headed under the kitchen table, which is where she found Cherokee huddling. Mallo appeared a short time afterward, very cautiously peering from inside Diane’s bedroom, his fur still erect, his tail “wagging like a dog,” as she described it to me. Not knowing what had happened, and understandably in a bit of a state of shock and denial, she hoped the two would just work it out as the night went on. No such luck, of course. They fought again, with much the same result: Cherokee under a table, this time sitting in her own feces.

Two strikes, she thought, and they’re out. She separated the two, heartbroken and confused, and contacted her veterinarian. Besides patching up Cherokee’s ear (the source of the blood from the first fight), it was decided to work with Elavil as a way to help stabilize both of the cats’ moods. After introducing the drug, all Diane noticed was that both Cherokee and Mallo became more “dopey,” but both remained vigilant when let out of their respective rooms, even though the other cat was nowhere to be seen.

This brought us up to date. I was able to first clear up the confusion for Diane. By explaining what had happened in as technical terms as possible, my hope was to take some of the emotion out of it so that she could be ready for what could be potentially a long process of behavioral recovery. Of course, to have your only two “children” tear each other to shreds and have to be separated permanently must be terribly painful. To not know why they suddenly hate each other must be worse.

I began by asking Diane about neighborhood cats. She said that recently there was one she hadn’t seen before but was coming around more and more. My theory was this: as her cats were sitting in the window, the neighborhood stray came out, as he or she naturally would during the prime sunset hunting hour. The stray suddenly popped into view, perhaps diving for one of the birds on the windowsill. This took both cats by extreme surprise, provoking the following chain reaction: they both vocalize, but Mallo redirected his aggression onto Cherokee, which caused her initial injury. This led to the second phase: the retreat, and the ensuing distrust and re-evaluation of their long-standing relationship.

Diane was initially in disbelief. “What you’re telling me is that the appearance of a strange cat in the window caused two loving littermates to hate one another after seven years?” I explained to her that redirected aggression knows no specific target. When the stray surprised the two and sent them into fight or flight response, Diane herself could have been standing there trying to calm things down and she would have been torn up pretty badly by one or both of them. Cats, I explained, are both predators and prey; they are survivors. At some point, their autonomic nervous system kicks in and overrides any sense of “reason”, and their body dictates what it should do in order to survive. Long story short, the incident was nothing personal. The aftermath, however, is.

After a serious bout of redirected aggression, reintroducing brother and sister as if they were strangers is the best course of action. I outlined setting up proper base camps for both cats (see How to Prepare for Your New Cat). As luck would have it, there were two rooms right across a narrow hallway from each other. This way, while in their own rooms, they could still smell the other cat yet feel safe. I then took Diane through the steps of slowly introducing two stranger cats (see Cat-to-Cat Introductions) with the emphasis on slow. My job with Diane was to get her to understand the physical steps involved, but more importantly, the need for patience. There was most likely no magic bullet here that was going to make Mallo and Cherokee forget hostilities and call an instant cease-fire. This was going to take some time. Each cat would get equal access to important territorial areas, like her bedroom, and equal roaming time during the day, so as not to feel as if they were being unjustly punished.

A few weeks passed, and Diane successfully accomplished feeding the two on opposite sides of a cracked door (this took a bit of time mainly because Cherokee would hide under a bed every time she made eye contact with Mallo). Once this hurdle was crossed, we waited until they were eating without incident for a solid week before moving on. For the next phase, Diane needed help, and found it in her friend and regular cat sitter, Crystal. Crystal was also a veterinary technician. This combination worked well because someone who knew cats in general, and Diane’s cats specifically, could work calmly in case there was a flare-up. I had Diane find a harness that fit Mallo, and begin just letting him walk around the house with it on, getting used to the feel of it. Sometimes it takes weeks, sometimes cats adjust instantaneously. It took Mallo a few days before he would walk with harness on, but he soon took to it. It was also very important, since I wasn’t there to help, that Diane make sure that the harness was comfortable, yet secure enough that he couldn’t wriggle loose during the sessions we had planned. As a rule of thumb, you want to be able to slide two or three fingers comfortably between harness and cat, but still have a snug fit.

When all was ready, I talked Diane and Crystal through the first session. I warned them that the session might only last a minute, maybe less, and that was OK. We had to let go of expectations and measure success by how many minutes we could have them in a room together successfully. Both cats had not been fed that day, which upped the ante in terms of food motivation. Diane was also armed with both of their favorite toys. We started with Mallo already situated in the great room, and began playing with him and dishing out pieces of cut up ham, as a reward for keeping his attention where we wanted it. He was on harness, and attached to the harness was a 5′ lead. This way, if he decided to dive for Cherokee, Crystal didn’t have to do the yanking and pulling away, we could let the lead do that for us, so Mallo wouldn’t feel punished. Frustrated, perhaps, at not being able to reach his target, but not punished. Diane would lead Cherokee into the room from her base camp room with toys and food. Bear in mind that we are working with the two cats on the opposite sides of a large room. Cherokee also needs to feel the sense of a perceived escape route from Mallo so that the encounter didn’t turn into disaster. (I defined disaster as her losing bowel control or urinating in fear and hiding for the rest of the night). We had gotten to the point where she could make eye contact and eat within a foot of a cracked door from Mallo; we didn’t want to backslide.

The object of each session: how long can we go with these two cats ignoring one another, or at the very least, minimizing one another’s presence? As it might have been expected, the first session lasted about thirty seconds. Cherokee came in the room, body low to the ground, but accepting treats. Crystal expertly occupied Mallo. However, as soon as he locked on Cherokee, the food and the toys took a back seat, and he began to stalk her. Crystal let him lead her for a bit, but when she sensed Cherokee about to dart, she let the 5′ lead run out. When he hit the end of the lead, he struggled, pulled, wriggled, and Cherokee took off. “OK,” I said,” session over.”

Diane couldn’t hide her devastation. Thirty seconds? She had to rebuild a lifetime of trust out of 30 seconds? I guess it was time for the brutal honesty part of being her behavior coach. “Yeah. That’s what you need to do. Unless you think it’s better to re-home one of them. And, we can reassess things as time goes on. If we’re not making any progress, we shouldn’t bang our heads against the wall and make these two permanently miserable. But let’s take one baby step at a time.” I recommended keeping a diary of the daily sessions, so instead of seeing 45 seconds as a failure, she can see it as 15 seconds more than last time. Over the course of a few weeks, my hope was to see significant progress, as we would usually see in re-introduction processes.

We also decided to work with essence therapy. One of the great things about being a behavior consultant is being able to take my experience back to Dr. Jean, talking about my needs in a very specific case, and coming up with a remedy, or in this case a remedy combination that would go on to become a very successful part of our Spirit Essence stock remedy collection. In this case, we decided to take our remedy “Peacemaker,” and have Diane put that in both cats’ water as well as misting the whole house with it. Simultaneously, we would have her use two new formulas. One was called “Bully Remedy,” for Mallo, and the other, Self-Esteem, for Cherokee. These would be applied three times a day topically to each cat, as well as in their wet food and the water bowls that remained in their respective “base camps.”. The main idea was not only to smooth out the rough edges in the dynamic of the relationship, but also to have Cherokee reclaim a stake in the territory. There have been studies that show that social structures like this one can only be addressed by the abused cat standing up, not the abuser stepping down. All we needed was Cherokee standing up for herself one time and things could begin to change again.

The remedy combination was to become “Ultimate Peacemaker.” It’s a pioneering concept in essence therapy we’re very proud of. And it worked that first time out of the box. Over a short time, Diane found that she was able to wean both cats off of the Elavil and just use the essences as a way of keeping things calm internally. She also told me that the essences worked even better when we created personalized remedies, adjusting them as the cats’ relationship began to change and heal. Essences, like the relationship itself, are fluid things that can address and compensate for the subtle changes in their personalities. We also added a Feliway diffuser to the great room, to help soften the edges around their territory. Feliway is a synthetic composite of cat’s cheek pheremone, a “friendly” marker that is constantly being pumped out. Think aromatherapy for cats.

Finally, we needed to block off visual access to the backyard. Diane took down her birdfeeder and lowered the shades in the bay window. The yard was just too big to prevent strays from coming in, so we had to minimize the chances of any kind of surprises happening again. The last thing we needed at any time in our process was another unfortunate incident sending us back to square one!

The solution was truly a journey. My initial conversation with Diane was three years ago, and we still talk today, just to see how Cherokee and Mallo are doing. It took about three months of sessions to be able trust them in the same room together again. Bear in mind she didn’t have access to Crystal’s services every day, so the sessions only happened three times a week. Still, she persevered beautifully. She called me weekly, it seemed, to tell me it wasn’t going to work, but it always came down to not seeing forest for the trees. “They did 5-1/2 minutes today?” I would ask. “My records say we started at 30 seconds.” I was so proud of all of them. It is amazing how one second of turmoil can turn a world upside down, but they have all recovered. It very often comes down to putting method over emotion.

Diane recently wrote to me and let me know that they moved to a bigger home. She said that the two cats’ relationship is now better than ever; maybe because of leaving behind the scene of the old crime.

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