There’s a type of aggression that occurs between cats in the same household after a veterinary visit that can be easily prevented with a little planning. This is the kind of non-recognition aggression you may see when one cat comes home from the veterinary clinic and is either hissed at or actually attacked. For the unsuspecting cat parent (and for the victim cat) it’s terrifying because it comes out of nowhere and seems as if the cat who stayed home no longer recognizes his best friend. The fact is, the returning cat may look the same (in our eyes) but from a feline point of view, she isn’t recognized because she doesn’t smell the same. That may seem odd to a human but when you understand more about how important scent communication is in the feline world, you’ll see that this behavior, however frightening, is actually normal. Luckily though, you can take steps to prevent it.
The Importance of Scent
To better understand the scenario that takes place when the returning cat is attacked, you have to appreciate how cats communicate. They are masters at it and use vocalization, body language, visuals and yes, scent! In fact, scent is arguably at the top of the list.
The pheromones (scent chemicals) cats give off from their scent glands provide other cats with a huge amount of information. Every time your cat rubs her cheek along an object she’s depositing a scent; when cats flank rub each other they are exchanging scents; when one kitty lovingly grooms another she is putting her scent there. In a cat colony, this mixing of scents through allogrooming, flank rubbing, etc., is important to the security and peace of the group because it creates a communal scent.
Have you noticed how your cat may sniff your shoes or your clothes when you return home? That’s because you are carrying unfamiliar scents into the territory. If you were at a home with another cat, your cat will probably do some seriously intense sniffing to gather as much information as possible. So imagine how threatening it must be for the cat who stayed home to see a cat being let out of the carrier, into her territory, who is carrying unfamiliar scents. In fact, when it comes to not smelling like her normal self, the situation is made worse because the scents are those of a very threatening (from the cat’s perspective) place.
The returning cat doesn’t smell the same and actually is carrying scents that the returning cat associates with fear. Not many cats look forward to a visit to the veterinarian. Having your companion cat actually bringing those threatening scents into your territory? Time to panic!
The Offense and Defense
The cat who stayed home issues an initial attack. The returning cat doesn’t know where this came from and so she reacts defensively. Well, now we have a two-way battle going on. There’s no way, at this point, either cat will stop and re-evaluate the situation and realize the true source of the aggression.
What can make the situation even worse is if the returning cat is already stressed out from the veterinary visit, is sick, recovering from an injury or illness, or not happy about having had to be in a car.
Preventing This Type of Aggression
- If the visit is for routine vaccinations or exams, schedule an appointment for both cats. That way they’ll both have a similar scent.
- If you’re taking just one cat to the veterinary clinic, before leaving, take a pair of clean socks and gently rub her down, including around the cheeks, to collect the pheromones. Place the socks in a plastic bag. Then, take another pair of socks and rub the cat who will be staying home. If you have several cats, rub the cat who is the most bonded to the kitty who will be making the veterinary visit. Then put those socks in the bag as well. Keep that bag at home.
- When you return from the veterinary clinic, place the returning cat in a separate room and close the door. Take the socks out of the plastic bag and gently rub her down again to redistribute some of her own scent and mix it with the scent of her companion cat. Leave her alone in the room (or at least keep her separated from other pets in the household). This time alone will give her an opportunity to do some self-grooming so she can clean off more of the unfamiliar scents and redistribute her own, comforting scent. The time alone in the room will also give her a chance to acquire some of the normal household “scents” as well.
- A note of caution: do not take the socks and rub down the cat who stayed home. This will not end nicely. You definitely don’t want to distribute the veterinary clinic smell to any other cats. Just take those socks and place them in your washing machine.
- While the cats are separated, take the carrier and wash it out to remove the veterinary clinic smell.
- When you feel enough time has gone by and you want to reintroduce the cats, monitor their behavior until you’re sure everyone is back to normal. You can conduct an interactive play session, offer a meal or offer treats for distraction. This might be the time to break out the super-special treats or the incredibly tasty food that you normally only offer on special occasions. If, however, the situation still seems tense, separate the cats again for a longer period.
Need More Information?
For more specific information on multicat household issues, refer to the book Cat vs. Cat.