Cat Fights

Dealing with cat fights is a common experience for many cat owners. Cats fight for many reasons, and whilst some fights are more of a warning with no injuries sustained to either animal, often the cats involved can suffer serious injury requiring prompt veterinary attention and appropriate cat medications .

Some owners may be surprised to learn that although many cat fights are between animals from different households, many are also between cats within the same household and can begin even after a prolonged period of cohabitation.

Cats will fight for numerous reasons, predominantly as a result of social friction. Reasons may include (but are certainly not limited to):

  • A new cat entering the environment (territorial fighting)
  • A dominant cat has become ill and weak, died or moved away leaving a position open for a new dominant cat to establish itself
  • A stressor in the house is causing anxiety in a cat and it redirects its anxiety onto another cat in the house
  • Resources may be seen as scarce by the cats so they may fight over access to food or litter trays
  • An undesexed male cat may display heightened levels of aggression and dominance.

Owners often think of cat fights as the very vocal and aggressive displays heard late at night between cats. This is certainly the situation in some cases, but cat fighting can also be more subtle with displays of dominance and aggression resulting in anxiety and subordination in other cats.

The more physical cat fights can be quite debilitating to all cats involved, although often one cat is worse off than others involved. Physical cat fights involve extensive vocalisation, scratching, pawing and biting. This interaction can lead to severe injuries to the cats involved. Psychological effects of cat fights on the non-dominant cat are also an important consideration when trying to manage a situation where cat fights are common.

Veterinarians are commonly presented with a cat which has been involved in a cat fight. The need for veterinary care in an animal injured in a catfight is significant. Cat claws harbour a myriad of bacteria which are transferred into scratches on the injured cat. Similarly the oral cavity of cats contains numerous bacteria which can be implanted under the skin of an injured cat during a cat bite. These bacteria are known to rapidly proliferate under the skin and form abscesses.

Abscesses are swellings in body tissue containing infection and purulent discharges (pus). Cat bite abscesses progress rapidly, causing pain and illness in the affected cat. Abscesses under the skin are initially soft and pliable, often slightly warm to the touch, painful and may have a purulent discharge oozing from them. Cats with abscesses may become systemically unwell, resulting in fever, inappetance and lethargy. Some abscesses will burst spontaneously or through self trauma by the cat, others will need to be surgically opened by a veterinarian. Any cat fight abscess should be examined by a veterinarian as even abscesses which have burst may contain necrotic tissue, pus and bacteria which needs to be removed to allow for adequate healing and recovery. Many cats with cat fight abscesses will be anaesthetised and undergo surgery to drain the abscess and clean and flush the wound. These cats will also need antibiotic pet medications to help treat the infection.

Owners often seek to treat wounds on their cats themselves and see how it goes for a few days before seeking veterinary treatment. Whilst it is recommended to have any injury examined by a veterinarian, in cases where owners choose not to seek professional advice there are a few very important points to consider. Infection thrives in warm, moist environments. Clipping the fur from the area will allow better ventilation of the area and reduce the ability of bacteria to proliferate. Wounds should be cleaned regularly. Warm salty water is a common suggestion. Never use human products on cat wounds without veterinary advice. The use of human antiseptics and astringents on cats is inappropriate. Cats are fastidious groomers and will lick the preparations off their skin, causing ulceration of the tongue and upper gastrointestinal tract and possibly leading to toxicity. These are serious side effects which require immediate veterinary attention. Always buy pet supplies that are approved cat products.

Abscesses are not the only damage which can occur as a result of cat fights. Serious injury can occur if a cat is scratched across the eye region. Damage to an eye is serious and may involve corneal ulcers, puncture of the eye or eye abscessation to name a few possibilities. Any injury to the eye requires immediate veterinary attention.

A consequence of cat fights can also include secondary injuries sustained whilst fleeing from a confrontation. Cats can sustain major injuries by falling, becoming trapped in small spaces or by being hit by a motor vehicle whilst seeking to avoid a confrontation with another cat. The list of possible injuries sustainable in these circumstances is endless.

Cat fights provide an opportunity for the transmission of infectious diseases between animals. Many infectious diseases of cats are spread via contact, saliva or aerosalisation of infectious particles. It is essential that all cats are appropriately vaccinated. Many diseases such as cat flu will be spread between in-contact animals. More concerning perhaps is the spread of feline leukaemia virus (FeLV) and feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) during cat fights. These viruses cause immunodeficiency in affected cats and can result in a range of complex and serious medical conditions. Vaccinations are available for FeLV and FIV but are often offered as an addition to the standard vaccination schedule used by many veterinarians. Owners should discuss the importance of vaccinating their cats against these diseases and others to provide maximal protection for their cat.

A further consequence of regular cat fights in an area involves behavioural changes in the non-dominant cat. Cats in this situation may show displays of anxiety such as over grooming, hiding in unusual places, changes in eating or toileting behaviour and location or signs of retaliative fear aggression.

In order to effectively manage situations in which cat fights are common, an understanding of the stimulus for the attacks is helpful, though this often cannot be readily identified or the impetus for the attack is beyond the owner's control as it involves cats outside their household. There are however some general principles which help in the management and prevention of cat fights.

Owners should ensure that there are an adequate number of cat bowls and litter trays for all cats to have reasonable access to these facilities. Feeding cats individually is advised. It is suggested that animals be fed indoors where possible to reduce the attraction of your yard to cats from other households. It is well understood that entire male cats are more dominant and have heightened levels of aggression compared to desexed males. All non-breeding cats should be desexed.

The use of deterrents in your yard to help reduce the attractiveness of the area to other cats can be considered. The use of water spray bottles to startle unwelcome cats can be effective, as can the use of citronella based products (available from pet product retailers) which deter the animals through its scent. However citronella may also make this area uninviting for your own cat.

In areas with a large population of stray and feral cats who may be competing for limited resources the incidence of cat fights can be increased. Owners in these areas should take all possible precautions to protect their cat. Owners could also consider actively discussing the problem with their local council to ensure that stray and feral cat populations are kept under adequate control in their regions.

Cat fights can occur at any time of day but the prevalence can increase at night. Predatory behaviour of stray and feral cats at this time can increase the risks of confrontations developing. Housing cats indoors at night is highly recommended as an aid in reducing the risk of your cat being involved in a cat fight. Obviously there are other benefits to wildlife and a reduced risk of your cat wandering and being hit by a motor vehicle at night.

Several companies have developed outdoor cat housing facilities which incorporate the outdoor experience with the relative safety of an enclosed environment. These products can be tailor made to suit your personal situation and can allow free access for cats between the internal environment of your house and an enclosed outdoor environment. These cat enclosures can incorporate grassed areas, trees, shade and anything you wish to include. Cats housed in these facilities still receive the exercise and exploring activities associated with being outside but are shielded from other animals. It will also prevent them from wandering and being injured in other ways.

Some cat fights occur within a household and may be due to dominance issues, a new cat entering the household, fear or as a result of an anxiety based reaction.

Behavioural modification therapy is best used in these cases. Slow introduction of any new animals into the household is recommended. Providing safe quiet areas for anxious cats can be a useful adjunct to treatment. Your veterinarian can advise you on methods appropriate for your individual circumstances. A thorough examination of the history of the cats involved and the circumstances in which they enter into conflicts is essential to direct therapy in an appropriate direction. Some cats may benefit from the use of anti-anxiety medications or sprays in conjunction with behavioural modification therapy.

Cat fights are a regular part of life for many cat owning families. Since the consequences of cat fights are numerous and far-reaching, owners are encouraged to implement procedures aimed at minimising the risk of cat fights for their animals. Providing safe enclosures, ensuring vaccinations are up-to-date, modifying any behaviour in their household known to contribute to confrontations between their cats and being vigilant in treating and monitoring any wound sustained by their pet will help contribute to a safe and healthy life for their cat.