Dear Ms Kitty,
I recently had to take my longhaired cat Duncan to the vet to be groomed. He had lesions under his mats that had to be stitched, so he came back with a lion cut and a cone. His brother Gibbs didn’t seem to recognize him and now they are fighting! What can I do to get them back together?
Naked in Nederland
He may not understand but poor Duncan has become the victim of non-recognition aggression, according to Feline Behaviorist Pam Johnson-Bennett.
He went away to the vet as a fluffy cat who smelled like your family and came back skinny and stinky, looking and smelling like a completely different cat. If the cone is hard plastic, it may even be preventing him from moving around normally and he may not be able to see or hear well. It’s no wonder Gibbs didn’t recognize him!
Cats are extremely sensitive to scent. Our friend Shannan Longley, the owner of Catology Boarding and Grooming, tells us a lion cut is serious and should only be used when the cat’s fur is extremely matted.
Between the lion cut and the terrifying bath, Duncan’s normal scents were completely removed. They were replaced by the smells of shampoo, alcohol and disinfectants, smells that Gibbs may negatively associate with his own scary trips to the vet.
Though most vets and groomers don’t think to warn people about this, it’s completely normal for Gibbs to react strongly to Duncan. After all, would you welcome a complete stranger into your home without warning? You would probably want to remove him immediately too!
If you find yourself with fighting cats after bringing one home from the vet or groomer, the most important thing to do is to separate them immediately. Get one of them into a room—preferably their Safe Room or a room they like being in—and close that door!
Leaving them out to “work it out” will only make it worse. Each time they fight makes them more prone to react negatively to each other the next time. You need to repair the damage and build up those loving, positive associations again.
Repair the scents
You need to get Duncan back to smelling like he’s part of the family colony again. First, give him plenty of time in his Safe Room to decompress and rub his scents around the room, including using the litterbox.
Unless he is still feeling ill, Duncan should want to groom himself to get rid of those unfamiliar smells. The more he does that, the more he will smell familiar to Gibbs.
You can speed it up by scenting Duncan yourself. Take a blanket or other bedding from where he and Gibbs sleep. Fold it small and gently pet Duncan all over with it. You can also use some of your clothing with your scent on it (stinky workout gear is great for this!) to pet him.
Be aware that his reaction to petting his skin could be different as well. Hold the fabric up to him and ask his permission before you start. Make sure to gently touch all of his body and tail if you can.
Now take the same fabrics and pet Gibbs. You are mixing their scents again, just like they would when they groom each other.
After petting Gibbs, return to Duncan and pet him again. You can repeat this several times to make sure they smell like each other, recreating the common colony scent.
Assess the collar
Veterinarians send home e-collars to prevent further injury, but sometimes behaviors associated with the collar can be nearly as harmful. If you were sent home with a hard, opaque plastic collar, consider getting a softer padded fabric or inflatable one. It just needs to go past the end of Duncan’s nose to prevent him from grooming the incisions.
Your local pet supply store should offer some options and there are lots of online choices. Be aware that many of them attach to a collar, so if Duncan doesn’t wear a collar, you will have to get one of them too.
Considering that getting used to a collar can be challenging for some cats, bringing him home from what has probably been a very scary experience and expecting him to adjust quickly to having something big, unfamiliar, uncomfortable and restrictive around his neck is asking a lot.
Duncan will probably be off balance and clumsy in an e-collar. He may also be fearful because he can’t see and he won’t be able to hear as well either. Again, this can make him a complete stranger to Gibbs.
Please go slowly and reassure him that you still love him. Also make sure he can get to his food and water normally. If you have to remove the collar temporarily to ensure that, please do. If he doesn’t go after his stitches, you may not need to use it any more.
Reintroduce if needed
If the two cats actually had a fight, a reintroduction may be necessary. The point is to slow down their meeting and make it positive to give Gibbs time to realize that Duncan is someone he knows.
Along with scent mixing by petting, you can also mix scents by switching the cats. Without letting them see each other, let Duncan out into the rest of the house and put Gibbs in Duncan’s room.
They will rub on corners and possibly roll to scent the room themselves, including using each other’s litter boxes. This is completely appropriate behavior and helps to re-acclimate Gibbs to Duncan’s new scents.
Then return Duncan to the room If there is space under your door, they will probably interact there. There may be hissing but watch for it to go away to just being curious again.
When it comes time to open the door, you can keep it gradual by adding a baby gate to the opening. You probably won’t be able to prevent anyone from going over it, but giving them time to peek at each other before going face-to-face is the object.
If you can get another person to help, give them treats on either side and praise them both when they first see each other. If anyone is still growling or hissing, try to avoid treating while they are doing that.
Do this in short spurts at first, adding more time with each visit. You will know when it’s safe to let out Duncan by watching them go back to their old behaviors. This may not happen until the cone comes off, especially if you stick with an old school large one.
Once Gibbs realizes that this cat in his house smells familiar, even though he looks completely different, he should start to act more normally. Before long, you’ll have your affectionate boys back together again!
Sara Ferguson is the Director of Happy Cats Haven. Ask Ms Kitty supports cat behavior consulting offered by Carole Galloway of Colorado Cats Boarding through our website at HappyCatsHaven.org/helpline/.