As a kitten, Louis used to stay around the family home all the time. He loved being in the house, and he enjoyed playing with humans. As he grew older, he gradually changed, becoming more of an outdoor animal. He had a cat flap, so he was able to come and go as he pleased. When he was around six months of age, Katrina noticed that he was beginning to mark his territory in the garden, piddling against fence posts and vegetation. She never saw other cats around, but she noticed that Louis behaved in a watchful, wary way sometimes, as if he sensed that there were other cats close by.
When he reached the age of a year or so, Louis began to leave the garden. He would head off by himself, over the back fence, and would not come back for several hours. Katrina reckoned this was part of a cat’s enjoyment of life, and she left him to his adventures. When Louis started to come home with small cuts on his face, and tufts of fur missing from his body, she realised that he must be getting into fights with other cats somewhere. She hoped that the behaviour would settle down, but in fact, it gradually worsened. Louis began to stay out all night, and when he came home, he looked beat-up and exhausted. He would retire to his bed, licking his wounds, and he would sleep for hours.
Last week, Louis stayed away for two full days. When he came home, he looked as if he had been through twelve rounds in a boxing ring. His face was swollen, and one of his eyes was half closed. He had lost weight while he was away, and he ate two bowlfuls of food before settling down for a snooze. At this stage, Katrina brought him in to see me, to find out if anything could be done to make his life a little easier.
When I examined him, Louis had recovered from his previous day’s adventure, and he looked healthy, if a little thin. I explained to Katrina that Louis was behaving like a typical adult male cat. He had reached sexual maturity at six months of age, but he was now going through the process of achieving social maturity. This happens between two and four years of age. Cats in this age group start to try to take control of their social groups. They begin to get into regular fights with other cats, and this is what was happening to Louis. It can be difficult for humans to work out what cat fights are about, but the underlying theme is “access to resources”. The resources may be food or water, or they could be territory, such as sunny patches of the garden, areas where the cats can survey the environment (shed roofs, or walls), and so on.
When Louis went off on his travels, he was obviously meeting up with other cats, and having a busy social life. This had been relatively uneventful when he was young, but now that he was becoming socially mature, he was not just going to sit back and watch older cats get the best things in life. As a male cat, he had a strong urge to try to get the good resources for himself, and he was quite happy to fight for them. Unfortunately, cat fights can have serious consequences. Louis had only suffered from minor bites and bruises so far, but there are many other possible ill effects, including abscesses, lacerations and worse. On rare occasions, a cat fight can even be “to the death”. In addition, some very serious viruses can be spread by cat bites, including Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV) which is the cause of Cat AIDS.
The best way to minimize fighting is to have male cats castrated. Male hormones form a large part of the drive to aggression in all species (you just need to visit an accident and emergency ward on a Saturday night to see evidence of this in our own species). Research has demonstrated that if male cats are neutered, the incidence of fighting is reduced by 80%. Neutering is usually done when a cat is as young as six months of age, but it is effective at any age. After our discussion, Katrina booked Louis in for neutering the following day, but she wanted to know if there was anything else she could do to give him a more peaceful life.
It is almost impossible to completely prevent cats from fighting, because it is such a deeply engrained social behaviour. The only way to stop Louis from ever getting into another scrap would be to make him into a house cat. The cat flap could be permanently locked, and he could start to live a quieter life inside. Some owners make this choice on behalf of their pets, and as long as efforts are made to keep indoor animals entertained, they can have enjoyable lives. It’s best to install extra toys, like so-called “cat gyms”, with ledges to jump on, and scratching posts to file claws. A “cat fountain”, with moving water, can be used instead of a normal water bowl to add an interesting angle to simple activities like drinking.
Katrina was adamant that Louis would not be suited to an indoor-only life, so he is going to continue to have free access to the outdoors. His neutering operation went well, and just a week later, Katrina is delighted with the result. Louis is back to being playful, his eyes are brighter, his coat shinier, and he only leaves the family home for toileting reasons. According to Katrina, he is like the “old” young Louis again.
- Cat fights are a normal but unfortunate part of the social life of all cats
- Fighting carries the risk of physical injury, as well as infection with serious viruses
- Fighting behaviour reduces by 80% when male cats are castrated