Cat Fight! Why Cat Friends Fuss After Vet Visits

Congratulations! Your hard work has paid off, and Kitty no longer fears the carrier and handles the car ride with almost no signs of fear, anxiety or stress. Kitty purrs and cheek-bonks the veterinary technicians and barely notices the doctor’s exam through all the petting and tasty treats. But as soon as you get home, Kitty’s former feline friends snub him, or worse. What’s up with cats treating their returning friends like enemies?

Creating a Fear Free experience for cats doesn’t stop after the veterinary visit. Fear, anxiety, and stress often develop when a cat leaves home and then returns. That’s upsetting and hurtful to pet parents and the returning cat, as well as the whole clowder. You can reduce the chance of cat bashing, though, with these tips.

Why Cat Bashing Happens

Cats likely identify each other by sharing a common communal scent. When they sleep together and groom each other, their individual scents intermingle. That familiar smell acts like a club membership that says, “I belong to the family; I’m safe.”

A long absence, or even brief handling by strangers, changes the scent identification. All that petting by technicians and veterinarians leave foreign smells on Kitty’s fur. Veterinary procedures and medications may also change a cat’s aroma. So when the absent Kitty returns home, the other housecats don’t recognize him and react to the weird smells as though a strange cat has trespassed into the home turf. So they may act offensively to chase the interloper away.

Meanwhile, the returning Kitty reacts fearfully and defensively to the cat bashing. And as long as the former friends remain aggressive, they can’t get close enough to share family scent and return to normal friendly status. The fear, anxiety and stress build and become worse the longer they’re allowed to continue. Cats being treated for illness, who travel back and forth to the vet, may repeat this cycle over and over again. Here’s how to address the problem.

Prevent Post-Vet Visit Conflicts

One easy way to reduce the chance of cat bashing is to take all your cats to the clinic at the same time. That way, they all smell the same when they return home.

If you can’t take all the cats at once, give the returning Kitty some time alone upon returning home. A half day shut in the guest bedroom gives him time to lick-lick-lick away the weird hospital smell, and lets you pet-pet-pet him to reestablish your familiar smell. Time in a quiet area also lets him calm down from the excitement of the carrier/car/clinic combo so he’s less defensive.

You can re-share the “family scent” more quickly by using a clean, dry hand towel. Rub it over the other cats, especially Kitty’s best-friend companion, and pay particular attention to the cheeks. That picks up the friendly-cat pheromones, which can then be rubbed over the returning Kitty to help reestablish communal family scent.

With the first reintroduction, be sure to feed each cat a very special meal such as canned cat food with some distance in-between. Place some novel objects between the cats such as toys, a paper bag, or a cardboard box lightly dusted with some catnip. This may aid in distraction and reduce the likelihood of fixation on the returning Kitty.

It also may help to apply a pleasant scent to all the cats in the home. That makes them smell the same and helps distract them from being aggressive or defensive. Perhaps use a bit of chicken broth or water from the tuna can, rub it on your hands and then pet each cat’s neck. That also means they can’t reach the spot to groom it off and need the help of other buddy-kitties to mutually groom—and refresh the communal safe scent they recognize.

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT