Are they really getting along?  by Jennie Willis, PHD


“It came out of nowhere,”  owners will often say when their pets get into a fight.    It may seem this way, but often there were daily warning signs that went unnoticed.    Relationships are complex and fights often erupt when their environmental stress has gotten too great.   Communication needs to go two ways between pets and when it doesn’t, the more subtle communications become aggression.

Signs to watch for in cats

  • Most aggression in cats stays at the level of staring.  When one cat is staring at the other, they are signaling intent.  If the other cat moves out of the way or leaves the room, that may be all that happens.  If nothing about the other cat’s behavior changes, then staring may escalate.  The victim or the aggressor can be the one engaging in staring.
  • Elimination issues often signal anxiety and stress. Where two cats are having relationship issues, one cat may stay in hiding or avoid common areas including the litterbox.  Of course, the first thing to check with inappropriate urination or defecation are medical issues.  Elimination problems in cats and relationship issues are closely intertwined.
  • Chasing or wrestling where one cat leaves, or there is not a clear give and take. Sometimes it can be confusing whether interactions like these are play.  If both cats briefly disengage and then return, it is likely to be play.  If it is very one sided, it may be a more significant struggle.  Confrontations don’t have to draw blood to be a fight.  Often cats don’t injure eachother, but it doesn’t have any less significance because there wasn’t any damage.

Signs to watch for in dogs

  • Staring can be the way aggression begins in dogs too. Often the recipient of the stare may look away or walk away, indicating they don’t wish to have a conflict.  Usually if they stare back, there may be an immediate conflict.  They may de-escalate the situation for many years before a fight actually happens, leading you to feel like it was sudden.  So what changed?
  • Physical competition. Sometimes this looks like jockeying for position through doorways, where one dog then barks at the other coming through.  It can also occur when they compete for your attention, where one will always push the other out of the way.  Jostling and posturing can also occur over food and toys.
  • Resting in access areas such as in front of the dog door and near the kitchen or food areas can be power areas where dogs looking to control their environment may choose to lay. Requiring the other dog to pass by to gain access provides a point from which that dog can know what is going on and interact to prevent access to key resources or area.

If you see some of these warning signs, don’t panic.  It is not inevitable that fighting will begin.  Instead it is time to think about how to support the relationships between your pets.  It begins by trying to understand what is important to each pet and help relieve situational stress.