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About two and a half years ago, our two normally indoor-only cats, Penelope and Wolfi, slipped out the back slider screen door that wouldn't always latch properly (getting a new screen door was one of the first things we did after the ensuing dust settled). Long story short, we were able to woo them both back in within about 15-20 minutes, but Wolfi (our now 5 year old male graybie) stayed out a bit longer than Penelope (~10 year old female white/tabby) and by the time we got them both back in, for reasons still a bit mysterious to me, even after lots of research into this, Penelope started attacking Wolfi. She was displaying signs of what I now know is referred to as feline nonrecognition aggression. If you live in a multi-cat household, you might have experienced a little bit of this when you bring one cat home from the vet, especially after an extended stay for something like surgery or a dental cleaning. Typically, one cat becomes the aggressor and will react aggressively to the unusual scent the other cat brought in from outside, home from the vet, etc. We got through that episode in about five days, give or take, and I always meant to write about it but I never did (I don't write about my cats super often here, but I have from time to time over the past nearly 18 years of blogging and two pairs of cats, plus some volunteer favorites and foster kittens). Well, it happened again last week and, fresh on my mind as it is, I thought I'd finally write a little recap here.

First evening pre-separation, Penelope ready to pounce if Wolfi comes out of hiding.

There are tons of resources on the internet about this phenomenon and the reintroduction process (the same process you follow if you're introducing a new cat to your resident cat for the first time) that you might have to follow to reestablish peace in the house. So this is more a journal entry of what we've experienced, both episodes following a pretty similar correction course. Step 1: I hate to say it, especially if you live in a small home, but you're going to have to separate the cats and keep them separate until you can safely reintegrate them with less and less supervision. Given we're renting a very small house at the moment while our house is renovated (almost 4 months down with about 2 months to go, fingers crossed) I tried to avoid this for several hours the first evening until, by about 1 am the next morning, it was clear none of us was going to get any sleep unless I did so. But I should back up here to describe how we think this episode began...

On Friday morning, in the middle of a bit of a heat wave, I woke up early as I do most days, fed them, opened a few windows and the kitchen door (keeping the security/screen door closed, of course) and then proceeded out front to the detached garage to do my morning workout. At some point while I was out there the neighbor's cat two doors down, who visits our back yard quite often (I should add that we're renting the house next door to our house during this transition), came right up to the kitchen screen door. He always gets a reaction from Penelope but never to the point that she transfers her aggression to Wolfi. That said, I think she's become a bit resensitized to him over the past four months given he doesn't venture over to this temporary rental yard nearly as often. Even though this initial episode on Friday morning was brief and both cats calmed down after we closed the door and kept an eye on them for a couple of hours, something triggered them again on Sunday evening (we still don't know what) while nerves were clearly still rattled. So separate them I finally did, with Penelope in our bedroom, along with a spare litterbox and extra food and water, and Wolfi free to roam the rest of the house. I slept on the couch so he wouldn't meow at the door/in the hallway and wake everyone up. Penelope was pretty content in the room, although it did get harder and harder to slip in and out of that room without her escaping into the rest of the house as the reintroduction process progressed. (This separation, with Penelope in a bedroom and Wolfi in the rest of the house, works well for them given their very different energy levels and it generally seems like the recommendation is to keep the aggressor cat, Penelope in our case, in a separate room rather than the other way around.)

Step 2: After the initial separation, you want to basically give them time to decompress and just generally chill out.  So don't do much initially until they've both calmed down. The part I always forget at this stage after they've calmed down a bit is what Jackson Galaxy (aka The Cat Daddy) refers to as "no peeking!" They will pick up on each others' scent but they should not be allowed to see each other at this stage. At mealtime you can feed each cat on either side of the door, getting their bowls as close to the door as they'll allow without showing any signs of aggression. For Penelope and Wolfi, we were able to put their bowls right next to either side of the door pretty much right away but you might have to start a few feet from either side of the door. What you're looking for is getting them as close to each other as possible (again, with the door closed initially) without any signs of aggression. If you move the bowls too close and one cat starts hissing, just move the bowl a bit further away from the door. At each mealtime try nudging them a bit closer to the door (moving what Galaxy refers to as each cat's "challenge line").

Step 4 (see below for Step 3): From there, after a day or so in our case, we introduced the visuals, with barrier, basically opening the door just an inch or two with a human on either side to be sure they can't access one another or push the door all the way open. If you move too quickly or accidentally let them have access to one another prematurely, you may have to start the process all over again. Give them lots of praise during this phase. Gradual baby steps are key here. You can also repeat this process throughout the day with treats. My cats like dental treats, meat tubes, and, of course, cat crack: tuna juice.

Looks like she's hissing but she's just mid-meow. She actually did pretty well, all things considered.

A minor wrench in the process this time around is that Penelope just happened to have her annual vet visit scheduled for day 3 of this process. Not ideal given this is a pretty common feline non-recognition aggression trigger in and of itself! I worried it would be like pouring lighter fluid on an active fire. Initially I considered canceling but it would have been hard to do so, the vet being closed on days 1 and 2. I also thought a medical once-over was probably not a bad idea since the trigger event(s) was a bit less obvious this time around. I was pretty sure it wasn't any medical reason leading to her sudden aggression toward Wolfi but I wanted to be sure. And the vet visit turned out to be pretty successful and helpful. Penelope did well, all things considered, and the vet recommended Feliway, which we now have in the kitchen, some gabapentin for both cats, temporarily, and a possible switch to Royal Canin's Calm food for the long-haul, considering how reactive Penelope is to outdoor/neighborhood cats, which is, of course, not something we can control.

I didn't love the gabapentin. I'm glad we had it and suspect it probably did help keep both cats calmer during the reintroduction process, but it felt like sedating the cats just so they'll get along. Penelope was weirdly affectionate (not a bad thing, of course, but also not typical for her) and Wolfi was just really sleepy (also atypical for the 5 year old cat who thinks he's still a kitten). I want them to get along, of course, but I don't want to alter their personalities. That said, I'll save the remaining gabapentin for future vet visits and if we have another episode like this one. By now I'm giving her 50/50 calm food with her existing food because I'd just opened a new bag. I'll probably transition her fully because it's definitely not going to hurt and it may very well be helping.

Step 3 (scent swapping can be done pretty much shortly after step 1/the initial separation and throughout the reintroduction process)Aside from swapping bedding back and forth a few times and a room swap on day 3 or 4 (the idea here being you're helping them get reacquainted via scent), we basically lingered at the visual access with barrier stage, along with extra treats, until Friday morning (one week after the initial trigger event), when we both had the day off for the long, Labor Day weekend, and could allow some access sans barrier with constant supervision

Reunited and it feels...tolerable!

Step 5: And they did pretty well! I was a little worried (and exhausted) because while visuals with barrier were going pretty well, there was randomly one time when Penelope hissed and growled as did Wolfi (kind of unusual for him...he typically just backs off). I wasn't feeling terribly encouraged and I was tired of sleeping on the couch. Literally. And while things felt a bit precarious on Friday and into the weekend, by Sunday/Monday I felt comfortable leaving them unsupervised for short periods and they seem mostly back to normal, which is to say they're tolerating one another, now, a week and a half later.

Step 6: At this point, once you've successfully reintegrated them without barriers but with supervision you want to be sure you're doing what Galaxy refers to as EPL: eat, play, love (tons of videos about the [re]introduction process on YouTube and I recommend Galaxy's book Total Cat Mojo as he goes over this process in detail about halfway through the book). We should all be doing this with our cats every day, of course, but it's good to be extra intentional at this precarious stage to ensure longer term success. Distract them with food—a positive experience for most cats—then be sure to redirect some of their energy with play, and of course give them lots of love and praise for their congenial attitude toward one another. 

Thoroughly pooped and ready for the long weekend.

Fingers crossed we either never go through this again or, at the very least, have a couple extra tools in our toolbox to utilize to ensure this process goes equally smoothly in the future. And once we're back in our house we'll at least have a little more territory for each cat to claim as their own. Which is obviously the main reason we've added a second floor. Naturally. As any cat guardian will understand!

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