New neighbors, Part 3: Refugee cats versus our own — brokering a peace

Once I began feeding tom-kittens Jack and Justin to usher them through their rapid adolescent growth spurt, it entailed something else as well. They would need to be integrated into our own brood of cats to prevent fighting with our two toms, which could potentially maim any one of them.
Go to: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3
Note: I have changed the names of the two neighbor cats in this post, and the preceding one, to provide anonymity for our neighbors out of respect for privacy. For the same reason I have not included any photos. I think it’s unlikely anyone in our neighborhood will read these stories, but you never know.

Roaming for food, seeking haven

As far as I could tell, Justin and Jack were fed at their place next door twice a day. Presumably they were fed in the morning right before or after being let out of the garage for the day, and again when being put inside again at night. On the other hand, perhaps they also had access to food ad libitum from a feeder overnight, although they were so ravenous when showing up at our place each morning, I doubted it. Or, alternatively, perhaps they didn’t much care for the food they were given.

I didn’t know any of this for sure, and could have been wrong. It was my best guess, based on the clues I could discern while keeping at arm’s length and not prying.

What did seem to be pretty clear, though, is that the two were put outside all day to fend for themselves. And when you do that with a cat, you can be sure they are going to try to line up other sources of food for themselves with sympathetic neighbors.

They will also try to secure secluded quiet spots and hidey-holes near preferred food sources for napping. They will scout out perches to serve as lookout posts or for keeping an eye and ear out for telltale signs food may be on its way. If they get caring attention from their benefactors as part of the bargain, so much the better.

Our own cats, with more frequent access to food, rarely wandered more than a half-block away, sometimes perhaps a block. Jack and Justin, though, had been spotted ranging as far away as two or three blocks from home, based on reports and photos posted by others in our neighborhood group online, as well as sightings by a friend of mine. Of course, part of this roving around could be attributed to the fact they were not neutered, but food is always a factor.

Cats who spend ample time outdoors like this will be as opportunistic as they can when it comes to food, and stray as far as needed to get more if they are not fed enough at home. Some cats can adapt to two big meals per day if they are kept indoors most of the time, true, but it’s not their natural behavior. Small felines in the evolutionary lineage that domestic cats descended from eat numerous small kills made over the course of a day, and so their digestive systems are geared for intermittent, frequent small intakes.

The fighting begins: Thor and Justin

Once I began feeding Jack and Justin in the mornings to help them through the typical, extended, months-long, adolescent tomcat growth phase their metabolisms were being driven by, they started showing up like clockwork every day. This, though, entailed its own consequences: The challenge being to keep them separated from Thor, our alpha male, and to a lesser degree our other male, Amos, who wasn’t quite as aggressive.

Inevitably, they sometimes came back later in the day looking for another meal, which began happening more frequently. If I wasn’t around to supervise, occasionally Justin and Thor would tangle, and ferociously, which I learned about from my wife. This happened about three times, perhaps four, with Justin taking the brunt of the damage, getting clawed up all around his neck and shoulders, and occasionally head and face.

I wrestled with several questions about all this: In accommodating Jack and Justin’s unmet needs by seeing that they had enough food to support the rapid growth phase they were going through, was I in effect “stealing” them from the neighbors?

On the other hand, if I did not gradually introduce them to our cats by feeding them together, using food to defuse aggression and help negotiate a détente, how was I ever going to put an end to the inevitable fights that would arise between their toms and ours regardless, and that could maim any one of them? Because the new toms next door would naturally swing by our place on their regular jaunts anyway.

And if I did step in to shepherd them into our fold to work out a truce, whose cats do they then become, really, and is that right? Is it really my place to see that they are better taken care of, or should I leave it up to owners who just don’t understand? If you see a need that others do not, where do the boundaries of “what’s right” lie?

In this case, I did not feel I could avoid the conclusion that because Thor could potentially maim Justin at this stage, and vice versa down the line someday, there was a justifiable prerogative, if not an imperative, to try and see that that did not happen — by whatever means, while treading as lightly as I could.

Yes we have no neutering: Jack and Justin fight each other

One day around this time, the neighbors and I had a rare, brief talk, and I asked if they had noticed how Justin had been getting clawed up, which they had. At that, I took the opportunity to mention this was in large part because he had not been neutered and was getting into fights with Thor. That I was worried either Thor or Justin, and Jack as well, could end up being seriously injured if neutering was not done. After discussing the situation a bit further, they indicated they’d look into getting the two siblings fixed.

Months eventually passed, though, and the two boys still had yet to be neutered. Then Justin had a very close call — showing up at our front door clawed up again. One of his wounds was a vertical furrow about 3/4″ long ripped down the right side of his nose, just 1/8″ away from his eye, obviously the result of a claw raking into the flesh. I worried again, and emailed the neighbors who said they actually had had a neutering appointment set up recently that ended up falling through, but were still planning on getting it done.

Yet another couple of months went by, however, with the boys still intact and unneutered, when a new development arose: Jack and Justin began fighting periodically with each other. Not just the typical “play fights” that siblings use to practice their skills, either. These were real, knock-down-drag-out fights.

At first I was a bit surprised, but then remembered it was likely Justin and Jack were half-siblings rather than full. If so, it might explain the animosity that arose between them as they developed beyond kittenhood into adults.

An interesting tidbit here about cats is that those from a single litter can and often do have more than one father. Often you can tell this by kittens’ differing coat colors or patterns. Those significantly different than the mother’s will often indicate the breed, or at least differing lineage, of the father.

In Jack and Justin’s case, it seemed apparent to me from their coat patterns they had had different fathers, thus sharing 50% rather than 100% of their genes. And a quick online search confirmed that male half-siblings are much more likely to fight with each other than those who share the same father.

Surprisingly enough, Justin, who was not only 15–20% larger than Jack but much more densely muscular, was the one getting the worst of it. Or not so surprising, perhaps, as Jack was the more avid hunter of the two, often seeming to spend hours a day at it. (One time I saw him bring down a bird in our backyard, which, amazingly, I was able to free from his clutches quickly enough that the bird flew away apparently unharmed — but within just a couple of minutes Jack had already snatched something else, trotting off with a grasshopper in his mouth.)

Turning point: seeing is believing

One evening right after dusk, just as rain had moved in and drops began quickly falling, I heard out on our front porch the kind of fierce, sudden yowling and caterwauling that can be imminent prelude to a catfight. Almost as soon as I opened the front door, Jack and Justin began tearing into each other viciously, going round and round and round, topsy-turvy like a Looney Tunes cartoon, the proverbial fur flying, tufts of it hurling out all around them.

I yelled at them repeatedly, grabbing a broom to poke at them with, attempting to stop the fight and separate them. With so much aggression and testosterone flowing through their veins, it took a while. I pushed Jack away to a safe-enough distance so I wouldn’t get ripped into myself by spillover transfer-aggression, then picked up Justin to bring him inside out of the rain. I carried him into our brightly lit kitchen to get a better look. Blood was running down into his right eye from a puncture wound he had sustained just above it. Probably the puncture had gone into the eyeball behind the upper lid.

This was one of those situations when you immediately realize: Now is the time to do something about this. I carried Justin over next door in the rain right then and there, and rang the neighbors’ bell. Fortunately the timing was right and the husband answered.

With blood still running down into Justin’s eye, coloring it red, I explained that Jack and Justin had just been in a serious fight with fur flying everywhere. If he and his wife hadn’t yet scheduled a neutering, here is exactly why it needed to be done.

This reminded the neighbor about something — that he had been puzzled about the patches of fur scattered around their garage he sometimes saw in the morning lately when letting the two of them out each day. Imagine keeping two unneutered toms who are on the outs with each other locked up together in a garage every night! Inwardly I shuddered, hoping the neighbors might consider keeping the cats separated overnight until the neutering, but figured I might be pushing my luck saying more than I already had.

Walking back over to our place, I spied Jack up on the brick ledge that runs around the outside of our house, completely soaked and scruffy from the rain, looking forlorn. Pulling him down into my arms, I carried him back over to the neighbor to hand off as well.

The sight of a roughed-up and disheveled Justin with blood running into his eye must have finally made the proverbial lightbulb flick on. The very next day I received a message from the neighbors saying they had set a date for the neutering, which was a relief to hear.

Unfortunately, that date was still three or four weeks into the future. Within just another week and a half or two, before the neutering could take place, Justin got clawed up by Jack one more time.

In addition to a painful-looking strawberry gouge wound on his head just in front of the left ear, the vertical rip on the right side of his nose he’d sustained some weeks prior in the fight with Thor, which had not yet fully healed, had been opened back up by Jack. While it didn’t appear there had been permanent damage — fortunately — all the same, Justin was only able to hold his eye about two-thirds open. It took several days before it opened back up fully again.

I was a bit on eggshells in the days before the date Jack and Justin were to be fixed approached, hoping something worse did not happen that might leave Justin maimed.

Brokering a peace

Finally, the long-put-off neutering took place. The rub, however, was that in having stalled for so many months, the cats were at that point two years old and fully mature adults, at least a year beyond the optimal time for it. Why? Because the longer you wait, the longer that problematic behaviors such as spraying and fighting have to become ingrained. And the higher the chances the neutering might not eliminate them, at least not completely. I kept my fingers crossed.

The neutering did not immediately stop the fights between Jack and Justin, though things did eventually smooth back out between them after a month and a half or so. (Evidently it takes some time for the residual effects of testosterone to dissipate to the point behavior is affected, at least in adult cats.) It turned out that Justin did end up with what will likely be a lifelong scar along his nose where it had gotten ripped into by both Thor and Jack, though fortunately it’s not too obtrusive.

Nowadays, when the two siblings come over for their daily feedings, they’re copacetic with each other again, which has been a relief. (Well, for the most part. They can still get testy with each other and start sparring nastily when awaiting food that is not arriving fast enough to suit them. But that’s also something I sometimes see among our other cats too.)

Since the neutering, I’ve also been letting them indoors more of the time, as they have the inclination, to try and get them integrated into the web of relationships our own cats have with each other. Because in my experience, this is one of the most effective things one can do — over time — to defuse the motivation for fights to break out between cats new to a territory and those already established.

I had actually begun doing this to a limited extent for several weeks prior to the neutering, but did not want to leave Jack and Justin unsupervised inside for fear of spraying. And, of course, supervision would have been needed to head off potential fights between them, and with Thor and Amos as well.

My wife had not been particularly happy about my letting Justin and Jack indoors, since we have enough cats of our own. But events in the past had taught me that while neutering is a necessary first step to prevent unrelated males from fighting with each other, by itself it isn’t always sufficient. You also have to somehow get them used to sharing the same territory peaceably, which is a “settling in” process that can take lots of time.

The best way to get there is to start feeding everyone together in the same space, with food as a distraction and mollifier to pacify any aggravation or anxiety. Since we feed our cats indoors (if you don’t, you’ll attract every critter in the neighborhood with food set outside), that meant letting Jack and Justin inside as well, at least for short periods in the beginning.

So far, our own males Thor and Amos have begun tolerating Justin fairly well in recent weeks, even if no lovefests are breaking out. Jack’s presence, though, still provokes sullen growling from both Thor and Amos.

The only attitude you can really adopt is “these things take time.” Hopefully Amos and Thor will eventually mellow out with Jack, but there’s only so much you can do. It’s really up to them. You can only provide the conditions that might enable it to happen, and whatever supervision is necessary, and let the patience flow.

Whither cluelessness?

The thing about cluelessness — and I have seen this in myself — is it’s a catch-22. One day, months or years later, you wake up to the reality or experience of something or the other and say to yourself, “How could I have been so unaware of (fill-in-the-blank)! How could I have not seen that? Really noticed that? Cared about that?”

You are chagrined or embarrassed for yourself. Or perhaps for the past self you now no longer are. You suppose that each such experience will leave you more open so as not to be blinded, or at least not caught napping so… cluelessly… by some other something in the future.

But it can nevertheless still happen again — perhaps in some other arena in which you have less facility. You see things when you are ready. While there are steps one can take, if you truly have the desire, to reduce the chances of some blind spot or other occluding the mind’s eye indefinitely, indifference to things that have not yet registered in your awareness sufficiently is always a possibility.

I understand this about the neighbors, but it can still be exasperating putting up with behavior from them that won’t, or at least doesn’t, change. They can only see what they see, hear what they’re able to — and only a sort of “grace,” however you want to define that, can take care of the rest. At times it has been that way for me too.

So, you deal with things as you are led to. It is a small tragedy Jack and Justin have turned away from their owners for attention elsewhere, even if for good reason: Food not given to them as frequently as cats prefer. Being put outside without contact with the family most of the day. The continual, high-volume noise generated by the household, which most cats do not like. Nonetheless, the family, and the kids especially, must have had hopes.

For me, Justin and Jack have been a serendipitous gift, if a bit bittersweet, knowing the cost of the neighbors’ disappointment. But that is part of the strange, unexpected richness of life, the plate we are served. The more of it you partake of, the more you may find you are given.

Go to: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

2 thoughts on “New neighbors, Part 3: Refugee cats versus our own — brokering a peace”

  1. Yeh, they sure took long enough, but it was a load off my mind once they did, given the three close calls Justin had with his eye in those fights. And thank you for the heads-up on that name anonymization oversight — fixed!

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