Houses that are home to multiple cats have the highest rates of litter box problems, urine marking and anxiety-induced medical conditions. Cats are solitary creatures and do everything in their power to avoid other cats in the wild. Lions are the only social animals in this group; everyone else hunts, eats and sleeps alone, communicating with messages left behind in their urine. Fortunately, domestic cats are very adaptable and will tolerate one another, even enjoy their company, if their environment is safe and predictable. If anything disturbs this peace, they will promptly start urine marking to communicate their distress or create a familiar scent for comfort. They are likely to also start urinating and defecating all over the house. This is not because they are being inconsiderate; they simply feel threatened and would rather prevent any confrontation, going instead where it is safe for them to go.
Why is there conflict in my multi-cat household?
Cats do not magically get along with each other. While some are more compatible with others, they are predisposed to create territories for themselves. Most owners do not realize this, thinking that cats are social animals. They are also not aware of what is actually going on in the house. Most confrontations (whether physical or mental) occur out of sight and if interrupted, cats will usually take the opportunity to scramble to safety. Sometimes one cat will remain behind, getting cuddles and attention for reward. The truth is that Tiddles, sitting in the doorway as sweet as can be, is not waiting for you to come by and scratch his head. He is actually ready to ambush another cat that attempts to use any resources in the area (such as the doorway, litter box, water, food, toys, scratch posts or perching spots). Eventually, the other cats will simply go to the toilet in an easier place and survive on whatever they can. Ultimately, Tiddles will have to be dealt with because everyone must eat and at least have water. This is extremely stressful for our felines. They would rather avoid the conflict altogether, not have to worry about lurking cats in their environment or feel the need to guard their resources. It triggers immense anxiety, often creating several other behaviour and medical problems as well.
How to solve multi-cat conflict…
The trick to dealing with multiple cats is ensuring they all have a safe territory to be in. They should never have to share resources. Fortunately, we do not have to split them up in different areas. They are quite capable of determining their own boundaries. Those that are compatible will naturally be inclined towards each other, forming a ‘group’ of sorts, so we do not have to identify them either. It is more than possible to have an open house where cats have their own spaces and are able to avoid each other. This does not have to be complicated. In short, cats will be more than willing to sort themselves out – if we provide them with the opportunity to do so safely.
What we need to do is distribute resources equally throughout the house, so that nothing has to be shared and territories need not be crossed. There should be options for cats to find food, water, bedding, perches, litter boxes, scratch posts, exit and entry routes, toys and hidey holes. The number of resources to provide will depend on how many cats are in the house. There should be at least one of everything for each cat, plus a few extras. Having them all in one room is asking for trouble, but spreading them far apart will enable our pets to avoid each other and find a safe place to relax in. This applies to absolutely all resources, but it is especially important when it comes to eating, drinking, going to the toilet and getting in and out quickly.
Water is pivotal for survival. Without it, our cats are candidates for nasty medical issues. A feline that feels insecure about other cats near the water bowl will simply opt not to drink. This is why it is important to have separate feeding and drinking areas.
- Make sure that you place water bowls away from food. Cats tend to hover there, restricting access for thirsty cats.
- Use big dishes for water such as glass, stainless steel or ceramic bowls. Ensure they are filled right to the brim. A cat that does not have to dip their whole head inside is still able to see if someone else approaches.
- Put the bowl in a spacious area that is not enclosed by walls or other objects. Providing a wide, panoramic view in every direction will make a drinking cat feel more secure about avoiding the sudden arrival of an adversary.
Due to the fact that cats hunt and eat alone, those in multi-cat households will often suppress their need for food as much as possible to prevent unwanted conflict. They will change their natural behaviour by either eating too much at once, or eating small amounts frequently. Their sole aim is to not have to eat with others. This is not a problem, provided they are able to do so.
- Leave enough dry food in each dish to last the day. It is important that cats may choose when they want to eat. They must not find an empty bowl each time or they will quickly starve and start fighting for food.
- If feeding your cats wet food, your routine should include more mealtimes so that everyone has their share.
- Position food bowls so that there is a good view around them. Cats feel safer and will eat more readily if they are able to see clearly in all directions
Disposing of waste is an essential need that is not preventable. At some point, your cat will eliminate and it is best if they are able to go outside or use a litter box. The area needs to be safe, accessible at any time, clean and nowhere near feeding, drinking or hunting areas. If this resource is limited, some cats will often guard or block access for other cats. They will then be forced to go somewhere else inappropriate. Cats that feel threatened during elimination will become very stressed out, eventually developing complications such as constipation, urinary retention, bladder infections and kidney or liver disease.
- Keep litter boxes away from noisy appliances, cat flaps, doorways, full length windows, walkways and areas with high activity. It is important that the cat is not interrupted by other cats coming in or going out, startling noises, sudden approaches, children, dogs and other disturbances.
- Avoid using litter boxes that are completely covered or have high walls. They will make a cat vulnerable to becoming trapped without an escape route.
- Use an open tray with low sides. They enable the surrounding area to be viewed in full. The cat will feel much safer if it can get out quickly and see when someone is approaching.
Cats love high places as they provide a sense of security. They will go to them when feeling threatened, avoiding someone or just viewing the world from above without fear of ambush. High shelves, bookcases, cupboards and tall scratching posts with perches are perfect getaway places and must be offered throughout the house.
- Make sure that each perch has at least two exit routes. This will diminish their risk of becoming trapped by the resident bully.
- It is important to ignore any cat that is perched above. They are specifically trying not to attract attention to themselves, quietly observing what is going on around them.
Cats need privacy, from each other and from us. They will look for warm, dark places that provide comfort and safety when they want to be alone. These must be completely out of the way and offer a getaway hidey hole. Places such as open drawers, cardboard boxes, inside cupboards and wardrobes, cat carriers and hidden under beds are universally loved by all cats.
- Never disturb a cat during ‘time out’. They are going there so as to avoid any interference.
- Place soft bedding in these areas. This is irresistible for cats and will provide them with exactly the comfort they are looking for during these times.
- Try not to disrupt them with cleaning. Vacuum early in the day, when cats are routinely still active. Keep the environment quiet and calm if sweeping, dusting and wiping is necessary.
Scratching posts are critically important. Not only is it good for exercise and claw hygiene, but scratching is another form of communication that cats use, albeit not as effective as other methods. For our purposes, it is a far better alternative than urine marking and should be encouraged at every opportunity. It also relieves physical tension that would otherwise build up and it gives them something legal to scratch besides our furniture.
- There should be more than enough vertical and horizontal surfaces for our cats to scratch. Ensure that both are provided, ideally on each scratch post but separate ones will also work.
- Make sure the posts and panels are long enough to allow our cats to stretch out fully.
- The scratching surface should be striated horizontally for optimum benefit. This why simple ropes wrapped around wooden poles work so well, if they are wound tightly enough.
- Cats really enjoy a variety of substrate options such as rope, wood, carpet and strong fabrics.
- Ensure that the scratching areas are securely fixed. They must not move around, wobble or fall over and hurt someone.
- Walkways, entrances, exits, beds and high activity areas are the best places to put scratching posts. Everyone will be able to decipher the marks left behind and leave their own replies. In addition to this, it will encourage cats to use them. A scratch post in a quiet area is rarely, if ever, used.
Cats need sleep. It should be uninterrupted, undisturbed, warm and comfortable. It must also be safe so that your cat does not feign sleep or feel the need to keep one eye open at all times. Multiple cats living together will often begin ‘stealing’ or ‘protecting’ beds in an effort to have the bed available when they need it. The master bed is in high demand because the owner provides security, warmth and a comfortable scent. This may become a conflict zone, so it is important to replicate it elsewhere.
- Make sure beds are raised off the floor and there is no draught. No self-respecting cat will enjoy sleeping on the ground as anyone may happen by. Cats simply feel safer above the floor.
- Provide warmth. Heating pads and thickly covered warm water bottles will attract your cats to the area.
- Use soft bedding as it provides comfort.
- Try to get your scent in each bed. Have you ever taken off your shirt and jumped in the shower, only to find a cat has quickly claimed it for a bed? Do this in their beds with used towels and worn clothes.
Play and exercise are important behaviours for cats to indulge in and providing them with toys is crucial. However, an anxious cat will not play in front of other cats. They are too busy worrying about conflict, as they have every reason to be concerned. When lots of cats are in one space, games may quickly escalate into something far more sinister if escape routes are blocked. Fights are common and play is avoided by many cats in the household.
- Ensure that there are enough toys to go around. They should also be scattered in different areas of the house. Dangling strings and toys should be fixed firmly to objects so they hang enticingly. Cats are far more likely to play with them if there are no unwanted cats in their territory.
- Encourage play when other cats are not around. A toy stumbled across in a quiet area is far more tempting than one lying in a busy place. In addition, interactive play with each cat should regularly be attempted when you find yourself alone with them.
- Cats that play with one another must be able to quickly access perching spots if the game gets too boisterous or antagonistic. This will stop a fight before it gets out of hand.
- Little tunnels between furniture, scratching posts and other objects offer exciting chasing opportunities. Without them, you should keep an eye on your curtains and sofas for damage control. Cats love chasing games and they provide the best exercise for them.
Entry and Exit Routes
Cats are known to intimidate, block or guard access points to limited resources, particularly litter boxes, food and water. If another cat is unable to get to them without confrontation, they will go elsewhere for their toilet needs and avoid going near these routes where possible. It is of paramount importance that cats are always able to eat, drink and eliminate when desired. They also need to be able to use all other resources. This means that there must always be an alternative option available, as well as at least two quick points of entry and exit in the case of ambush.
- Open spaces offer the best options for entering an area safely (as the cat will be able to see who and what is there) and leaving quickly. Try to create as many as possible.
- If your cat is allowed outside, allow them use of windows, doors and side entrances. Indoor cats do not have as many options. They must be able to get around the house easily to escape an unwanted encounter. Open doors, wide spaces, tunnels between objects, perches, hidey holes and other creative solutions will decrease violent incidences.
You, The Owner
Yes, you are also considered a resource. Your affection, smell and sense of security may trigger conflict among the cats in the house. If you scratch those that are more assertive (such as Tiddles in the doorway), other cats may withdraw and avoid being in the same area as you. They do not want to encounter Tiddles, who is now encouraged to follow you around for the attention – right into someone else’s area, where he would not dream of going if you were not there to protect him. They will learn to bypass the kitchen, television room, bedroom or anywhere else where you are known to provide inappropriate physical contact.
- Never favour a specific cat, even unknowingly.
- Avoid feeling the need to give everyone the same level of affection. They do not all want to be picked up, scratched, rolled onto their backs or be put in an uncomfortable position.
- Be aware of what level of affection each cat is asking for. Allow them to control the petting session. A cat that is rubbing their head against you wants a more intensive scratch than one who is desperately stalking off.
- Never force attention on your cats and do not plead for them to give it to you either. The term ‘crazy cat person’ comes to mind.
- Do not scratch whoever you happen by. Tiddles is not looking for a scratch when he’s guarding the doorway and you do not want to inadvertently encourage his behaviour. Pet only those that are looking for it, in a way that they enjoy.
- Avoid a routine that involves kissing every cat in a room before moving onto the next. The trick is to be random and respectful about it. There is no need to feel guilty about not saying hello to everyone equally. They will really appreciate you not doing that.
- Having Tiddles on your lap every night will not give anyone else the opportunity to share that with you. Tiddles has the confidence to jump right up and snuggle down. This feels great, a cat on your lap! However, what you do not know is that he is keeping a watchful eye on anyone else who might dare to approach. He is claiming you as his resource and you have just made him victorious in the eyes of all the other cats. Rather set him down elsewhere and give another cat the chance to approach if they want to.
Conflict is guaranteed in multi-cat households. It will never go away. This is normal cat behaviour and should not cause problems if everyone’s needs are met. By providing each cat with options to drink, eat, sleep, urinate, escape, perch and snuggle up, we are giving them the opportunity to create their own territories and boundaries within the house. This is the only way to resolve conflict among your cats. If they are able to avoid each other, they will not have to fight for anything.