The number of multi-cat households in the UK is on the rise as the popularity of cats as pets continues to increase. Some cats live harmoniously in the same household to the point of cuddling, sleeping together and even spooning! Other cats don’t have such a positive relationship but manage to co-exist successfully in the same home. This article, written by our resident feline behaviour expert Sue Hartley, gives you all the information you need to help your feline friends cohabit in harmony.
Unfortunately, for some cats, living together can be a challenge which is often due to enforced proximity to one another and the perceived threat that one or both poses to the other. In these situations, fights can be commonplace and are not pleasant for either party (or onlookers) as fighting is often a last resort for most animals.
The extent to which cats will be able to successfully share a household is likely to depend on a number of factors including the resources available, the household environment and surrounding area, the temperament of the cats, and their respective previous experiences of other cats. It’s also proposed that the way in which cats are introduced can have an impact on the nature and quality of the relationship that follows.
Cats have evolved to be relatively solitary animals that would only naturally group together in certain circumstances. For example, feral cats typically only live together in groups of related females to support the rearing of kittens. However, this would only occur when available resources (e.g. prey) in the area are sufficient to sustain all individuals within the group. As cats have not evolved to be primarily social animals, they have a tendency to avoid contact with one another. If they do come in to close contact, fights can ensue rapidly partly because cats don’t have well developed ways of diffusing tension and conflict.
An Unnatural Situation
Multi-cat households are therefore not very compatible with natural feline behaviour. If you’re planning to bring a new cat in to an existing cat household, it’s worth remembering that this is not a natural situation for the cats involved and is unlikely to be a scenario that they would choose. It will already be challenging for the new cat to adjust to the new home and environment and this is likely to be more difficult because of the presence of another cat already resident in the home.
Due to the territorial nature of cats, a new cat is likely to be seen as a threat by an existing cat. Chucking the cats in together and letting them sort it out themselves rarely works. A better approach is one that is managed, controlled and structured to get things right first time. Key factors to a successful introduction are the use of scent and taking things slowly. Rushing can mean that the relationship proceeds too quickly and doesn’t get off to a good start. If a relationship starts off on the wrong track and is characterised by fear and fighting, it can be very difficult to rectify later.
As all cats are individuals, progress should be at a pace that the individual cats can cope with and so could take several weeks to several months.
A Step by Step Protocol for Feline Introductions
- Create two separate ‘core territories’ within the house, one for the existing cat(s), and one for the new cat. Each core area should be complete with all necessary resources, e.g. litter trays, toys, comfy beds and resting areas, hiding places, elevated spots (e.g. shelves, tops of cupboards, wardrobes), scratching posts, feeding areas, water etc. The core area for the new cat should be one room only initially and not a room favoured by the existing cat, i.e. a room where the resident cat spends a lot of time. Creating separate core areas with everything each cat needs will help them feel more secure and less likely to see the other cat as a potential threat.
- Place ‘F3’ feline pheromone diffuser products (e.g. Feliway®) in both core areas as far in advance of the introduction as possible (ideally four weeks before or at least two as a minimum). Use the diffusers in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions to maximise their effectiveness. The pheromones will help create an environment that feels secure and familiar to the cats. An ‘F4’ feline pheromone spray product (e.g. Felifriend®) should also be used at the time of the actual introductions by being sprayed in to the environment. Again, please follow the manufacturer’s instructions closely. This pheromone will help the cats to see each other as friendly and non-threatening.
- Allow the new cat to adapt to its core area for a number of days. The cats should not have visual sight of each other at this stage. They will start to become aware of each other’s presence and begin to become familiar with each other’s scent as they detect smells and sounds from under the door that separates the core areas.
- Begin to exchange scents by placing objects (e.g. toys, blankets) with the scent of the new cat in to the existing cat’s area and vice versa. The objects should not be imposed on the cats in any way but placed in the core area so the cats can approach and investigate in their own time. Observe the cats to see how they react to the objects – hissing or running away from the objects may be a sign that things are moving too fast so leave it for a day or so and revisit it later. When the cats are calm and show no adverse reactions to the objects on a number of occasions, move to the next stage.
- Exchange the cats’ scent further by stroking each cat and then the other and by rubbing individual clean facecloths on the face and body (particularly bases of tails and cheeks) of each cat. Place the cloths together in a bag and leave the scents to mix and mingle. Then rub the facecloths with the combined scent around the house (at cat height) on things like furniture legs, door frames, sofa arms, banister rails, and even your legs! This will spread the group scent of both cats around the home. Watch to see if the cats begin to rub against the objects and areas that have been rubbed with the combined scent. If so, this is a good sign, move to the next stage. If you don’t observe rubbing but you see the cats investigating the scented areas without reacting adversely, move to the next stage also.
- Allow the new cat access to the rest of the house whilst the existing cat is kept away (e.g. when they’re outside or in a room that is inaccessible). This enables the new cat to get accustomed to the layout of the new home and also the location of potential hiding places that it might be able to use later to retreat to.
- Create a ‘barrier’ between the two core areas, through which the cats can see each other, by utilising a glass door, screen mesh, baby gate or similar. A door opened part way so the cats can see each other but can’t get through could also work if other options aren’t available. Use the facecloths to rub the barrier with the combined scent of the cats. The barrier allows the cats to both see and smell each other. Undertake short visual introductions at a distance across the barrier several times a day. Use favoured food treats to reward calm behaviour. The cats could also be fed meals in sight of each other but at a distance with the barrier between them. The distance between them across the barrier can be reduced gradually. Continue to observe the cats for any reaction to one another. When the cats appear to be mutually tolerating each other’s presence, move to the next stage.
- Allow the cats to have supervised short periods of contact with each other within the same area. It’s important to ensure there are escape routes should either of the cats decide they’d prefer to be elsewhere. A cat’s preferred option if it feels uncomfortable in a situation is to avoid and move away from it so it’s essential to ensure this option is available to them. If a cat feels cornered or doesn’t feel it has a way out, it’s likely to resort to aggression.
- During supervised access, be prepared to intervene should anything untoward occur. For example, if one cat starts to chase the other, try and distract the chasing cat with something that interrupts the behaviour but does not frighten them (e.g. a clap of the hands). If the cats fight, it may be necessary to try and place a cushion between them or throw a blanket over them. Please do not directly handle cats that are fighting as the behaviour is likely to be redirected on to you. If the worst were to happen and you got bitten or scratched, please seek medical attention immediately.
- Continue to supervise interactions until there have been several interactions in a row without any aggressive behaviour and both cats have remained calm. At this point, access can be given to communal areas and joint resources within the home.
It’s important to maintain ample resources in different locations and avoid placing resources close together (e.g. food bowls next to each other) as this is likely to create a sense of competition and increase tension between the cats.
Sue Hartley BSc MSc CPsychol
Sue’s background is in the psychology of human and companion animal behaviour with particular interest in problem behaviour in cats and dogs. She has had more than 15 years experience of animal care, welfare, behaviour and training in domestic, voluntary and science settings. She is a chartered member of the British Psychological Society and a member of the Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour and the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors.
Sue’s pet behaviour business Life on Paws helps pet owners in Harrogate and Yorkshire to understand, manage and change their pet’s problem behaviour through a range of pet behaviour services including behaviour consultations, workshops and home visits. She works mainly with cats and dogs but also other species too (e.g. rabbits). She adheres to the Code of Practice (http://www.apbc.org.uk/apbc/code_of_practice) of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors, and is covered by professional indemnity insurance, is Criminal Records Bureau checked and Home Office national security cleared.
For more details visit Sue’s website at www.lifeonpaws.co.uk