Multi-cat households are on the rise as the popularity of cats as pets continues to increase. Problem behaviour can take place in single-cat households but tends to be more common in homes with more than one cat. Problems often come about in homes that aren’t geared up for the needs of multiple cats living in the same environment.
This article explains what owners can do to create a more harmonious home for their resident felines.
Social Behaviour and Organisation
Historically, cats have been thought of as an asocial species that live a solitary existence, only coming in contact with other cats for the purpose of mating. Our current understanding of cat social behaviour has moved on quite a lot – informed partly by studies of feral and ‘free-living’ cats that don’t live in domestic homes. We now appreciate that feline social systems are more flexible than was originally thought.
Cats have evolved predominantly to live independently of one another, but they have developed a complex set of social behaviours enabling them to live successfully in groups as well. However, cats 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 (in terms of communal nesting, grooming and guarding). This situation would only occur when available resources (e.g. prey) in the area are sufficient to sustain the whole group. If this isn’t the case, the group would tend to disperse and spread out over a larger area. Natural group living therefore tends to involve cats that are related to each other.
Unrelated free-living cats sometimes appear to live in groups but these situations tend to be ‘congregations’ around important resources (e.g. a food supply or shade from hot sun) that are sufficiently scarce that the need to access the resource overrides the cats’ desire to maintain distance from one another.
In domestic environments, some cats are able to live successfully and harmoniously in the same home. Other cats may not have such positive relationships with other resident felines but manage to co-exist in the same home. For some, living with other cats is stressful, often because of the enforced proximity to one another and the perceived threat that the other cats pose. In these situations, fights can be common and happen rapidly, partly because cats don’t have very well developed ways of diffusing tension and conflict (unlike dogs that are much better at this) because they haven’t needed to develop these mechanisms as a priority for the species.
Multi-cat households frequently involve a number of unrelated individuals. As a social species ourselves, it’s tempting to think that a single cat would benefit from having a feline ‘friend’. We may decide to help a cat in need by re-homing one from a rescue shelter. We then bring home the new cat to live with our existing resident cat. This type of arrangement isn’t very compatible with natural feline behaviour and isn’t likely to be a scenario that most cats themselves would choose. This is a little like you sharing a house with people you’re not related to and one of your existing housemates brings home someone you’ve never met before and tells you this person is going to be living in your home.
Another key point is that in natural situations, cats choose and have control over how the groups in which they live are composed, or indeed, whether they choose to live in a social group at all. In domestic environments, cats aren’t able to make these decisions or exercise any real degree of control over their housemates.
In reality, a lot of multi-cat households end up being a collection of different social groups within the same home (with some groups only being one individual cat).
If you already have a multi-cat household, take a moment to figure out how many different social groups there are in your household. A good way of doing this is to look for evidence of what’s known as ‘affiliative’ behaviour between cats:-
- Vertical tail-up approaches or greetings.
- ‘Allorubbing’ (rubbing heads, flanks or tails on one another, touching noses).
- ‘Allogrooming’ (one cat licking another one, often on the head or neck).
- Resting and playing together.
The presence of these behaviours between individuals suggests they’re part of the same social group, the absence of any of these between cats indicate that they’re not part of the same group. A cat that ‘prefers their own company’ should be regarded as an individual social group.
Owners of several cats often report that their multi-cat home is harmonious because they never see any fighting or any aggressive behaviour between the cats. Tension between cats can be very subtle sometimes and is difficult to detect. For example, do you ever see one of your cats staring at another? Do you see one of your cats ‘blocking’ a door way or access to the cat flap or litter tray? Do any of your cats always leave a room when another one comes in to it? Do any of your cats move away from a comfy resting spot or food bowl if one of your other cats approaches?
It’s important to remember too that appearances can be deceptive. Just because all your cats have chosen to sleep on the comfiest bed in the house, doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re ‘bosom buddies’. If your cats have settled on a bed together but have done so with gaps between them and maybe with their backs turned to one another, they may simply be prepared to come in to close proximity to one another for a period of time to access the valuable resource.
What then tends to happen is that the different social groups within the home will form in to different ‘core areas’ and will attempt to either avoid the other group(s) or, if avoidance isn’t possible, will try and maintain as much distance from them as possible to reduce tension and avoid conflict.
The extent to which cats will be able to successfully share a home is likely to depend on a number of factors including the cats’ temperaments and previous experiences of other cats, the way the cats are ‘introduced’, the resources available, and the household environment and surrounding area.
Here are some practical steps to help create an appropriate environment for a number of cats:-
Have realistic expectations
It’s important to have realistic expectations with multi-cat homes. Please consider whether your home (both inside and the surrounding area) is really able to accommodate the needs of a number of cats. For example, if you live in a small home in a densely populated cat area, it may not be possible to create an environment that’s not going to compromise the individual cats or their relationships.
People often report that all is well in their multi-cat home but that things then fall apart after the introduction of one more cat (i.e. the straw that broke the camel’s back). So it’s sensible to be aware of the fact that every home will have its limits and so you may wish to reconsider whether it’s fair on your existing cats to bring in another resident.
Some cats may prefer to remain the singleton cat in the household. For example, if you have an elderly cat that has always been the only cat in the home, please consider whether it’s appropriate to create a large amount of upheaval and stress for an older cat that’s content living in a single cat household.
If you’re in any doubt about whether to bring another cat in to a home with one or more resident cats, it’s probably not a good idea.
Choose housemates carefully
If you haven’t yet got a multi-cat home but are thinking of doing so, it’s probably wise to opt for two sibling kittens. Previous advice would have proposed that owners should choose siblings of different sexes but current thinking suggests that two boys (if neutered relatively early) or girls can live together successfully (although females can be more territorial depending on the individual). If related kittens aren’t possible, opt for kittens that are the same age.
As cats mature, they may well want more independence from one another (whether the cats are related or not) and so it makes sense to keep this in mind and make alterations (as per the guidance below) in the home to account for changes in the dynamic of the relationships.
If you already have an adult cat and are considering a second, it’s advisable to choose a cat of the opposite sex but which is also younger than your resident cat.
When bringing cats together in to your home, please don’t be tempted to chuck them in together and let them sort things out for themselves. This rarely works and is likely to be hugely stressful for the cats concerned.
A better approach is one that is managed, controlled and structured to get things right first time with key considerations being the importance of scent and taking things slowly. Rushing can mean that things move too quickly and don’t get off to a good start. If a relationship starts off on the wrong foot and ends up characterised by fighting, it can be very difficult to rectify later (if at all).
Please see the author’s other article on ‘Introducing A New Cat To The House’ for information on how to go about doing this.
Provide resources appropriately
Cats like choices and options and don’t tend to be good at sharing, waiting in line or ‘queuing’.
In a multi-cat home cats should have easy and immediate access to the resources that they need without having to ‘run the gauntlet’ of other cats that they’re not socially compatible with.
Having established how many different social groups there are in your home, provide separate ‘core areas’ (the inner part of a cat’s territory where they feel safe and secure so they can rest, eat, play etc.) within your home which contain a full set of all the necessary resources that the cats in that group need.
The facilities should include litter trays, comfy beds and resting spots, hiding places, ‘perches’, food (remember that cats don’t tend to like sharing bowls), water (several sources in different locations away from food), toys, scratching surfaces (e.g. posts, mats) etc.
The overall aim should be that each individual cat can rest, toilet, eat and drink etc when they want to and without being disturbed doing it.
Some people find it useful to think of resources in terms of one per social group plus one. For example, provide one litter tray per group plus an additional one. If you live in a home with more than one floor, it’s also useful to ensure that each floor has at least one litter tray.
Try and provide as much space as possible so that cats from different groups can avoid each other if they wish or maintain distance from one another. Some owners use all dimensions of the space within their home by making use of spots high up on the tops of cupboards, wardrobes and shelves (whilst ensuring that the needs of cats that can’t access high places are catered for e.g. kittens, elderly cats).
Consider the quality and quantity of resources but also their location as well. For example, avoid putting a litter tray at the end of a narrow corridor which could be blocked by one cat. Some cats prefer food bowls to be placed higher up on surfaces rather than on the floor where they can feel vulnerable around other cats.
If the group of cats are already familiar to one another, and there are no overt signs of aggression between the cats (e.g. hissing, spitting), the use of the feline F3 pheromone ‘Feliway’ may help cats in a multi-cat home feel more secure.
If you’re concerned about any aspects of the behaviour of any of the cats in your multi-cat household (e.g. urine marking around the house, fighting with other cats, sleeping more or becoming withdrawn) or if any is experiencing recurrent disease, this could be an indication that all’s not well and that the situation is proving too difficult for the cat concerned. In this situation, it’s wise to make contact with your vet in the first instance to discuss the situation.
This article is written by Vital Pet Health behaviour expert Sue Hartley
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/
For more details visit Sue’s website at www.lifeonpaws.co.uk
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‘How to Handle a Houseful of Cats’, Your Cat (December 2011), p. 8 – 10.
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Turner, D. & Bateson, P. (2000). The Domestic Cat: The Biology of its Behaviour. 2nd edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.