Cat Fight! Reducing Conflicts at Home

We have all at some time or another experienced strained working or social situations. For example, working at a job where there is someone at the next desk that you simply can’t stand and get along with. Once you leave that office environment and go home, it’s  fine, but the tension starts up again immediately the next day when you are back at work.

This is the example that feline behaviorist Margaret M. Duxbury, DVM, DACVB of the College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Minnesota in St. Paul, Minnesota gave  during a lecture to a packed auditorium at the recent American Veterinary Medical Conference in San Diego to explain the stress and tension cats feel when they live in  a household where they don’t all get along.

She made the valid point that often, cat lovers will adopt cats and add to their feline household “out of the goodness of their hearts” to give a cat a loving and safe forever home. Yet, cat lovers often don’t take into account the fact that not all cats living in that household will get along with one another. And if they do recognize a problem, the hope is that the cats will simply work it out. In reality, the conflicts are often never resolved and the cats live in a permanent state of stress – just like the unbearable office situation.

Dr. Duxbury explains:

“Cats are highly social within their own groups, but tend not interact amicably with cats they do not know,” explained Duxbury. “Feline social groups typically consist of related individuals (females and their offspring) and are resistant to new members.  Household cats, and especially those that are brought together as adults, may not form affiliative relationships despite years of living together. Owners may recognize overt aggression with open mouthed, sustained vocalizations and physical altercations, but respond by allowing the cats to ‘work it out’ or ‘determine who is boss’.

“That approach is based on a misunderstanding of feline social structure and fails to recognize the alternative strategies used by cats when avoidance is possible. Many cat owners miss signs of covert or passive aggression that include staring and blocking physical space without more obvious contact. Both types of conflict can be exacerbated or diminished depending on the spatial arrangements in the house and availability and location of resources.

“Cats have a harder time avoiding each other in homes with narrow hallways, lots of corners and small rooms. Placing resources such as food, water and litter boxes in single locations forces cats to move in predictable patterns and locations that are open to ambush or blockade. Providing litter boxes, food and water in different areas of the house makes it easier for every household cat to get what they need while avoiding another cat in the home. This is especially important in order to promote successful litter box use by all cats in a household.

“In homes with inter-cat conflict, cats are often reluctant to use litter boxes that are covered, in enclosed cubbies, or accessible only after passing through a narrow hall or doorway. The amount of space available to cats in small homes can be increased by adding perches, and runways to allow the cats to separate vertically, by adding elevated hiding and refuge sites and by creating new exits and entrances to small rooms or corners so that cats cannot be trapped there by another cat.”

That’s why if you are introducing a new cat to your household, keep the newcomer separate and introduce the cat to the rest of the feline household by smell first. Take a pair of socks. Rub the newcomer with one sock and place it with the rest of the feline household. So they can sniff. Similarly, rub socks with the smells and scents of the incumbent cats and place the sock or socks with the newcomer.

It takes time and patience to make proper feline introductions. NEVER leave them to work it out! Take heed what Duxbury points about placing food and water bowls and giving cats vertical space so that no member of the feline household ever feels trapped.

Finally Duxbury suggests, if you have the opportunity to start a multi-cat household “from scratch”, adopt a small family unit – a mother with two kittens or several littermates so that they will get along form the get go.

If you’ve already adopted feline friends who aren’t related – except by your devoted love to each or all of them – another way to take the edge off and help them adapt to living together is pheromone therapy. Pheromone collars and calming sprays, like these from Sentry Pet Care, are scientifically shown to reduce the stress and fear that cats can develop under a variety of circumstances. Give them a try – your feline friends’ ability to enjoy their lives may well be greatly enhanced!

-Photo Credit: From flickr by Diana Parkhouse

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