by Barbara George – Tellington Ttouch Behaviourist
The first steps to resolving conflict in a multi-cat household are to identify the cats involved, understand which is the aggressor and which is the defender, and the cause of the conflict. With this information, a program can be created to ease the situation, always with the best interests of both cats in mind. Finding the right solution for your situation can take a while, and you may have to try a variety of options before reaching a successful situation.
Since cats are not naturally social, they lack the skills for conflict resolution, relying on us to create an environment in which they feel safe enough to change their behaviour. In situations where the behaviour has been long-standing, it has often become a habit, and can be more difficult to resolve and will take longer than recognising and dealing with new behaviour.
Ensure that all cats are sterilised, and all are healthy, or identify any illnesses or pain, including arthritis, kidney failure, dental issues, and diabetes, and understand the impact these would have on their behaviour. Keep claws trimmed to minimise scratch damage – to each other as well as other pets and family members.
If the conflict can be caught the very first time it happens, separate the cats and allow them to calm down. This may take a few hours or a few days, depending on the cause and severity of the incident. Introduce the cats to each other with treats or games. It may be necessary for them to be introduced over a few days, keep them separated when not supervised until they are comfortable together.
When one cat has returned from being away, either from the vet or any other place, it is a good idea to rub each cat down with a worn item of clothing (a sock or t-shirt works well) of a family member so they both smell the same and can recognise each other.
Behaviour will not change in the same environment, so look at what is needed to address the conflict and decide how the environment can be altered to cater for the requirements of all the cats. The rule of ‘one per cat plus one’ should apply to all resources, food stations, sleeping spaces, litter trays, outdoor access options, and toys. Our attitude and actions also form part of the environment, so we need to pay attention to these ourselves.
Creating additional space for sleeping or playing can be a challenge. Look at the possibly of tiered space; scratching posts with multiple levels, shelving, and the tops of furniture and appliances. Create options for reaching these spaces; where there are very agile cats the steps to reach the top can be created in such a way to prevent other cats from reaching these places.
Hiding places can be created by positioning furniture slightly away from walls, or across corners. Covers over small tables or chairs create secure sleeping spaces. Woven baskets and wooden bowls on tables or windowsills make comfortable sleeping beds while not looking out of place, or like cat beds.
Other than supervised introductions, it is not advisable to force cats to interact. This can create a sense of fear, directed at both the other cat and the people involved at the time, and will encourage, rather than eliminate, the conflict behaviour.
Giving the cats other activities to occupy their time can reduce conflict situations in cases where the cats are bored, or there is insufficient territory for them all. Puzzle feeders are useful, as are more interactive games, options to watch birds or fish, etc.
Punishment does not work for cats. They do not consider any of their actions to be wrong, they are behaving like cats! Also, if our reaction time is not perfect, we punish the wrong behaviour – punishing the cat walking away from conflict can create more conflict.
A more productive option is to reward the cats for good, or at least acceptable, behaviour. For this to have maximum benefit, reserve the favourite high-value treat for this time. When the cats are in the same room, or the conflict has been diffused, each cat is given a treat. The treat is associated with the behaviour to be reinforced.
Cats that are in conflict mode should be gently encouraged to move away from each other. Make a loud noise to distract the cats, or create a division between them, using a blanket, cushion, or other item that is handy. Do not pick up the cats, as you are likely to be scratched or bitten. Do not let the cats fight, as this can set a routine of fighting, and may involve vet visits and high bills. Separate the cats and allow them to calm down.
Be aware of the position of other cats when spending time with either the aggressor or defender cat, especially if one of the causes of conflict is attention from people. An option is for different people to play or interact with both cats at the same time, either in the same or separate areas of the home.
Calming remedies can be helpful to relax the cats or create a safe environment. Depending on the cats and the cause of conflict, Feliway diffuser or spray, calming collars, Happy Cat, Calmeze, or other natural remedies that contain a fear component can be used.
A consultation with a cat behaviourist can offer additional suggestions suited to your specific environment, cats, and other family members.
There are cats that will not get along with another cat despite all your best efforts. The options for these cats can be completely separating them if the available area is large enough, or re-homing one of them. Although it may seem like failure to consider re-homing, if it is in the best interests of the cats after all other avenues have been tried and failed, it is the best option, and better than having the ongoing conflict and stress-related issues that affect all member of the household.
To contact Barbara, please email firstname.lastname@example.org