by Barbara George
Tellington Ttouch Behaviourist
There are many articles on how to introduce cats to a household, but there is less available on the causes of conflict and possible resolution. This article concentrates on some of the causes of conflict between cats.
Cats are not naturally social. Wild cats live mostly solitary lives. Feral cats may live in groups but these are more for security and access to food, although they can make friends. We ask our house cats to live in harmony with other cats that we have chosen without them having a vote.
Between 6 and 12 weeks of age kittens have the opportunity to learn about socialisation and communication from mature, socialised adults. They also learn respect, discipline and dealing with rejection and disappointment. These are lessons that only adult cats can teach. Kittens raised in rescue centres, foster homes or by feral mothers often aren’t exposed to all these lessons.
Early socialisation also gives kittens a level of confidence to deal with change. Some cats naturally have more confidence than others, while some keep their kittenish behaviour for life and are dependent on other cats or people to resolve their problems. Cats that exhibit ‘dominant’ behaviour usually lack confidence; this is a cover-up behaviour they hide behind to protect themselves from dealing with others.
Cats that lack confidence, were not sufficiently socialised, or have lived alone may resent the interference of another cat. If they don’t have the knowledge or experience to cope with the intrusion, they can copy the behaviour of the other cat. If the other cat fights, this cat will also fight, keeping the aggressive situation active for longer than necessary.
One of the main causes of aggression is fear, either real or perceived. Fear of losing territory is common. Territory includes the surface space, food, toys, toilet resources and human carers. Any threat to their territory can cause them to become defensive and show aggression. The new cat wants to annex territory that formerly belonged to the resident cat in order to establish himself in the new environment but the resident cat does not want to lose territory, especially the carer as she represents a source of food and security.
Along with territory wars goes resource-guarding, where one cat prevents another from accessing essential resources such as food, water and litter trays. Cats can also be prevented from either going outdoors or coming back inside. This creates additional stress, often resulting in inappropriate urinating or spraying.
Most house cats have a certain level of stress as they are always alert to what is happening. A cat who feels vulnerable, threatened or intimidated has a far higher level of stress. Stressed cats tend to be short-tempered and can lash out at anyone at the slightest provocation. This is often seen as unacceptable behaviour or aggression.
The new cat arrives in a stressed state. Most of what he knows about life is now irrelevant; the new environment has a different layout, people, routines, rules – and another cat. If he meets the resident cat before he is settled he may react defensively, which provokes an attack, or aggressively out of fear of being attacked.
When the resident cat feels threatened by any other danger that he cannot deal with, often an outside cat, he may find the new cat a soft target to vent his anger. This is redirected aggression, where the target is merely a means of reducing frustration. If the target cat reacts this can create a behaviour pattern that can be difficult to break if left too long.
Health issues also cause stress. Any disability or disease, e.g. arthritis, diabetes or obesity, makes a cat vulnerable and more like to be attacked. Claws that are too long can be irritating, every step means some level of discomfort. Mouth and dental issues also cause discomfort. Annoying fleas can be a trigger too.
The food they eat can have an effect on health and behaviour. Cats can be fussy over food; a hungry cat is more likely to lash out at any annoyance, however small. For the new cat, a change of feeding routine and diet can cause digestive upsets or allergic reactions.
Personality and breed characteristics play a role. Siamese are far less tolerant of other cats than Ragdolls, for example. Domestic cats tend to be low on tolerance, even more so if they have feral cats as parents or grandparents, lived alone or did not complete their socialisation. Just because the resident cat was comfortable with his sibling does not mean that he would like to share the rest of his life with another cat.
Each cat has their own tolerance level for other cats. Some may happily co-exist with 2 others but cannot deal with one more new feline member. Typically, the more cats there are in a family the easier it is to introduce a new cat; either they are accustomed to sharing everything or they retreat into survival mode by pretending to be invisible and avoiding contact with anyone.
The weather plays a role too; storms, high wind, heat and humidity can make cats restless and on edge. Dealing with the additional stress of an unknown newcomer, who may be dealing with the same fears, leads to fights, sometimes over the safest hiding place.
In a few instances the colour of a cat can play a role. If either cat has had an interaction with another cat that looks similar he may feels his companion is that cat. Also if one of the cats blends in well with the furnishings it can be difficult for the other to see him until he moves, which can scare the cats and lead to an altercation.
The attitude of the carers and family also play a role in the relationship between cats. If the family feels anxious the cats will pick up on these feelings and it will generate more stress in their relationship.
Punishment does not work for cats. In this situation each cat is behaving correctly according to cat rules and culture; punishment will merely escalate the aggression. It is often difficult to identify which cat is the aggressor as the one who starts the fight may have been provoked. In a multi-cat household the cat that initiates the aggression may not be involved in the scuffle.
See also Making Cat Friendship Easier