The average cat-owning household has at least two cats, some many more. And while most cats seem to get along fine, they can react quickly when they feel threatened. A more assertive cat might chase another cat from or silently block access to a food bowl or litter pan; a less assertive cat might spend hours hiding or even become sick. In fact, conflict is a common reason for health problems like stress cystitis, constipation, obesity, over grooming and weight loss in multiple-indoor-cat households.
Cats are solitary by nature. They evolved as solitary hunters of small prey, competing with other cats for food in common hunting grounds. The social behaviours among cats that emerged in this environment include reducing conflict by avoiding contact with other cats. They evolved quite differently to humans and dogs who attempt to solve conflict with social interaction.
Cats prefer to have their own separate food and water sources, litterboxes and resting areas to avoid competition and unwanted interactions with other cats. Interestingly, unrelated cats who live together in groups appear to spend even less time interacting with each other than related cats do. To achieve optimal household harmony you might consider adopting littermates.
Conflict among cats develops when their status or resource access is challenged by other animals (including humans) in the home or by outside cats. Humans unknowingly contribute to conflict by yelling or throwing things, or by favouring one cat over another. Conflict between cats can be open or subtle, but with a little practice you can recognize the signs in your own cats.
Signs of open conflict are easy to recognize. The cats may stalk each other, hiss, and turn sideways with legs straight and hair standing up to make themselves look larger. If neither cat backs down, these displays may increase to swatting, fighting and biting.
Conflict can be so subtle that a human hardly notices it. The cat who moves away from a food dish whenever another cat approaches it may be the victim of cat-on-cat aggression. The more assertive cat blocks access to essential resources such as food, water or the litterbox. The less assertive cat may also spend more and more time away from the family, staying in areas of the house that others do not use or interacting with family members only when the other cat is elsewhere.
Sometimes open conflict develops when (particularly unrelated) cats who got along wonderfully as kittens become adults and start to take some control of their territory. The cats involved in the conflict may never be “best friends” again, but we can usually help them to live together without showing signs of conflict or conflict-related sickness with appropriate environmental management.
Conflict can be avoided by providing an enriched environment with an abundance of resources distributed throughout the house so there is no need for anyone to fight over anything.
In many cases, conflict can be avoided by giving each cat a separate set of resources — water, food, litterbox, perch — in safe, quiet individual locations out of view of the other cats. Separate resources let the cats avoid each other while retaining access to everything they need.
You can enrich the general home environment by adding three-dimensional structures, such as kitty condos or cardboard boxes to increase the cats’ sense of space, and providing enough toys, window seats and hiding spots to support the number of cats sharing your home. Be sure to spread your time and affection generously among your cats to avoid competition for this vital resource!
If separating resources and making the environment more cat-friendly don’t work then book an appointment with Helen Purdam at Canberra Cat Vet. She will analyse the situation and help you find a solution for your warring felines.
Of course, occasional conflict between housemates can occur regardless of species. Our goal is to reduce unhealthy conflict to a manageable level for the cats involved. The best way to avoid conflict in the first place is to provide an abundance of resources so that cats can interact on their terms to whatever extent they are comfortable with while retaining their independence.