Today’s blog was written by Alice Hurn, a final year veterinary student at the University of Nottingham. Alice has two dogs and one very spoilt cat named Lord Squilliam. She is interested in feline infectious diseases and dermatology.
The social life of cats
Humans are a social species. Living as a group or pack was necessary for the survival of our ancestors. The cat family however (with the exception of lions) are solitary animals. This means that, even though they can and occasionally do form social groups, they hunt and feed on their own. Our pet cats, the Felis catus species, however have shown to be remarkably adaptive with their social behaviours. Given the correct circumstances, they can adapt to group living by developing social structures, and this is why your cats may live happily together in your household.
What can go wrong?
As social creatures, we humans can find it hard to understand our cats’ social life. Though many of our cats are very affectionate and seek our attention, they are largely independent animals and the introduction of a new cat to a household can bring with it many problems.
There are many factors that play key parts in the development of a successful social structure including number of cats in the area, availability of food sources and compatibility of individual cats. If the cats in the household feel uneasy with any of these things, tension can build amongst the group. This tension can lead to chronic stress, which brings with it many other problems including inappropriate behaviours, such as urine spraying and also stress-induced diseases such as cystitis. You may even witness bullying and intimidation between the cats if social structure hasn’t developed properly. Furthermore, if a cat becomes particularly stressed in its environment and he is confident enough, they may even resort to leaving the home to establish a territory elsewhere.
It is therefore very important to provide enough resources, which your cat deems adequate, to fulfil their own needs in a group environment.
Resources for the cats
The general rule for the number of litter trays for cats is one per cat plus one. Cats can block others from using litter trays and cats may not use the litter trays if they don’t feel safe. This may lead to stress-related diseases or inappropriate urinating and defaecating. Therefore litter trays should be in private and quiet areas away from communal (e.g. feeding) areas. There are a wide variety of types of litter and trays available. If in doubt provide a choice of facilities and watch to see which one is most popular!
As solitary hunters and feeders, asking your cats to share food bowls can be an invitation for intimidation and bullying; two things that are important to avoid in a multi-cat household! Therefore each cat in the house requires its own feed bowl. Ideally they should be in their own feeding area separate to the feeding areas of other cats in the house. If this doesn’t suit, provide enough feed bowls per cat in the main feeding area may suffice. Similarly, there should be a water bowl per cat and these should be placed around the house. Cats prefer to drink away from their feeding area but require an area they can still observe any competitors coming. Position the water bowls so they can face any direction while drinking allowing them to remain vigilant.
Hideaways and bed
At times, your cat may feel the need to get away from other cats if he is feeling threatened or if they just need some alone time. It is therefore important to provide areas which your cat can use to hide away. Cats love high perches so make sure there are some high spaces free and accessible in your house. You could even purchase some tall scratch posts that may serve for this purpose. Be sure that there is a quiet dark area such as a covered bed or a cardboard box that will allow your cat to seek for some ‘time out’. Whatever your choice, always consider how safe a bed would feel to cats when providing bedding.
Play time is leisure time for your cat so it is important that each of your cats can get time to enjoy this. Often if a cat feels intimated by another this will suppress them playing in front of the more confident cats. Play time can also be a welcomed opportunity for conflict. Similarly, the use of scratch posts can lead to tension as they can be an important point for marking territory. To avoid this, try and allow time for you to play with each cat individually. Let your cat dictate when this is happens though- don’t force it! This will also reinforce your bond with your cats. With toys and scratch posts, like litter trays, provide one each plus one more and position them in different locations.
The most important aspect of managing your multi-cat households is considering the individual cats’ personalities and needs. Catering for them as individuals is the best approach and when in doubt just remember ‘one per cat, plus one more!’