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Keeping the Peace: The Multi-Cat Household

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

Litter tray
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!

Feeding stations
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!’

Introducing A New Cat- Hints and Tips!

So you’ve picked up that new cat or kitten, and you can’t wait to get it home and introduce it to everybody- including his feline family! Not so fast! Introducing a new pet can be tricky and making sure all involved are comfrotable is the first step to making sure you have a happy home.

So what do I do when I first bring him or her home?

  • Choose a quiet room for your cat. If you have other pets, they should not have access to this room. Ensure there are some hiding places to help your cat feel comfortable. The cat’s food and litter should go in here as well.
  • If the house has outdoor access (i.e open windows, a cat flap) or other pets in the house, you should confine the cat to the room for at least a week to help them get used to the new smells, sights, and you! Don’t isolate them though- make sure you go in and spend time with your cat so that they feel comfortable around you!
  • Once you have released your cat from his carrier, you should leave them alone to become accustomed to the space. If you have no other pets and there is no outside access, you can leave the door to the room open and allow your cat to explore at his own pace. Don’t pester the cat- just let him approach you.

Letting your new cat go outside

  • Firstly, never let your cat go outside until you are confident they understand who is feeding them. Cats may run away and try to get back to what they think of as ‘home’ if let out too quickly. We usually suggest 2 weeks is enough time, but if your cat is still very timid, leave them indoors for longer! During this time, train them to come when called by giving them treats when they respond.
  • Let them out on a dry day just before a mealtime- they won’t go too far if they know dinner’s not far off! Leave them for around an hour, then call them in for dinner. Shut them in for the night.
  • Repeat this routine for a few days, then start gradually increasing the amount of time they spend outside.

Introducing your new cat to another pet

  • Try to allow your new cat and other pets to smell one another without meeting face to face. The best way to do this is to feed them either side of the same door, so that they associate a good thing (food) with the scent. You may also swap blankets from your pets to allow them to get used to one another’s scents, and ensure that you spend time with all of them so that they can smell one another on you.
  • After about a week, when your cat is comfortable with you and the smell of your other pets, you should allow your cat to explore the rest of the house. Confine your other pets so that they can do this in peace. They’ll have time to identify hidey-holes and smell areas that the other pets have marked as their own, so that they know where they can and can’t go.
  • Let your pets meet in a controlled manner. First, ensure your cat has an ‘escape route’ to his room, as well as a high shelf or a cardboard box ‘den’. If you have a dog, put it on a lead and ask him to lie down. Then allow your cat to approach at his own pace. If you have other cats, let them approach at their own pace, ensuring that there are enough ‘hiding places’ to allow them to all escape if scared.
  • If at any point the interaction begins to become aggressive, separate the animals. Do not put yourself in danger by directly separating the animals- instead throw something soft, make a loud noise, or squirt them with a bottle of water. If these situations are allowed to develop, it becomes a cycle of fear and aggression, and will not resolve. Allow the animals to calm down and start again from the beginning, moving more slowly through the steps this time.

Of course, these steps aren’t foolproof and it’s always a difficult time for any cat, but most will get used to new things given time. Getting a plug in ‘Feliway’ can help keep everybody calm, and is available at most vets and many pharmacies.