March 19, 2010

What Do I Do When My Cats Don’t Get Along With One Another?

catfightQUESTION: I have three cats who do not get along as well as I’d like. I had always hoped for a harmonious group, but there is definite tension among them which sometimes erupts in hisses, spats, and chases. The oldest, Cleo, is quite the diva, and does not want to be bothered. She hisses at any cat who gets in her personal space, and her overreaction spurs on the youngest, Spanky, who loves to ambush and chase the other two. He’s just rambunctious and doesn’t mean any harm, but he terrorizes the middle kitty Lola who is something of a “fraidy cat.” She sometimes doesn’t use the litterbox, and I think it might be connected to her nervousness around Spanky. How do I improve the relationship among the cats and create a peaceful, safe environment for myself and my cats? I love them all and do not want to part with any of them.

ANSWER: Visitors to our shelter and multi-cat foster homes are often amazed at the number of kitties who live together harmoniously. Baskets and beds by the windows frequently contain multiple cats curled up together, and mealtimes reveal dozens of cats, each going to his or her own bowl, with no arguments or competition. The question often asked of our caretakers is “How can so many cats get along together in ONE ROOM, when my couple of cats at home can’t coexist peacefully in an ENTIRE HOUSE? Well, the answer lies in our “P-A-L-S” Principles.

The “P” stands for “PLENTY,” plenty of everything that’s important to cats -litterboxes, beds, sunny window seats, toy mice, water bowls, etc. Abundance eliminates competition over scarce resources. The size of your home does not matter as much as the availability of the things cats need and want.

catfight2An examination of the conflicts and problems in a feline family will almost always reveal where there is a lack of abundance. In your household, for instance, there is a definite need for more litterboxes in several different locations. Lola is telling you, by her behavior, that she is not always comfortable using the litter box when Spanky is in the vicinity. Very likely he has ambushed her while she was in or leaving the litterbox, and now she is avoiding it rather than risk being jumped. By the way, covered litterboxes should be outlawed in any home where there are inter-cat tensions resulting in litterbox lapses! (See “Ask Angel” article on litterbox problems on our website).

“Plenty of play” is another element you should add to your cats’ daily routine. Spanky’s behavior is indicative of a young cat whose need to play is so great that he is desperately trying to engage any available kitties, whether they’re interested or not! Now, out of boredom and excess energy, he’s made a game out of their resistance. If you don’t have a laser light toy, you need to run, not walk to your nearest Petsmart and get one! These inexpensive gadgets can wear out even the most high-energy kitty in one or two 10 minute sessions per day!

An even better solution, believe it or not, is to adopt another young male as a playmate for Spanky. The last thing most people with inter-cat problems are looking to do is add another cat to the mix, but it almost always works beautifully. The rambunctious kitty has a willing and able buddy that is available for wrestling, chasing, and ambush games, and the pressure is off the older party poopers.

The “A” of P-A-L-S stands for “ALTITUDE.” Have you ever noticed that the top of the refrigerator is a popular spot for cats? The reason is its altitude. The fastest, easiest way to make less-social or timid cats more secure is to offer them plenty of high places on which to perch. From a cat’s point of view, height is safety, security, power, and, yes, just plain fun! Visit our “Sweet Kitty Suite” room at the shelter and you’ll find the cat-walk, high placed shelves, and tall cat trees filled with serene kitties! For the most part, these are the more timid or aloof cats. When something happens that upsets them or they just want to be alone, they literally “run for the hills!” A cat tree is a great investment for any multi-cat home. Store-bought or hand-made, they offer lots of natural refuge and are worth every penny in terms of peace and harmony in a fur-filled family.

The “L” of P-A-L-S stands for “LOVE,” “TOUGH LOVE”, that is. Although cats are not pack animals in the traditional sense, they do look to their favorite people as the hub of the family wheel. If their most significant person cuddles and coddles them when they’re behaving badly, you’re encouraging more of the same. If, for example, Cleo hisses at and bops the other cats when she’s on your lap and wants you all to herself, you should quietly stand up and end her monopoly on your time and attention. You can reward her with treats at future sessions if she tolerates the presence of the others. Most cats are bright enough to realize that every time they behave badly, something unpleasant happens and every time they behave well, something GOOD happens!

If Spanky is about to pounce on one of the females, make a distracting noise to interrupt the behavior. If he persists, use a squirt bottle. If he jumps on one of them, give him a 15 minute TIME-OUT in a cat carrier. By the time you let him out of the carrier, he’ll have forgotten what he was up to, and the other kitty will have found a safe haven.

These “Tough Love” strategies should be carried out calmly and confidently. No yelling, screaming, or roughness. They will not make your cats hate you. Cats thrive on consistency and respect consequences that are predictable. The more you discourage bad behavior and reward compatibility, the better your cats will get along.

The “S” of P-A-L-S stands for “SOLITUDE.” Sometimes the only solution to a situation where one cat has grown to dislike or fear another is to offer her a room of her own for all or part of the day. It’s a very effective solution that many cat owners fight “tooth and nail,” excuse the cat metaphor. The idea of closing off a beloved kitty in a separate room is an option that some owners won’t even consider. Look at it this way. If a senior citizen were surrounded by high-energy toddlers all day, don’t you think she’d appreciate some peace and quiet in a secluded spot for a while? That’s how your oldest kitty Cleo may feel. If an elementary school child were being harassed by the school bully during recess, wouldn’t he jump at the chance to enjoy the play yard at a different time? That’s how Lola may feel! Giving the cats a break from each other while you are at work or during the night is an easy and effective answer that often results in more peaceful interactions when the kitties ARE all together.

catloveAt Cat Angel Network, large cages outfitted with perches and cozy beds are used to give cats an opportunity to get to know each other gradually and safely. Cats who are having disagreements can be separated and reintroduced. One lady who was having trouble with her kitties was reluctantly talked into borrowing a cage to help restore peace. A few weeks later she said she was returning the cage. It worked so well she was buying one of her own! Her pestered kitty loved it, and even after being released, was going into her “private apartment” on her own!

So give our P-A-L-S Principles a shot in your home. You have nothing to lose (except some hisses and growls), and so much to gain. Watching mistrust s-l-o-w-l-y turn into tolerance and eventually even friendship is one of the most rewarding and beautiful experiences you will ever know. It is well worth the effort!

Posted in: Ask Angel