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Stress In Cats - Multi-Cat Households

Stress In Cats - Multi-Cat Households
by Dr Caity Venniker

Read time: 4 min

How To Manage A Multi-Cat Household

If you imagine a very basic scale assessing how sociable different species are, on the reclusive end we have polar bears and sloths taking secluded walks; and on the other we have dolphins and bees, living in beautiful harmony. Humans and dogs are on the more friendly end of the spectrum. And cats? Well…. They’re a lot less social than you may think.

It’s helpful to look at how cats interact without human interference.

The social system of feral cats consists of groups of related females who cooperate to help each other rear and care for kittens(3) (think orphanages run by a sisterhood of charitable spinsters). Males are usually excluded from these groups and lead largely solitary lives (think introverted hipsters who only go to bars to meet girls). This is very different to the way that most cats have to interact within a household environment, with unrelated cats being forced to co-habit (spinsters and hipsters and orphans, understandably it can be quite a mess).

With the number of cats per household on the increase in the UK(3), how to manage a multi -cat household and the tensions it may bring, is more relevant than ever.

Should We Multi-Cat or Mono-Cat?

From our perspective, that of a highly social species, it’s easy to believe that every one of our cats would be happier with a feline companion. In fact, the addition of a new cat can be an enormous source of stress and the decision should not be taken lightly.

If you are starting a feline family, kittens from the same litter are more likely to get along during their lifetime.

If you are making an addition, the introduction of younger cats tends to be tolerated better than older cats, and if possible introduce a cat of the opposite sex to your current cat(3). If you are considering adding another member to your cat family, keep an eye out for our upcoming blog "How To Introduce A New Cat To Your Home".

Why Is There No CAT in TEAM?

Unlike other more social species, cats do not have obvious signals for diffusing conflict(3). Dogs will roll on their backs or even urinate to show submission and ease tension. Humans will wave a white flag or send a funny meme. Cats think that’s bizarre. (They might be right).

Cats also don’t have behaviours to express reconciliation after a conflict. Imagine that – living with someone where the silent treatment never ends. It sounds pretty stressful, because it is.

How Do I Recognise Inter-Cat Tension?

Fortunately, cats try to avoid overt conflict. Hissing, growling and fighting are dramatic indications of hostility. Signs of social tension are more often quite subtle and can be easily missed.

Cats forced into uncomfortable company, will avoid each other as much as possible, and show passive aggression, such as blocking access to certain resources if they are able to (for example, lying in a doorway or narrow passage)(2). They’re also very good at intimidating death stares.

You may notice hostile cats facing away from each other when in close proximity(2) or one cat choosing to spend most of its time in a small area where it does not feel threatened(2). There may also be an increase in scratching and marking behaviour, in an effort to assert territories, avoid confrontation, and promote a sense of security(1) (for more on this see our next blog, Pheromones: What, Why and How to Use Them).

Unlike dogs, where dominant individuals tend to claim sofas and beds with submissive dogs left on the floor; timid cats can feel vulnerable at ground level and will prefer to be high up, particularly in corners.

Looking at where your cats spend time in relation to each other may give some insight into the subtle feline dynamics in your home.

Happy companions will groom and rub each other, as well as play, eat and sleep together(2). Domestic bliss!

How To Alleviate Stress in a Multi-Cat Household

  • Make sure there is enough space. Being able to avoid each other massively alleviates the stress of conflicting cats within a home.

  • Provide enough resources. These include food and water stations; litter trays; scratching posts; toys; as well as resting and hiding places(3). The number of litter trays in the home must be equal to the number of cats plus one, especially for indoor cats. There must also be at least one litter tray per storey in multi-storey homes(3).

  • Separate feeding stations can help to prevent bullying(2).

  • Resources should be easily accessible, not in areas of the home where they can be blocked off. For cats who feel threatened and choose to spend much of their time in a small area, their chosen area must include all types of resources, to decrease stress.

  • If there is inter-cat tension, make sleeping and hiding places big enough to fit only one cat to reduce confrontation(3). Multiple high resting places and private areas(2) help to alleviate stress.

  • If possible, there should be at least two entry and exit points to the home, to stop access being blocked(2).

  • Provide scratching posts near beds, feeding stations and entrances(2). This allows cats to express marking behaviours on an appropriate surface in areas of competition(2).

  • Pheromone therapy can be very helpful. (Refer to our next blog, Pheromones: What, Why and How To Use Them.)

Hostility between cats in our homes can be a huge source of stress for them, as well as us. Managing tensions can be challenging, but if approached with sensitivity and attention to detail, the well-being of your cats can be significantly improved.

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  1. Casey, R. (2017). Management Problems In Cats. In D. F. Horwitz & D. S. Mills (Eds.), BSAVA Manual of Canine and Feline Behavioural Medicine (pp. 136-144). British Small Animal Veterinary Association.

  2. Hall, V. (2013). Management of Behaviour Disorders. In A.Harvey & S.Tasker (Eds.), BSAVA Manual of Feline Practice (pp. 433- 436). British Small Animal Association.

  3. Rochlitz, I. (2017). Basic Requirements for Good Behavioural Health and Welfare in Cats. In D. F. Horwitz & D. S. Mills (Eds.), BSAVA Manual of Canine and Feline Behavioural Medicine (pp. 136-144). British Small Animal Veterinary Association.

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