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Reducing Multicat Household Stress

By: J. Anne Helgren

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Dog-owning households outnumber cat-owning households, but there are more cats than dogs (64.1 million cats to 63.8 million dogs). That's because people who have cats tend to have more than one: 2.1 cats on average per household compared with 1.5 dogs, according to the American Humane Association. And of course having a companion for a kitty is a good way to keep her from becoming lonely when you're off earning the cat food.

However, overcrowding can create stress among cats. Cats are territorial by nature, and their society is structured in a dominance-controlled hierarchy governed by strict rules of conduct. In their natural environment, when cats have a confrontation the loser will leave the dominant cat's territory, which avoids further conflict and injury. But when both cats are indoors, the losing cat cannot get as far away from the dominant cat as he would like. Being forced to live in close proximity with rivals is foreign to a cat's nature.

Therefore, think carefully before getting another cat or you may find even your formerly well-behaved cats developing behavior problems. Of course, you shouldn't have more cats than you have the time and money to care for properly.

Reducing Multicat Household Stress

Behavior problems can arise even in households with relatively few cats. Fortunately, you can take steps to reduce stress and therefore behavior problems in multicat households. Even households with four, five, six, even eight cats can be peaceable kingdoms if you understand feline nature and accommodate their need for space and privacy.

One very important way to avoid infighting and territorial marking is to have all of your cats spayed and neutered, the earlier the better. Early altering will reduce the urge to defend territorial boundaries and eliminate the need to compete for mates, and will also decrease the chances that your cats will spray urine to mark their territory. You'll also be doing your part to reduce the pet overpopulation problem, as every responsible pet owner should.

Creating a feline-friendly environment will help a great deal as well. You can often head off behavior problems before they begin by making your house comfortable for your kitties:

  • Create feline hideouts. Kitty condos with cubbies to which cats can retreat can help cats feel safe. By giving your cats ample hiding places and scratching posts, you'll make them feel more secure. If your budget permits, you can buy carpeted creations that appeal to your sense of aesthetics as well as to your cat's tastes.

  • Add levels. Cats enjoy climbing and feel more secure when they can view their territory from above – that's why cats enjoy perching on tall bookcases and window dressings. Adding levels increases the territorial range, gives them a feeling of control over their environment, and allows them to keep an eye on the other felines in the home. Tall cat trees or cat gyms and retreat cat shelving will go far to reduce stress and help avoid conflicts.

  • Install window perches. This gives your cats opportunities to see the world outside from a comfortable platform. Perches can enhance their feeling of well being by giving them a room with a view.

  • Build or buy an outdoor enclosure. An enclosed patio or a screened cat enclosure with a connection to the house is great for increasing the territorial range and reducing stress.

  • Create several feeding areas. Don't force cats involved in dominance battles to eat from the same bowls – that's a sure recipe for behavior problems. Cats lower on the cat hierarchy can miss out on feeding opportunities because of their fear of the dominant cat. Two food stations in two separate areas of the kitchen, porch, or dining room will allow the timid cats to feed, since the dominant cat can't be in two places at once. Be aware of what takes place at dinner time, however. If the dominant cat is still threatening the lower-ranking cats, consider confining the dominant cat for a short time while the others eat.

  • Provide enough litter boxes. Provide one more litter box than the number of cats in your household. In multicat households, the dominant cat will sometimes leave his feces uncovered as a form of territorial scent marking, to announce his presence and status. Uncovered feces can mean that the territory is taken. If the other cats feel they're encroaching on a dominant cat's territory, they'll be reluctant to use the box. Some cats just don't like sharing their litter boxes with other cats. The solution is to provide a litter box and a safe, separate location for each cat.

    Location is also important. To feel safe while using the litter box, cats need to have a way to escape. While cats do appreciate their privacy, they also want to know that they can make a quick getaway if a dominant cat approaches. That's one reason why some cats don't like hooded litter boxes – no escape route. Make sure the litter box isn't wedged into an area that prevents kitty from eluding the other cats if she feels the need.

    How to Add a Cat to Your Household

    Another way to eliminate stress-related behavior problems is to introduce cats to one another properly. If you are going to get two kittens, try to get them both at the same time. They'll play together when you're not around and continue to enjoy each other's company when they're adults.
    Introducing two adult cats to one another is more challenging but certainly possible as long as you exercise care. Don't toss two adult cats into a room and expect them to sort things out – this will most likely make them hate each other forever. As with humans, the first impression is lasting. Patience is important if you want a peaceful household. A recent study has shown that the first 12 months is the most critical period for adapting. After that point, aggressive behavior usually tapers off as social relationships are formed between the cats.

    First, allow your resident cat and your new cat time to get used to each other's scent and presence before physically introducing them. Put the new cat in a spare room that can be completely closed off from the rest of the house.

    The time in isolation will allow your resident cat to smell the newcomer without being directly confronted with her. Be sure to isolate the cats for at least two weeks. An isolation period is necessary so your veterinarian can test the new cat for diseases such as feline leukemia and feline AIDS, and to make sure no incubating contagious diseases break during the isolation period. Be sure to pay plenty of attention to your resident cat during this time. This will show kitty that things are still the same and decrease her anxiety at having an intruder in her territory.

    Gradually introduce your new cat to the resident, using plenty of food treats so they associate one another with pleasurable experiences. If they do fight, don't try separating them with your bare hands. In the heat of battle they may not recognize you as a friend and may bite or scratch you. Throw a rug or big towel between them, clap your hands, or squirt them with the water bottle. Put them in separate rooms as soon as you can do so safely. Check them both carefully for wounds.

    The process will take time, but be patient. Until the cats have developed a workable relationship, continue to feed them in separate locations and keep separate litter boxes for each. Shower both cats with affection and attention, and be sure the resident cat gets more attention than the newcomer. This will show the resident cat that the new cat has not replaced her in your affections.

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