Fighting cats

If your cats get along well, they will share sleeping areas, engage in some allogrooming, and greet each other on occasion by touching noses. Well, you say, my cats aren’t very good friends but they aren’t trying to kill each other, either. What are the signs of conflict? What should we look for to avoid getting to the point “they want to kill each other”?

The 2020 survey referred to in last week’s post not only assessed affiliative behaviors, they also polled respondents on conflict behaviors. They chose seven behaviors associated with conflict. These are listed below with the frequency reported by the participants of the survey. (Elzerman AL, DePorter TL, Beck A, Collin JF. Conflict and affiliative behavior frequency between cats in multi-cat households: a survey-based study. J Feline Med Surg. 2020 Aug;22(8):705-717. doi: 10.1177/1098612X19877988)

Behavior Frequency Rank
Stare daily 7 – Most frequent
Stalking daily 6
Chasing daily 5
Running away weekly 4
Twitching Tail weekly 3
Hissing monthly to never 2
Wail/Scream monthly to never 1 – Least frequent
     

How do your Cats Get Along?


Let’s take a closer look at these conflict behaviors.

THE STARE


 

A cat will stare without blinking:

  • at prey while hunting – he is aware of where that animal is and what it is doing, otherwise he may miss out on dinner!
  • during a cat fight. Fighting cats must be able to rapidly respond if the other launches an attack.
  • to discourage another cat from accessing a resource.

 

Cat blocking other cat
Zelda looks innocent but she is keeping another cat from going through the door.

If you see one of your cats fixing an unblinking stare on another, take note of the circumstances and see what happens if you intervene. For example, if one cat is staring at another cat and is sitting in a doorway, she may be blocking the other from resources through that doorway.

Interrupt the stare by opening the door wider, throwing a treat away from the doorway, or redirecting the “door-blocker” with a toy. Does this give the other cat a chance to get through the doorway? If this is successful, you may want to look more closely at how these two cats get along.

Avoid handling the cats in this situation in case they are more aroused than they appear.

 

Stalking, Chasing and Running Away


These behaviors may be associated with:

When hunting, the cat is targeting a toy or prey. It is object play. But how do we know whether two cats are fighting or playing? After all, many of the same moves in a cat fight are seen when cats play together.

Just like a football game, play between cats has distinct rules. And, like football, tempers may flare when a player challenges the rules. What starts as play can escalate into a cat fight.

invitation to play

play sequence

Cats chasing each other

end of play

Play is over

Are these cats playing?

Social play consists of an invitation to play, the play sequence, and the end of play. The rules are:

  • Claws are not extended
  • Biting is gentle without intent to injure
  • The invitation to play is often repeated by one or the other of the cats throughout the interaction.
  • If one cat declines play (there may be some hissing and growling here), the game ends.

If you see that the “rules” are not being followed, it is time to shake a bag of treats or can of coins and redirect or separate the participants. [see Managing the Indoor Cat Fight].

Check all your cats regularly for wounds from bites and scratches.  If you notice your cats having a lot of wounds from scratches or bites and they “play” together, this may not be play. It may be conflict and it is time to observe the cats, assess their environment and social status.

Twitching Tail


A twitching tail indicates that a cat is focusing on something. The tail is for balance and changing direction – the tail often twitches before the cat pounces.

  • The twitching tail + stare > pounce: Is this play? conflict?
  • Are the rules of play being followed?
  • A map of the social groups in the house can help with deciding whether this is play or conflict.

Vocalizations – Hissing


The hiss is that snake-like sound. Cats may hiss when they are:

  • afraid
  • startled
  • frustrated
  • displeased
  • You will hear it in a cat fight, often from the cat on the defensive.

Vocalizations – Wailing/Screaming


Cats will wail or scream:

  • if they are fearful
  • if they are hurt and in pain
  • if they are fighting

You must decide from the circumstances and the body language of the cat or cats if these vocalizations are meaningful. If it is a cat fight, the combatants must be separated [managing the indoor cat fight]; if a cat is hurt, you must get the cat in a box or carrier for a trip to the vet.

Don’t wait for a fight to break out. Take a few moments to determine if your cats get along and if there is anything you can do to improve things.

  • Map social groups [Social Groups of Cats]
  • Draw a house map of resources (litter boxes, food stations, water, scratchers). Draw paths showing how cats reach these resources.
  • Move furniture if necessary to make accessing resources easier for all cats.
  • Make sure there sufficient resources for the number of cats.

Next week, we’ll take a look at describing individual cats’ personalities. How does this affect how cats get along?

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Affiliated cats
Gus and Zelda are not a bonded pair but do groom each other.

 

Have more than one cat? How do your cats get along? Are they “bonded” or affiliated?

If there is a reliable source of food, free-roaming cats will often form groups called colonies. Within the colony, there are smaller groups of 2 or more cats that prefer to spend time together. These cats are comfortable sharing resources such as food, water, latrine areas, sleeping and resting places.  Some refer to these cats as “preferred associates”; others call them bonded or affiliated. 

This post is the first in a 3 part series of “How do your cats get along?”: 1) signs of affiliation 2) signs of conflict 3) personalities in the multi-cat home.

 

 

 “Preferred associates” show affiliative behaviors.  You may find them:

  • snuggled up taking a nap
  • rubbing against each other when greeting
  • grooming each other
  • “play” fighting
  • twining their tails together

Not all cats have preferred associates. Within the cat colony may be “groups” of just one cat, who keeps to herself but shares the colony territory and resources. So, not only is there the strong bond of the preferred associates, there is also the looser affiliation of the members of the cat colony.

Multi-cat homes host ad hoc cat colonies. When I am taking a history for a veterinary exam, I usually ask guardians with more than one pet how their cats get along. The big three questions for multi-cat homes are:

  • Do your cats sleep touching each other?
  • Do they play together, with claws sheathed and taking turns?
  • Do they groom each other?

These 3 questions barely scrape the surface of how cats get along and whether or not there is potential for conflict or ongoing conflict in the home. Like human social relationships, relationships among cats can be complex.

A survey of 2492 multi-cat households published in 2020* set out to see if there was a relationship between household factors (type of house, number of litter boxes, feeding stations, scratching posts), and how often affiliative and conflict behaviors were seen.

*Elzerman AL, DePorter TL, Beck A, Collin JF. Conflict and affiliative behavior frequency between cats in multi-cat households: a survey-based study. J Feline Med Surg. 2020 Aug;22(8):705-717. doi: 10.1177/1098612X19877988.

Affiliative behaviors in cats – from most frequent to least frequent


sleeping in the same room


Cats share a sunny sleeping place.Cats don’t have to be “preferred associates” to choose a spot in the sun in the same room as a housemate cat. As long as there is plenty of space, peaceful coexistence should be possible.

 Most frequently seen affiliative behavior – multiple times a day

allogrooming


Allogrooming refers to a cat grooming another cat by licking around the head or ears. It occurs most frequently among cats that are related…BUT … it is not restricted to family groups. It can be a way for cats to redirect potential aggression. A few quick licks to the head can soothe a would-be combatant, avoiding a fight. Sometimes, you will see cats who are not particularly chummy grooming each other’s head or neck.

Frequency – several times a day

Sleeping Touching each other


Two cats share a basket

I view sleeping snuggled together something bonded cats do whereas the casual touch of cats napping next to each other indicates a weaker affiliation.

Frequency- several times a day

Touching noses


Kittens at Kndergarten
Kittens at “kitten kindergarten” session

Colony cats touch noses when returning from foraging or hunting. Each colony has its signature scent that helps the members of the colony identify each other. House cats being inside all the time may not need to engage in this identifying behavior as much as their outdoor counterparts. However, a cat who has been to the veterinary hospital may not smell quite right to his housemates and peaceful coexistence can be disrupted.

Frequency – once a day

Why isn’t play in the list of affiliative behaviors?
Play between cats incorporates more than one basic behavior. Because social play between cats is “play fighting” and can easily escalate into a fight, behaviors like chasing and stalking are often categorized as conflict behaviors.  (See cats at play: a guide to mutual social play)

There are many other things that cats do that may be “affiliative” – tail-twining and rubbing up against each other – that were not included in the study above. However, this basic list can give you an idea of whether harmony reigns in your cat kingdom. Pay attention to how your cats get along and to their body language when interacting.

Next week, we will take a look at “conflict” behaviors and how frequent the survey found them to be.

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cat scratching tree
Gus scratches a tree on his morning walk.

One of the topics I touch on in the first session of kitten kindergarten is providing kittens with a cat-friendly home, following the environmental requirements suggested by the International Society of Feline Medicine.

Five “Pillars” hold up a cat-friendly home.  They are:

  • multiple, separated resources (litter boxes, food, water, places to sleep)
  • opportunity for predatory play – those toy mice are good for hunting practice!
  • positive, consistent, and predictable human-cat interactions
  • a place where the cat feels safe
  • a place that respects the cat’s keen sense of smell

All cats scratch – it is normal for cats to scratch. Where does scratching fit into the cat-friendly home?

cats and scratching:why


To maintain their claws: Cats use their claws to hold mice and other prey; they also use their claws to defend themselves. Sharp claws work better for hunting and defense, so cats will often scratch on trees, logs or fence posts when outdoors to shed old claws and expose the new, sharp talons underneath.

To stretch: A scratching post provides a great place to stretch after a nap.

To communicate with other cats: As a cat scratches, glands in her feet release a pheromone. This chemical leaves a scent behind that lets other cats know who left the scratch marks and when. The scent accumulates over time and provides a reference point in the scent map the cat has of her home. She also finds her own scent and the scent of the cats from her social group comforting. We humans also find some scents soothing, like the smell of apple pie in the oven during the holidays, that gives you that “homey”, secure feeling.

Even cats who have been declawed will “scratch” on a post or pad, leaving a scent message behind.

If your cat passes the scratches and detects the scent from an unknown cat or one he doesn’t like, he will stop and take a careful sniff. He may stay away from this area so that he doesn’t encounter this unknown/unfriendly cat.  Cats in the wild avoid fighting and injury in this way.  Cats in multi-cat homes may avoid cats they don’t like in the same way.

You most likely will NOT see your cats attentively sniffing the scratchers unless there is a disturbance in the “Smell”, say from a newly acquired cat or a cat whose scent has changed due to illness.

Cat on Scratcher
This cardboard scratcher doubles as a good lookout post.

Cats and scratching: where to put scratchers


Providing your cat with places to scratch will help maintain his claws, allow him to stretch and establish an olfactory map of his home. Multiple scratching posts around your home can help satisfy his needs and discourage him from choosing your new sofa as a scratcher. Watch which scratchers are used and relocate them as needed.

Doors and Windows

Cats are aware that the doors and windows in our homes lead to the outside world. Placing a scratching post or wall mounted scratching pad in these locations allows your cat to scent mark, which can help her feel more secure, especially if you have neighborhood cats that come to the windows and doors.

If you have persistent outside visitors that are distressing your cat, consider critter spikes on your fence or a motion-activated sprinkler.

 

Near Sleeping Places

It feels great to stretch after you wake up!

Near the Litter Areas

Another place to have a scratching pad is near the litter box – this can have the added benefit of reducing some of litter being tracked everywhere.

Cats and Scratching: Security through Scent

Scratching not only allows your cat to maintain his claws and have a good stretch, it is a way for him to establish a scent map of his home.  This map not only includes his scent but the scents of other cats, if he lives in a multi-cat home.  His own scent and those of the cats in his social group are comforting and help him feel secure.  Scent marking may also promote harmony in multi-cat homes. Scratching is an important part of a cat-friendly home, promoting safety and security through scent in an environment that respects the cat’s amazing sense of smell.

For more information on cats and scratching, see Kristyn R. Vitale Shreve, Monique A.R. Udell,
“Stress, security, and scent: The influence of chemical signals on the social lives of domestic cats and implications for applied settings”, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2016.11.011.

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At the vet clinic where I work, we see quite a number of “fat cats”. Estimates of the prevalence of feline obesity cluster around 50%.   Why are our cats getting fat? (See How Do I Tell if My Cat is Fat?)

Your cat has evolved to eat a diet rich in protein found in meat. His stomach is small and his GI tract is short. 

Some experts estimate that a cat’s stomach is about the size of a ping pong ball but it clearly must stretch – when a cat eats a mouse, he often eats the whole thing, tail included!

When cats moved indoors, they gave up a free-roaming life in exchange for the safety of our homes and a consistent food source. Let’s look at the differences between cats in the wild and housecats.

Cats in the wild


Cat hunting
A cat pouncing on a mouse.
  • Cats in the wild hunt during the late afternoon to early morning hours when their prey is active
  • They sleep during most of the daylight hours.
  • A feral cat has about 3 hunting sessions – late afternoon, midnight and early morning.
  • He probably eats about 6-8 mice a day (180-240 kcal)
  • Most of his waking hours are spent on the prowl, foraging for food. 

housecats


A cat plays with a toy near closed door during a cat introduction.
  • Some domestic cats live an indoor-outdoor life. These cats may supplement human-provided meals with mice and other things they catch outside.
  • Many cats live exclusively indoors.
  • Most housecats adopt their owner’s schedule and are awake during the day.
  • Housecats are either meal fed at set times or free-fed.  Dry cat food may be left out, allowing the cat to “graze” during the day.

Housecats don’t have to expend time and energy to get their food – it is provided for them. When viewed this way, it is not surprising that there are many indoor fat cats. They don’t move around as much as their outdoor counterparts and don’t burn as many calories.

 

get fat cats moving: food and emotions


Neuroscience identifies 7 basic emotional systems: SEEKING, CARE, PLAY, and LUST are considered “positive”. FEAR, SADNESS, and ANGER are viewed as “negative”.

The SEEKING system is thought to be the strongest of the primary emotional systems. It’s what gets animals out looking for food, looking for a mate, looking for other resources.

When the SEEKING system is activated:

  • The brain releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter that makes you feel pleasure.
  • It is the rewarding feeling you get when you are looking for something and find it.
  • Once you’ve found the object of your desire, the brain shuts off the dopamine and other emotions are activated.

the hunting cat


Cats are skilled hunters. Hunting is an expression of the SEEKING system. The cat finds this activity pleasurable (dopamine is released) and rewarding (he enjoys the positive emotions that accompany eating). By providing your cat with food, he still enjoys the positive feelings that come with eating but the pleasure felt while hunting is not there.

Sedentary indoor cats with nothing to do may become bored  and anxious.  Many turn to eating as a self-soothing behavior, consuming more calories than needed – now, we have fat cats.

The seeking system is strong in the hunting cat – cats will stop eating to pursue new prey!

get fat cats moving for health and happiness


  • Divide your cat’s food into 4-5 meals –  this gives the cat something to do and look forward to.
  • Make small meals a “hunting” experience!

 

FOOD PUZZLES


Although cats are born “freeloaders”, they can be persuaded to work for food using food puzzles.  A food puzzle allows a cat to engage in foraging behavior, like the wild cat picking up the odd insect or lizard on his prowl.

Food puzzles help reduce boredom and engage cats mentally.  Indoor cats in particular may benefit from using food puzzles.

HAVE FUN – TOSS A MEAL!


Toss your cat’s dry food, a piece at a time, down the hallway. He will have to chase the kibbles, using his hearing, sight and paws to bring down the “prey”. Older kitties may do better at catching kibbles if you “skid” them along a hard surface – skidding gives the cat a longer auditory signature to locate the food. (See “Cats Avoid Fighting Over Treats“).

WHEN YOU’RE NOT AT HOME


Timed Puzzle Feeder
This Cat Mate feeder can accommodate a food puzzle.

There are timed feeders like the Cat Mate that can accommodate some smaller food puzzles such as Doc and Phoebe’s no-bowl feeders. Alternatively, a Lickimat can be cut to fit into a timed or microchip feeder. Silicone ice cube trays or candy molds can also be cut to fit a feeder and promote foraging.

Hi Tech options: There are now feeders that will toss treats. You can start the sessions remotely through an app on your phone. The PetCube has a camera and microphone that you can use to talk to your cat and watch him. The Pet Cube is perhaps more geared toward tossing treats – it works well, though, with larger cat kibble such the dental diets and Greenies dental treats.

Of course, there are other reasons your cat may put on weight, for example, steroid therapy can be accompanied by weight gain.  Your vet is your best resource to advise you on an appropriate calorie intake for your cat.

But it is rarely a mistake to pay attention to your cat’s behavioral health – take advantage of his superb hunting skills to get him moving!  He will be healthier and happier.

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What can you do when your cat thinks outside the box?

Whether you are waiting for an appointment with your vet or are in the process of treating a medical condition, accepted guidelines (ISFM house-soiling guidelines) recommend that you do an environmental and social assessment of your cat and where he lives. In this post, we’ll take a closer look at your cat’s environment and what we might change  to resolve the house-soiling.

When Your Cat Thinks Outside the Box: First Aid


REDUCE THE TERRITORY OF THE HOUSE-SOILING CAT


The “core territory” is where the cat can rest, has shelter and feels safe from predators and other cats.
Consider temporarily confining the house-soiling cat to one or more rooms with all the cat’s resources – litter box, food and water stations, cat trees. This can make an anxious cat feel more safe – from the feline purrspective, he does not have as much area to defend from other cats, pets, and people.

DON’T HAVE THE SPACE?


  • Restrict this cat’s access to the soiled areas if you can.
  • If that’s not possible, try placing a litter box where the house-soiling is occurring.
  • If the cat starts to use the box, keep it in place for at least 2 weeks (ISFM house-soiling guidelines)
  • After two weeks of consistent use, you can gradually move the box to a more suitable location. Go very slowly for best results!

DAMAGE CONTROL


  • Use an enzymatic cleaner to clean the soiled areas.
  • If your cat is spraying, set up a spraying station: a litter box oriented vertically. Line walls and floor with plastic to minimize damage to wallboard and flooring.
  • There is a risk of a cat marking the cleaned area, so “clean and cover”, as described above.

When your cat thinks outside the box – A CLOSER LOOK AT YOUR CAT’S ENVIRONMENT


  • Sketch the floor plan of your house.

    House Map
    A house map showing areas where house-soiling has occurred.
  • Mark the location of doors, windows, stairways, closets and major pieces of furniture. Mark the location of litter boxes, feeding areas, water stations, scratching posts and sleeping areas.
  • Mark where and when (extra credit!) the house-soiling has occurred.

ELIMINATION: SOCIAL OR ENVIRONMENTAL?


The house map can give us an idea of whether the elimination problem is due to your cat’s environment or if the elimination problem is social, arising from negative interactions with other cats, pets or people.

WHERE DOES “X MARK THE SPOT”?


  • Near door and windows where outdoor cats come? social?
  • Right next to the litter box? environmental?
  • On laundry piles or bath mats? environmental/social?
  • On your bed? social?
  • Quiet corners? environmental/social?
  • Near a noisy appliance? environmental?

AN ENVIRONMENTAL ASSESSMENT: The litter box


ENOUGH BOXES?

  • Even this question is not straightforward. But let’s start with the commonsense basics. There needs to be more than one box even for one cat.
  • Some cats prefer to use one box for urine and the other for feces.
  • In a multi-story house, there should be a litter box on every floor the cat frequents.
  • The rule of thumb is #litter boxes = # cats + 1 but this is not a hard and fast rule.
  • Litter boxes need to be separated – cats view litter boxes next to each other as a single litter box.

SIZE MATTERS


The litter box needs to be large enough for your cat to turn around. This box is large enough for Gus.

How big are the boxes? Cats may turn around a few times before eliminating. The litter box needs to be large enough to accommodate this motion. The rule of thumb here is 1.5 times the cat’s length from nose to base of tail.

CLEAN ENOUGH?


A study sponsored by Nestle-Purina found that cats prefer a litter box free of clumps of urine and pieces of stool, so scooping the litter box frequently may avoid house-soiling problems. If you do not scoop the boxes daily, you may need more boxes and/or larger boxes.

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION


  • Litter boxes should be separated and not in areas a cat can be “trapped” in. Avoid high traffic areas frequented by lots of people and other pets.
  • Avoid areas with noisy appliances. Remember that cats have one of the broadest ranges of hearing of any land mammal, hearing the low tones of the human male voice and the ultrasonic squeaks of mice. Even our electronic gizmos may be emitting sounds that can make a litter box area unpleasant.

ESTABLISHING NEW HABITS


To break the house-soiling habit, we need to REWARD the cat for using the litter box. We can do this by making the litter box more appealing and pleasant to use.

Offering a new litter box is one way to break the habit of soiling in an inappropriate place.

  • Consider larger boxes with a cut out to allow easy access.
  • High-sided boxes will work for cats who spray or stand up to urinate.
  • It is best to ADD litter boxes at first. Once the cat has accepted the new box, you can remove the older one.

LITTER BOX CAFETERIA


  • Putting several litter boxes side by side with different fillers (include the original) can give you an idea what kind of litter your cat prefers.

KEEP IT CLEAN!


  • Consider having a “Litter Genie” or other disposal system next to each box so that it is convenient to scoop the box frequently.

THE BATHROOM IS SAFE!


  • Some cats respond positively to pheromones. The “Feliway” Classic or Comfort Zone calming diffusers give a message of security and calmness.
  • For cats who are spraying or marking, these analogs of facial pheromones tell your cat that this place is already marked.
  • You can also collect your cat’s individual scent and apply it to the area around the box – wood moldings, walls…

NO SNACKS IN THE BATHROOM!


  • Locate food and water away from the litter box. Cats do not eat where they eliminate and a litter box near food may discourage its use for elimination.

House-soiling can be a difficult puzzle to solve. When your cat thinks outside the box, it may be due to medical, environmental or social issues or a combination of these. A house map can help you locate the problem areas and optimize your cat’s environment. In the next post, we’ll use the house map to look for social problems that may be why your cat thinks outside the box.

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A common complaint of cat owners is that their cat does not always use the litter box. This can be a nuisance – cat urine can have a strong odor particularly if the cat is not neutered or spayed. Soft stools can be a challenge to clean up. I am always surprised at how many people accept the “out of the box” incidents and use potty pads or towels to manage the mess. What can you do if this happens to you?

Why your cat thinks outside the box


There are  a number of reasons cats may think “outside the box” and don’t use their litter boxes.  Sometimes, it is a marking behavior.  Other times, the litter box does not meet feline requirements, the cat is sick, or another cat is “guarding” the box.  These are just a few of the reasons that may lie behind feline house-soiling.

Marking


Cats use urine to mark territory, advertise for a mate or let other cats know that Mr. Fluffy has been here (feces may also mark terrritory but urine is more common in domestic cats). The urine mark not only gives information as to the sexual status and general health of the marker, it also has a “time stamp” indicating when the mark was made. Cats, being solitary hunters, avoid confrontations to reduce the risk of injury. This “time stamp” may help cats avoid encountering each other.

Such urine marking is often but not always sprayed on vertical surfaces. It is typically characterized by small amounts of urine. This is usually a behavior of intact males and sometimes females but can occur with neutered or spayed animals. (Journal of Feline Medicine & Surgery 16(7):545, 10.1177/1098612X14539085)

PROBLEMS WITH THE BOX


  • Box is too small
  • Box is in a busy location near noisy appliances or in a high traffic area
  • Box is located near a window where neighborhood cats come
  • Box is not clean – remember to scoop at least once a day

A research team at Nestlé Purina found that cats prefer to use unused litter boxes. However, this preference for unused boxes did not seem to be due to odors. Cats did not seem to care whether or not the litter box smelled of urine or feces. But cats did not want to use litter boxes with actual urine clumps and feces nor did they want to use litter boxes with simulated urine clumps made from salt solution or “faux feces” made of gelatin. Ultimately, it appears that it is important to scoop frequently, removing physical obstructions from the litter box.

“Does previous use affect litter box appeal in multi-cat households?”
https://doi.org/10.1016/j.beproc.2017.02.008

MEDICAL PROBLEMS


Pain and discomfort when eliminating can result in a cat associating the litter box with pain. Ongoing pain can be frightening for a cat and cause him to be anxious, exacerbating urinary and gastro-intestinal problems.  The cat may choose not to the use the litter box he associates with the painful elimination.

When your cat thinks outside the box, it could be due to medical issues, including:

  • Urinary tract infections
  • Bladder stones
  • Arthritis – can make it difficult for a cat to squat or step over a high side to get into the litter box
  • Constipation and diarrhea
  • Cognitive dysfunction in older cats ( Cat Dementia: How Can We Manage It?)
  • FIC (feline idiopathic cystitis) – (see “Is My Cat Sick from Stress”)
  • Hyperthyroidism
  • Diabetes
  • Kidney disease

Social problems


  • The litter box is being “guarded” by another cat
  • The family dog is coprophagic and “haunts” the litter box
  • A toddler wants to “play in the sandbox” too
  • A house guest kicks his shoes off and they hit the wall; the noise startles the cat in the box

When your cat thinks outside the box – make an appointment with your veterinarian.  Your vet can:

  • Assess your cat’s overall health
  • Collect blood, urine and stool samples for diagnostic screening
  • Take X-rays if there are concerns about bladder stones or arthritis
  • Prescribe pain medication
  • Prescribe anti-anxiety medication while house-soiling issues are being resolved

It is wise to act promptly when house-soiling issues arise. When house-soiling continues for a long time without resolution, we run the risk of “coping behaviors” becoming habits. For example, a cat may choose to urinate in the shower or bathtub, defecate in a quiet corner in the front entryway, or eliminate right next to the box. Once these behaviors are established, it is sometimes difficult to break these “bad” habits.

Our next post will look at what you, the cat guardian, can do to encourage new habits and help remedy house-soiling, when your cat thinks outside the box.

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Cats are the only domesticated animals whose ancestors are solitary. Horses, dogs, birds, cattle, pigs –  all are descended from animals that instinctively formed social groups (herds, packs, flocks…).  Cats are what we call “socially flexible”.  A cat can be quite happy living on his own but he may join a cat colony (group of cats) if there are plenty of resources – food, places to sleep. 

Cats formed a social structure to live alongside humans


The domestic cat’s ancestor, the African wildcat, is a solitary hunter, and does not spend much time with other wildcats unless it time to mate.  10,000 years ago, wildcats were drawn to the wealth of prey found in and around human settlements. Wildcats that could tolerate other wildcats nearby could share the feast. These are the ancestors of our domestic cats today.

Cats are popular pets with a small footprint.  It is not uncommon for a cat owner to want adopt another cat.  But how do you know if the cats will like each other? What if they fight? 

If there is sufficient food, cats will form social groups called colonies. The colony is often a collection of smaller social groups of cats. Cats belonging to a particular social group, will share food, water, latrine areas, sleeping and resting places. Different social groups will take turns using critical resources such as food, water, etc. 

Introducing Cats


Gradual step-by step introduction mimics what we see in feral cat colonies. The newcomer initially stays on the periphery of the colony and gradually is accepted by the colony members over time. (See Sharon L. Crowell-Davis, “Cat Behavior: Social Organization, Communication and Development”, I. Rochlitz (ed.), The Welfare of Cats, 1–22. 2007 Springer)

A few years ago, I wrote “Introducing cats: A Short Guide” for my website. The “Short Guide” recommended a step-by-step process for introducing cats.  With the new cat in his own separate room, the first step involved exchanging bedding between the new cat and the residents.  Subsequent steps allowed the cats to explore each other’s areas while the other cat is out followed by feeding the cats and playing with toys on either side of a door that is closed at first then opened later.

I still recommend the same step-by-step gradual introduction but have made the following updates:

  • Eating is not a social activity for cats. Wild cats prefer to take their mouse away from other cats and dine alone.  But food still is a way to make cats feel good.  So, instead of using your cat’s regular meal to make interacting with the newcomer positive, we will use special treats and toys. The cats can continue eating their regular food at the usual time and place. After all, why spoil your meal by eating with someone you don’t know and may not like.
  • Many cat introductions have been done with a door that is ajar and then gradually opened wider and wider. Over the past few years, I have come to the conclusion that it is worth investing in a screen, stacked baby gates or other barrier you can see through. You have the flexibility of being able to cover this barrier quickly with a sheet to interrupt a fixed, direct, aggressive stare between cats; if one cat “rushes” at the other, the barrier is there to prevent a cat fight.
  • Another epiphany I have had is that using a carrier (even if it is large and covered with a towel) for supervised visitations is not ideal. The cat in the carrier may feel trapped and unable to leave an unpleasant situation. On the other hand, harness and leash can provide us more control when starting visual contact and supervised visitations – we can deter cats from rushing up to the barrier or perhaps even avoid a cat fight.

 

A cat plays with a toy near closed door during a cat introduction.

 

When introducing cats, it is best to go slowly – it is better to take baby steps and only have to back up a little if something goes wrong. Of course, make sure to monitor each cat’s body language and demeanor. Each cat is an individual – I have had some cats get together in a matter of days while other can take months. Try to avoid the temptation to rush ahead so that the barriers can come down – the  house may still be separated into hostile camps.

 

Make sure to visit the updated web page Introducing Cats: A Short Guide

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Friendly cat greeting a humanCats live in a landscape of odors. Odors tell them about their world and its inhabitants. The signature odor or scent can play an important role when introducing a cat to something new – whether it is a another cat, dog, person or a piece of furniture.

Cats and signature scents


The signature scent is a collection of odors secreted by an individual animal. This signature scent is influenced by the individual’s hormones, diet, immune system and other animals that he hangs out with.  Using her superb sense of smell, a cat can learn a surprising amount of information from the signature scent of another animal.

  • gender
  • health status
  • sexual receptivity
  • fitness
  • are you part of my social group?

The signature scent gives the cat a way of identifying an individual animal. But, like the resume submitted by a job applicant, it is not the whole story. There is more to be learned by a physical encounter. A young cat may pick up the signature odor of an older cat with kidney disease and find this scent a little frightening – he has never met a cat that smelled like that before.  After he spends some time with this older cat, he learns that particular odor of disease is not going to hurt him.

Cats and signature scents: learning about other cats


Introducing cats to cats

Free-roaming cats live in colonies if there is enough food in the neighborhood. Each colony has its own signature scent. Members of the colony identify each other by this scent. This colony scent also marks the core territory of the colony, where the members feel safe, can eat, rest and play.

One of the first things we should do to introduce a cat to another cat is to swap scents. Each cat will pick up some of the other’s scent – it is the start to creating a sense of “colony”.

An easy way to do this is to exchange bedding between the two. Why choose bedding? We hope that the cats are relaxed and calm in their beds and so the scents and pheromones in the bedding should convey a message of calm and relaxation in addition to things mentioned above, such as gender and health status. On the other hand, bedding may not be the best choice if the cat is in pain and discomfort when in the bed. See below for other ways to collect your cat’s scent.

Exchange the scented items between the two cats before they have any visual contact. There may be some hissing and growling at the scented object but hopefully this will go away in a few days. You will need to renew the scented item every other day or so. If your cat ignores the item and just walks on by, then she is not disturbed by this new addition so far. You can proceed on to step 2 of Introducing Cats: “time sharing” the common areas and the newcomer’s room.

Collecting Your Cat’s Scent

In The Trainable Cat, Sara Ellis views scent collection as one of 9 key skills that form a foundation for training cats. She recommends getting your cat accustomed to the process.  The goal is to make scent collection part of a pleasurable experience.  There are several ways to collect your cat’s scent – use whichever way suits your kitty.

  • Use a clean, light-weight cotton glove while stroking the cat in front of the ears and under the chin and cheeks (behind the whiskers).
  • You can also collect hair from the brush you’ve used to groom your cat in these areas.
  • As mentioned above, you can place a small piece of cloth on your cat’s bed for him to lie on.

The more you touch/brush these areas or the longer your cat lies on the cloth, the stronger the scent.

from Bradshaw, John W. S. and Sarah L. H. Ellis. “The Trainable Cat: A Practical Guide to Making Life Happier for You and Your Cat.” (2016).

Cats and signature scents: learning about dogs and humans


Scent swapping should be the first step in introducing cats to dogs and even humans.

  • A piece of the dog’s bedding is a way to start the cat-dog introduction. Follow the same steps used for introducing two cats.
  • Let’s say you have a pet sitter coming to care for your cat while you are away – you may feel awkward asking for a T-shirt prior to the pet sitter coming to your home but your cat may appreciate it!

Cats and signature scents: new items in the house


If you are able to collect your cat’s scent, applying it to a new piece of furniture just might keep your cat from scratching that new armchair ( Make sure to put a scratching post nearby!) Take something with your cat’s scent on it and wipe the new piece of furniture with it. Now, that chair or table smells familiar to your cat and its sudden appearance is not so scary.

Remember – Our homes are our cat’s territory; we are members of our cat’s colony. Our homes have the signature scent that makes our cats feel safe and secure. Please make sure to maintain the “colony scent”!

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Kitten kindergarten programs are great ways to continue to expose kittens to new experiences and accustom them to humans. But what if you can’t find one of these programs near you? Consider introducing your  kitten to your friends and family in your own home.

Hosting a Meet and greet for your kitten


What you will need:

  • An area in your home your kitten is familiar with, large enough to accommodate 3-4 people
  • Hiding places for your kitten in the area – some cardboard boxes with holes cut in them can be fun for both your kitten and your guests.
  • Treats and toys that your kitten likes
  • A litter box
  • Plastic spoons for offering treats to the kitten

The Guest list


Expose your kitten to a variety of people – men and women of different ages and well-behaved school-age children. When hosting a Meet and Greet for your kitten, keep the group small, about 3-4 people, but invite different guests each time you do it.

For your first “Meet and Greet”, consider limiting the guest list to adults. Once you are more comfortable, you may include children but start with one child (school age) at first and make sure to supervise directly. Be firm about the rules and how to handle the kitten. Toddlers require a lot of supervision and can hurt a young kitten. They will do better interacting with an older cat.

Let your guests know that the goal of the “Meet and Greet” is to help your kitten learn how to interact with humans. It is important that your kitten has control over his interactions with us so that he develops confidence.  Even if he stays in a box or carrier, he has taken the first step to learning more about humans.

The Rules for Meet and Greet Guests

  1. Allow the kitten to approach you; do not reach for or grab the kitten.
  2. If the kitten approaches you, offer him a treat in a spoon or a toy to play with. If he seems comfortable, rub his head and cheeks.
  3. To pick up the kitten up, slide one hand under her chest and use the other hand to support her hind end.
  4. If the kitten starts to squirm when being held, place him back down on the floor.
  5. Don’t let the kitten play with your hands or feet – redirect her to a toy.
  6. Don’t feed the kitten using your fingers (kittens have needle-sharp teeth that can hurt when they bite)
  7. Do not hand the kitten from person to person.

Setting Up a meet and greet for your kitten


  1. Have each guest wash his or her hands before the Meet and Greet
  2. Have everyone watch the Battersea cat handling video (it is about 3 minutes long )
  3. Review the Rules with the guests.
  4. Each guest will get a bag with a few treats and can select a toy to play with kitty.
  5. Have everyone sit down on the floor in a circle.
  6. Bring out the star of the show in his carrier and sit him next to you.

Activities


Lure your kitten out with treats or a toy. Allow her to approach people on her own – reward with a treat or play. Guests can take turns luring the kitten with toys, cuddling the kitten (if she accepts this) and offering snacks!

Being picked up can be scary for kittens. If your kitten is calm enough and approaches and greets a guest, the guest may pick him up, reward him with a treat, and see if he’ll sit with the guest. If your kitten gets squirmy, you may need to gently remind your human friend that your kitty friend needs a break!

After about 30 minutes or so, take your kitten to a safe place (another room) for a break and rest.
Treat your guests to pizza and a movie!

LIMIT how much the kitten is fed – the number of treats should not be more than what your kitten eats at a meal.

Kitten with adult cat

As you get the hang of doing a Meet and Greet for your kitten, you may want to introduce her to well-behaved adult animals. Make sure these adults are vaccinated and dewormed. Choose one pet for the “Meet and Greet”. Start with a barrier like a baby gate between the kitten and the adult animal. Have the pets play and have treats on either side of the barrier. For safety, the adult animal should be harnessed, leashed and have a dedicated handler.

Even if you keep the barrier in place, this is still a valuable experience for your kitten – he will get to see and smell these adult animals up close!

Other kittens around the same age are welcome IF they are vaccinated, dewormed, retrovirus- tested (FeLV/FIV), and are NOT vomiting, having loose stools, coughing or sneezing.  Treat them in the same way as the adult animals – apart at first and gradually bring them together.

Hosting a Meet and Greet for your kitten will help her be confident and accept new experiences, for example, having a pet-sitter at her home. She will learn what appropriate handling is and this will contribute to her safety and well-being.

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Aggression between Cats
Two cats engage in a spat while waiting to be fed.

In spite of our best efforts, things can go wrong and our cats confront each other aggressively. You may have adopted a new cat and he escapes the room you are keeping him in while introducing him to your resident cats. Something may startle the cats, say an outdoor cat comes to the window and one cat attacks a housemate in a bout of redirected aggression. Separation is the immediate solution to these unplanned events.

Indoor Cat Fights vs outdoors


There is nothing as dramatic as a cat fight. Two cats face off, fur standing on end, yowling and spitting. Often, one cat may slowly move away, all the time presenting his side to the other cat (to look larger); his back may be arched. Depending on the motive for the standoff, the remaining cat may just stand his ground and allow the other to leave or he may pounce, and the two cats grapple each other, biting, clawing, kicking, and the “cat ball” rolls away until it stops and both cats take a breather.

Unlike cat fights outdoors, the indoor cat fight can be more aggressive and more likely that either a person or a cat gets injured as things are in such close quarters. There may not be the ritual posturing and howling of a territorial cat fight outdoors. There may not be the opportunity for one of the cats to get away and there is not the extinction in fighting that can happen once one cat leaves the other’s territory.

How do we “break up” the indoor cat fight?


  1. Move calmly and deliberately – avoid fast or jerky movements
  2. Close doors to the area the fight is happening.
  3. Distract the cats momentarily so that you can block them from seeing each other.
  4. Herd the cats away from each other.
  5. Lure the cats into separate areas (rooms) – put a door between them!
  6. When all is calm, evaluate cats and people for injury. Seek medical attention if necessary.

Resist the temptation to scruff both cats and pull them away from each other. You will most likely get scratched, and, worse, get bit. Not only may you require medical treatment, your bond with your cat or cats will suffer.

Scruffing does not calm an adult cat and can actually injure him. Many people have been bit while scruffing a cat – the kitten reflex is long gone.

breaking up the indoor cat fight


  • cardboard barrier to separate cats
    A broom can be handy to gently separate fighting cats. It you anticipate aggressive encounters, attach some cardboard to the broom.

    Distractions: Make a loud noise – shout, clap your hands – to get the cats’ attention. If a bag of cat treats is at hand, shake it. Try scattering treats on the off-chance it may distract them.

  • Block visual contact: Try to slide some sort of barrier between the combatants. This may be a broom, piece of cardboard, or a sofa cushion.
  • Herding/Luring: Once out of sight of each other, try to direct them away from each other by tossing treats in opposite directions. If food is unsuccessful, “herd” one cat (preferably the more aggressive cat) with your barrier gently away from the other toward a place where you can separate the cats by a closed door.

A towel or blanket can be used as a barrier, albeit a flimsy one. If you can keep some tension on the edges and target the aggressive cat, this may be enough time for the other cat to get away, for example, and climb a cat tree.  You can also try and cover the aggressive cat with the towel. Be aware that fighting cats are tense and coiled like springs – they move extremely fast and may just outrun your well-aimed towel.

Be careful not to succumb to the emotion of the moment – hitting either cat with a broom, cardboard, or cushion will not be effective.

if you have help


DO ask your “helpers” to clap their hands together or rattle pots and pans. Be ready to slide your barrier in to block visual contact as soon as the cats are momentarily distracted.

DO have your “helpers” open the door to a room where you can herd one of the cats to. If there are additional materials for barriers (cardboard, broom, sofa pillows), have them herd one cat into a room while you work with the other or vice versa.

Other tools in the indoor cat fight


Spray bottles with water – these can distract some cats but be warned there are cats that will keep going even if you soak them down. The spray also means you will need to get close to the cats and may be a casualty of redirected aggression.

Noise makers – Cans with pennies can be effective to startle the cats. Avoid the use of air horns – in close quarters, these will be really loud. You don’t want the cats to associate a traumatic event with each other.

Rattling the food container elicits a positive emotion – if you scatter treats, some cats may be distracted enough to chase and eat treats. Then you can lure them with treats into separate areas.

be proactive!


Materials to separate fighiting cats
A basket holds a towel, jar of treats, and a spray bottle of water. There is a cardboard barrier behind the basket.

If you are introducing cats or trying to correct redirected aggression due to, say, outdoor cats, have some “emergency” stations set up in areas close to where aggressive encounters may occur. Stock each ER station with:

  • A piece of sturdy cardboard  – you can make a “paddle” by attaching it to a pole. This will keep you out of the line of fire as you try to herd a cat.
  • A thick, large towel
  • A jar of treats and a can of pennies
  • A spray bottle of water

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