By Dr. Becker
Unfortunately, in many multi-cat households, feuds between felines are common. Not only are these fights distressing for the cats, they can be very upsetting to human family members as well. No one wants to see beloved pets hissing and shrieking at one another, or worse, lashing out with teeth or claws.
Why Cats Fight
It's important to understand that unlike dogs, cats aren't naturally all that social. If they do choose to mingle with other cats, it's usually with a close relative (e.g., a littermate) or a kitty they've grown up with. U.K. veterinarian Dr. Sarah Heath, a certified clinical animal behaviorist, calls them "solitary survivors."1
Felines in the wild can easily avoid cats they don't like. But inside your house, your kitties have limited options for steering clear of each other. This can set the stage for feline friction, which often takes the form of one cat stalking, chasing and/or showing aggression toward another.
Cats are quite territorial, and should one of your kitties interfere with what the other considers his territory, such as his favorite napping spot, toy or human, the fur can fly. Often the problem is exacerbated because the cats live in close physical proximity to each other and share food bowls, litterboxes, bedding, cat perches, etc.
Sadly, even cats who've been friendly for years, including siblings, can lose their relationship. "Natural feline social behavior leaves little capacity for reconciliation," says Heath, "and the fragility of feline social relationships can be distressing for owners."
Seemingly minor bumps in the road from a human's perspective can permanently damage the bond between cats. For example, a cat who has been hospitalized returns home smelling like the veterinary clinic. In response, her feline housemate no longer views his long-time friend as part of his social group.
Signs of hostility between cats can be obvious (sometimes painfully so), or quite subtle. For example, one cat may leave an area as soon as the other cat enters. Or the more timid kitty may try to hide or escape whenever the other cat gets too close.
Breaking Up a Cat Fight
If you have two kitties who are physically fighting, don't waste time yelling or clapping, and don't try to put your hand or any other body parts in between them or you could wind up injured yourself.
The best thing to do is stay calm and grab something that you can insert between them, such as a large, sturdy piece of cardboard. The idea is to put a safe, effective barrier between them. If the cats are physically entangled, try lifting one by the scruff to the neck, which should cause him to release the other kitty. Keep the cats separated until they've cooled down. And keep in mind that every time they fight, it makes the relationship between them a little less stable.
7 Steps to a Possible Truce
There are many cat parents and veterinarians who feel the only way to resolve territorial aggression between two felines in the family is to find another home for one of them, or alternatively, permanently separate them in different locations in the house. Before such drastic measures are taken, there's a step-by-step process you can try that might create peace between feuding kitties in your household:2
1. The first step is to separate the cats into different parts of the house. Ideally these two areas share a common, solid door. The cats are fed on either side of the door at the same time twice a day, and there is a person available for each cat who plays with them and gives food treats following their meals.
The kitties will be able to hear and smell each other, but they can't see or get to one another. The goal is to create positive experiences at mealtimes for both cats as they remain in close proximity to each other.
2. Once the kitties are comfortable with this routine, they switch places so neither grows territorial about his side of the house. The cats should be switched every day or every other day throughout the program.
3. The next step is to crack open the door an inch and secure it so it can't be opened further. This will allow the cats to sneak glances at each other, but without the option to physically interact.
4. Once the 1-inch opening has become the norm, the door is opened to 4 inches (about the width of a cat's head). What you might want to do at this point is leave the solid door open (or remove it for the time being if you're industrious) and attach a screen door temporarily to the doorframe, leaving a 4-inch opening on one side. Cover the screen with paper or cloth.
5. After the kitties get used to this arrangement, fix the screen door fully across the opening and remove the covering you placed over it. Now the cats can see each other through the full screen, still eating their meals on either side of it and playing with family members at set times of the day.
6. The next step is to have the cats in the same room together, closely supervised and either in individual carriers or wearing harnesses while they eat their meals and have playtime. The length of this first introduction should not exceed 15 minutes.
7. Next — again at meal and playtime — allow one of the cats to roam free and get physically close to the other cat. Switch which cat gets to roam free at the next session. Gradually allow both cats increasing freedom to approach each other, until they are both roaming loose in the same area (while being supervised and entertained as usual), for short periods. Increase the time they spend together until it is all the time.
This process takes time, often many months, and you should anticipate occasional setbacks. Some people, for whatever reason, toward the end of the program decide to just throw the cats together. Sometimes it all ends up okay despite skipping steps in the process, but I don't recommend it.
There are a number of things you can do to relieve stress all around for the cats in your family:
• Offer lots of scratching surfaces — one for each cat at a minimum. There should be both vertical and horizontal surfaces, as many cats prefer one or the other. Also consider experimenting with different textured surfaces that offer a bit of variety.
• Make sure each of your cats has an individual, out-of-the-way resting spot. It could be the top of a cat tree or a crate (with the door left open), or a comfy spot on a closet shelf. It's extremely important that each of your kitties has at least one private area he can retreat to.
• Provide lots of toys that appeal to your cats' prey instincts, and make sure to include interactive toys that you can play with, with your cat. Also consider building or investing in a "catio," which is an outdoor enclosure that allows kitties to get all the benefits of being outdoors, while keeping them safe from harm.
• Consider providing multiple perches for your cats at eye level or higher. Many kitties are drawn to high roosts because they feel safe from predators and can keep an eye on activities at ground level.
You can provide access to high spaces in your home such as high closet shelves or plant ledges. Alternatively, you can buy traditional cat furniture like cat trees or you can get creative and design your own custom kitty perches. Try to provide at least a perch or two near windows so your cats can bird watch and keep an eye on neighborhood activities.
Consider using natural products like those from Bach Flower Remedies or Jackson Galaxy's Solutions to help your cats manage stressful feelings and events in their lives. Also talk to your holistic veterinarian about homeopathic remedies that fit each cat's personality and symptom pattern to help reduce emotional responses. Many cat parents also have good success using Feliway, a pheromone diffuser product, to reduce stress levels and ease tensions between cats.
• Finally, offer your kitties a fresh, nutritionally balanced and species-appropriate diet, and make sure they get adequate exercise. Many housecats today don't get the physical activity they need to be optimally healthy. Under-exercised, under-stimulated cats can accumulate pent-up energy that takes the form of hostility toward other felines in the household.