Aggression and fighting in multi-cat homes are common problems. There are many reasons why cats living together in one household might not get along. First of all, most multi-cat households combine cats that are from different social groups into one shared space where they are expected to share resources. Secondly, the addition of new cats introduces new odors and other stimuli that can trigger aggression.
When cats don’t get along well, the consequences can be damaging for both their physical and mental health. Fighting not only can lead to physical injuries but also can cause anxiety and stress. Severe anxiety can result in cats becoming withdrawn and is likely to have a negative impact on their quality of life. Fortunately, there are things you can do to help your cats get along.
How to help cats get along and how to stop cat aggression will be addressed in part two of this article. It will discuss what to do when your cats are fighting, how to manage aggression, behavioral and environmental modifications, and how to identify and monitor social relationships. It will conclude with a five-step process that helps prevent aggression in multi-cat homes.
Should I stop my cats from fighting?
When should I stop them?
While it’s best to prevent fights from happening in the first place, fights between cats in a multi-cat household can be hard to avoid. Sometimes what looks like an actual fight is just cats playing a bit aggressively and does not require intervention. When fighting is not on equal terms or when one cat is dominating the other, intervention is probably a good idea.
It can be tricky to know if and when it is necessary to stop cats from fighting. If an injury does occur, it is obvious that intervention is needed and action should be taken. When no injuries have occurred, the decision about whether to intervene depends on how the aggression is impacting the welfare of the cats.
The key is to be able to tell the difference between play aggression and non-play aggression. Avoidance of play by one of the cats, offensive stares, and the blocking of resources are some indications of non-play aggression that should be addressed.
Play aggression vs non-play aggression
During play-aggression, cats show typical predatory behavior. Playful aggression between affiliated cats usually involves eye stare, stalk, chase, pounce, and grab. Sometimes cats might wrestle with each other and kick with their back legs. They vocalize with short meows and chirruping sounds, but not with hisses, growls, or screams.
When non-play aggression occurs, cats begin experiencing negative emotions. You can tell that aggression has gone beyond normal play when cats take on offensive and defensive postures and vocalize with growls, hisses, and long meows. Non-play aggression typically occurs in multi-cat households when cats are in competition for resources or lack escape routes and hiding spaces.
How to manage play and non-play aggression
There are three basic principles for managing play and non-play aggression in multi-cat households. The first is to begin by treating any medical conditions. In treating medical conditions, internal factors that might be triggering aggression are interrupted. Although fighting might continue due to external factors, eliminating the internal factors is a good place to start.
The second principle is never to use punishment. Punishing an aggressor will cause fear and anxiety and can be harmful to your relationship with your cat. Instead, the aggressor should be distracted or the cats should be carefully separated using towels or cardboard.
Finally, the treatment should be targeted to the individual situation and the cats involved. Different strategies work depending on the individual cats and the ways they interact with one another. Unfortunately, not all cases can be cured. In the majority of cases, with enough time and patience, the situation can be improved.
There are many different strategies for managing play and non-play aggression between resident cats. Play aggression can be managed by enriching your cats’ environment. Holding regular play sessions with your cats in enriched rooms is a great way to keep them focused on toys instead of on each other.
Non-play aggression can be addressed with changes to the environment that minimize competition and undesirable encounters. Putting a bell collar on an aggressive cat will provide a warning to other cats. Separating the aggressor from victims for a short period of time each day can help alleviate offensive and defensive aggressive behaviors.
Behavioral and environmental modification to help
Modifications to behavior and the environment can help reduce cat aggression and fighting. Introducing special times for play and treats can change behavior. In cases of daily aggression and when there is a risk of injury, cats should be separated for a period of time and then carefully reintroduced as if they are new to each other.
Redirected non-play aggression occurs when an external stimulus, such as noise or smell, makes a cat behave aggressively towards another cat. In these cases, the cats should be separated for a period of time followed by careful reintroduction while gradually desensitizing and counterconditioning the aggressor to the stimulus.
Adjunct therapies, such as pheromone therapy, psychoactive medications, and neutering are also useful in treating cases of cat aggression. These are intended to complement behavioral and environmental modification.
Pheromone therapy uses a synthetic version of the feline pheromones that cats produce and leave behind when they rub their faces on items in your home. Pheromone sprays and diffusers can be plugged in throughout the home in rooms where cats spend the most time. Pheromone therapy will help cats feel more secure during times of stress and can reduce aggression between cats living in the same household.
In severe cases of aggression, psychoactive medications can be given to cats. Medications are especially useful in cases of highly impulsive cats, extremely frightened cats, and in cases of redirected aggression when the stimulus causing the aggression cannot be controlled.
Before using medications, cats should be given a medical check-up that includes laboratory tests. Medications should be used in conjunction with behavioral and environmental modification.
Neutering is always recommended in multi-cat households because it reduces aggression and fighting and eliminates spraying in most male cats. Neutering cats is also important for preventing feline overpopulation, a major problem. It can take a few weeks and up to a month for a neutered cat to become less aggressive, and it is more effective at reducing aggression and spraying when done at a younger age.
Identifying and monitoring social relationships
In order for behavioral and environmental management to be effective in treating cat aggression, the social relationships in multi-cat households should be identified and monitored. Social groupings, isolated individuals, or pairs should be identified, and cats’ relationships with each other, both positive and negative, should be monitored.
Studying these social relationships helps to determine risk levels and to decide how to implement modifications such as temporary or permanent separation, the use of medication, and rehoming.
Environmental modification to help prevent aggression in multi-cat households
The goal of environmental modifications is to transform a multi-cat household into feline territories. Feline territories replicate the way that cats organize themselves when living in the wild. They consist of areas for sleep, eating, play, and socializing. Feline territories are a key element in preventing aggression in multi-cat households.
An environmental modification program involves deciding on the best way to distribute resources. Food and water bowls, beds, scratching posts, toys, and litter boxes should be placed in a way that meets the physical and emotional needs of all cats living together in your home.
The program emphasizes the concepts of multiplying resources and providing safe spaces for cats. Feline territories are created by using drawings of household plans and histories of multi-cat groups and their interactions. The program involves five steps.
The five-step process
- The first step is to identify friendly and hostile interactions displayed by resident cats. The purpose of this step is to determine if subgroupings exist and to detect overly aggressive or submissive individuals.
- Getting to know the layout of the house is the second step. The plan of the house should include measurements, furniture, entrances, exits, places available and not available to cats, and information about how resident cats occupy the space.
- The third step is to recognize all of the problem behaviors that typically occur. This ensures that the program will address other behavioral issues, such as marking, house-soiling, and destructive scratching.
- Fourth, limitations to the ability to make some changes need to be considered. Changes in the home that are too extreme or costly might not be feasible or desirable for cat owners and for cats themselves.
- The fifth and final step is to implement the principles of multiplying, decentralizing, and sectorizing resources. Decentralizing involves spreading resources around the home in a way that helps to reduce competition, while sectorizing means designating special areas of a home for different purposes. Sectors are created for feeding, eliminating, playing, resting, and so on.
Changes to the environment should be applied gradually and accompanied by behavioral monitoring. It is most effective to adapt the environment into feline territories before problems arise.
Beaver, B. V. (2004). Fractious cats and feline aggression. Journal of feline medicine and surgery, 6(1), 13-18.
Ramos, D. (2019). Common feline problem behaviors: Aggression in multi-cat households. Journal of feline medicine and surgery, 21(3), 221-233.