There are few things that can disrupt a pet-oriented household more than toileting issues with the family cat. Adding members to the family only compounds the problem if there isn’t a plan for proper multi-cat litter box management in place.
Our goal is to take the concerns of cat parents into consideration and help them understand how the home environment can either support or disturb the equilibrium of pets and their people.
Previously, we’ve discussed best practices for litter box set up and curbing problem behaviors regarding toileting. In this article, we’re going to go over the dynamics of multi-cat households, how they relate to litter box set up and management, and how to address issues surrounding resource sharing in a full house.
The social structure of cat families
A social group is defined as two or more cats, either related or familiar to each other, that share a territory and exhibit behaviours that promote social cohesion, such as allogrooming, allorubbing, and playing or resting together.Heath, S. (2019)
We’re used to seeing large and social groups of animals in the wild, but it’s difficult to relate those concepts to our own environment at home. We assume that because our pets are domesticated, the issues of sharing space and resources are minor.
However independent and disinterested our feline friends may seem at times, cats are still social animals who need a calm and somewhat structured environment in which to thrive and live their best lives.
Cats also have social structures, affiliations, and ways of coping when interacting with other felines. Because they can’t vocalize effectively when something scares them or they’re unhappy, they show us how they feel in other, somewhat less pleasant ways.
This is especially true when you have two or more cats sharing the same space but are not from the same social group. The issues of social affiliation that can arise are possible even when cats are related, but are more common with strange cats or when a new pet is introduced to the household.
- Lack of privacy or sufficient space
- Triggering behavior from other pets or people
- Access to food, water, and toileting stations
- Differences in personality or temperament
- Insecurity or inability to cope with change, such as reintroducing pets after an absence from the home or a temporary disruption of the home environment due to things like having guests or home construction.
When cats lack social affiliation with other cats in the home, it can exhibit territorial disputes and unwanted behaviors such as spraying or toileting outside the litter box. It’s important for people living in multi-cat households to pay attention to the dynamics within the group and make accommodations that support harmony.
Signs of social affiliation in felines
Cats and kittens play and fight. But how do you tell when a problem is simply due to a temporary squabble and when there is a true lack of social affiliation?
How cats communicate and interact with each other can tell you a lot about their social groupings. They usually choose their preferred associates, mainly cats they’re related to, and demonstrate this affiliation with characteristic bonding or affectionate behaviors like:
- Allogrooming or social grooming
- Tail wrapping or intertwining
- Sleeping or resting in close proximity
- Playing together
- Facial or body rubbing
Some of these behaviors are similar to how they act around humans that they prefer. Other signs that a cat is comfortable in their environment or around certain people are attempting to sit in your lap, placing their body under your hand, and purring or chirruping.
There are also differences in behavior and ability to adapt between the sexes. Female cats can share resources more easily, even tending or nursing each other’s kittens. Male cats tend to be more solitary and have a larger range of options for movement and acquiring resources.
While activities like hunting or nesting are less necessary for domestic animals, these instincts are inborn and drive the behavior of individual cats and collectives of multiple cats.
Unrelated cats don’t get along in general, and even the closest siblings will fight when they’re bothered by something. But, you can ease tension and promote well-being by paying attention to unwanted behaviors and putting measures in place to support intelligent resource sharing.
Inappropriate toileting and other signs of territorial dispute
Cats demonstrate an unwillingness to interact with unpleasant people or other animals through behaviors like hissing, scratching, defensive posturing, withdrawal, marking, and toileting issues. Of these behaviors, inappropriate toileting is the most concerning and difficult for pet owners to tolerate for long.
However, these disputes can arise over more than simply sharing a litter box. Toileting stations that are improperly set up or too close together, sharing feeding and watering stations, lack of adequate space for rest, or lack of individual attention can also lead to inappropriate elimination and other problem behaviors.
Helping your feline friends learn to get along
While you can’t make pets with different personality types or social affiliations get along, you can create an environment that provides the space they need for rest, play, sustenance, and elimination.
Kittens and cats from the same family are the easiest to manage when it comes to coexistence. Older cats, solitary animals, and those with health or mobility issues require more leeway and individual accommodation.
Felines may also be adverse to handling and interaction as they get older or if they’re unwell.
Harmony will be supported by incorporating the Five Pillars of a Healthy Feline Environment into your home layout and resource set up/distribution. These important concepts urge you to provide:
- A safe space
- Multiple, separated areas for food, toileting, rest/sleeping, scratching, and play
- Opportunities for both play and predatory behavior
- Predictable, consistent, and positive human/cat social interaction
- An environment that respects the importance of a cat’s sense of smell
Unless you adopt siblings from the same litter or your cat has kittens, you’re going to need some advice about the best way to introduce a new cat to your family. There are general guidelines that can be universally applied, but some differences occur by pet age and social affiliation.
When bringing a kitten into the household, it’s best to get other cats acclimated to them rather than the other way around. Like most new beings, they’re curious, friendly, and eager to get along.
You should begin handling kittens between the ages of two and seven weeks, which are the formative times for learning socialization. This helps them adapt to new things easier as they grow and lessens their stress.
The more people who handle the kitten during this time, the greater their chances of learning to overcome fear of being approached by humans. They also require longer play and interaction periods with their owners during this time.
Introduce them to new scents slowly and in a positive way. Make sure that they have plenty of privacy when introducing them to their toileting space. When they’re getting acquainted with mature cats, let the older cat’s behavior steer the course. Never try to force interaction.
Introducing adult cats to the household
Cats reach their social maturity at between two and three years of age. This means that their personalities and behaviors are pretty much set by this time, but it also means that it’s harder to get them acclimated to new environments, people, and pets. Put the cats together in the same room when all parties are relatively calm.
When they are getting acquainted for the first time, only intervene when necessary. Make sure that it’s done in a neutral manner that doesn’t favor one cat over the other(s).
The best way to diffuse a contentious situation is to simply separate the animals and/or allow them to withdraw to their safe space and regroup. Never punish or berate a cat for it’s behavior.
Reintroducing cats after an absence
Even cats who are well socialized and have an ideal environment at home will need some adjustment time when returning after an absence or when re-acclimating to a cat who is returning to the home after being away.
You can prepare for a return after hospitalization or an extended absence by spraying a synthetic feline diffuser around the home to help maintain the existing scent profile and help with reintegration.
When a cat does return after an absence, keep them in a separate room or area until they and the other cats are calmer and more ready to reintegrate. Try to keep a hands-off approach to reintegration once the cat is allowed to re-enter the wider home environment.
Coping with disruptive outdoor influences
While you have control over the indoor environment and other beings in it, there isn’t a whole lot you can do about repairmen, delivery drivers, or other animals outside. The best you can do is minimize their impact on your indoor cats and kittens by moving feeding/toileting stations away from outside-facing windows, cat flaps, and doors or blocking the view of your interior from outside agitators.
Advice for dealing with cats belonging to different social groups
Despite your best efforts, you’re not always going to be able to achieve total harmony between cats, especially those from different social groups. The best policy is to maintain separate but equal facilities. This can be achieved in several ways.
First of all, don’t force cats from different social groups to share resources. This means providing separate toileting areas, water and food dishes, rest areas, and toys.
Increase the availability of resources according to how many cats are in the home. This means at minimum, providing one separate urination and pooping box per cat, with an additional litter box set up with their preferred litter type for each additional cat in the home. For example, households with two cats should have three litter boxes, three-cat households should have four litter boxes, and so on.
Make sure to distribute resources in different areas in the house. If it isn’t possible to set up feeding and toileting stations on different floors, place them in different rooms or in different areas of the same room. Never place toileting and feeding, rest, or play areas in the same vicinity.
Maintain visual and scent security by restricting or blocking off access to cats from different social groups.
Allow cats from different social groups the space and opportunity to deposit their own scent in a dedicated area that’s designated for their use. They achieve this through positive marking behaviors like scratching and rubbing. If they exhibit negative marking behaviors like spraying, middening, or toileting outside of their dedicated area, reevaluate your set up and cleaning schedule/routine.
If your cat is suddenly exhibiting negative behaviors when there were previously no problems, schedule a checkup to rule out any health issues. Cats who are fairly young and in good health will generally only demonstrate unacceptable (to humans) behavior when they are stressed, frightened, or unhappy.
Final thoughts about litter box dynamics
In a crowded household, it’s not always possible for every member to live in peace at all times. However, harmony can be supported and encouraged by learning how cats socialize.
The first step is realizing what types of environmental circumstances influence cat behavior and setting up your multi-cat litter box accordingly.
We can’t promise to solve all of your problems. But, using our guidelines for litter box management in a multi-cat household will go a long way toward allowing all of your fur babies to peacefully coexist.
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Ellis, S. L., Rodan, I., Carney, H. C., Heath, S., Rochlitz, I., Shearburn, L. D., … & Westropp, J. L. (2013). AAFP and ISFM feline environmental needs guidelines. Journal of feline medicine and surgery, 15(3), 219-230.
Heath, S. (2019). Common feline problem behaviours: unacceptable indoor elimination. Journal of feline medicine and surgery, 21(3), 199-208.