• Managing Multiple Cats (and Why to Consider Just One)

    Posted on January 21, 2013 by Dr. Natasha Kassell in behavior, cats.

    When I was growing up, my family had a menagerie of dogs, frogs, guinea pigs and toads, but because my father was deathly allergic to them, not a single cat.  It wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties that I adopted my first cat.

    Believing Otter was basically a small dog with sharp claws, I soon adopted a second cat, Columbo.  (You know, so they could keep each other company.) The two cats lived together for 14 years, and I assumed they liked one another.  When Otter developed a terminal illness, I prepared for Columbo to become lost and forlorn the way our dog had when his canine companion passed away.  But much to my surprise, when Otter passed, Columbo did not seem the least bit sad.  To the contrary, he stopped walking around the perimeters of rooms, peering nervously over his shoulder to see if he was about to be ambushed.  He stopped hiding under beds and in closets.  And best of all, he stopped urinating in places other than his litter box.

    Cats are not small dogs

    The scenario that occurred in my house is far from uncommon.  Cats differ from dogs not just in their unique physiology, but in their social structure, as well.  While dogs, like humans, are highly social “pack” animals, cats are relatively solitary by nature.  Many people do live with multiple cats who seem to enjoy one another.  But in my veterinary practice, I’m frequently asked to address feline issues that are the result of stress caused by interactions with other cats in the home.   Two of the most common stress-induced conditions in cats are excessive grooming to the point of baldness or self-trauma and the oh-so-irritating tendency to urinate in inappropriate places.

    It’s important to note that almost any change in the cat’s environment may trigger stress-related behaviors: the arrival of a new baby, pet (feline or other), roommate or piece of furniture; moving to a new house; or the absence of the guardian while away on work, vacation, etc.  That said, being forced to cohabitate with other cats is one of the main causes of stress in domestic cats.

    “But I love cats!”

    This is not to say that all cat lovers should limit themselves to one cat.  Thousands of homeless cats are euthanized each year because animal shelters lack space to house them.  Providing these cats homes is an invaluable service to cats and communities.  Then there’s the fact that many folks find themselves smitten by the frolicking feline, and even if they didn’t plan it this way, find themselves adopting cat after cat until one day they wake up and realize they’ve become that “crazy cat lady” (or man or couple) with a house bursting with cats.  (Incidentally, adopting kittens from the same litter or close to the same ages reduces the chance that they’ll become adversaries as adults, though it does not eliminate the possibility.)

    But please keep in mind that providing company to your feline friend should not be high on your list of reasons to adopt more than one cat.  Most cats seem quite content to be the only cat, and I see far fewer stress-related behavioral problems in single-cat households than in multi-cat houses.  Not that cats are antisocial.  In the past half hour, while emitting a purr that could compete with a lawn mower, my cat has taken several strolls across my keyboard, chewed on my computer screen and cord and head-butted me at least a dozen times.  Anyone who lives with a cat can relate to this kind of exceedingly social–if less than helpful–feline behavior.  But as we all know, cats like to be social on their own terms.

    Creating a healthy multi-cat home

    Check for compatibility

    So what can you do to mitigate stress if you have more than one cat?  For starters, try to determine if your cats are “friends,” i.e. part of the same social grouping.  Some examples of friendly inter-feline behavior are grooming one another and rubbing faces against one another.  Signs that they’re not part of the same social group can be subtle, such as one cat always being on the alert when the other is in the room rather than assuming a relaxed posture, to overt, as in the case of hissing, growling and fighting.

    Don’t make them compete for resources

    In all cases, providing ample resources located in different parts of the environment can markedly reduce stress.  Resources include:

    • Food and water
    • Litter boxes
    • Hiding places, high places to perch and soft or warm places to sit.

    Though it may seem inconvenient or excessive to have multiple feeding and water stations, litter boxes, perches, toys, etc, allowing cats to have as much space away from one another as possible will markedly decrease their stress.

    If you provide plenty of separate resources and one or more of your cats is still having issues, I would recommend that you make an appointment with your veterinarian to check for physiological conditions.  Excessive grooming may also be caused by fleas, food allergies and other factors. Urinating in inappropriate places such as beds, bathtubs and couches can be a sign of cystitis.

    Treat stress

    If you have modified the environment to minimize stress as much as possible and ruled out physiological conditions, you may want to ask your veterinarian about a synthetic pheromone spray called Feliway.  Feliway calms some cats, though I’m not aware if studies have been done to determine its long-term effects on cats, other animals or humans.  Homeopathy may be helpful for some patients.  If all else fails, ask your veterinarian about psychotropic anti-anxiety drugs.  They can be immensely helpful and are sometimes needed only short term.

    This information may lead you to believe I’m suggesting that everyone has one cat, maximum.  That is not my goal.  But in helping you understand ways that cats differ from humans, dogs and other highly social species, I’m hoping to maximize your chances of creating a peaceful, health-filled home.  For you, all of your pets, and especially your cats.