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Hey you, get off of my cloud!

Keeping the peace in a multi-cat household

From Animal Sheltering magazine January/February 2012

After a little hissing and paw-batting, Lacey and Finnegan have settled into a peaceful friendship—thanks to the smart introduction owner Lisa Provost provided.

For 11 years, everything was copacetic in Marrakech and Samsara’s world. Together from kittenhood, the sisters loved cuddling, playing with mousie toys, and “singing” in typical Siamese style.

But two years ago, their lives changed dramatically when their owner committed a crime, at least in their eyes: She brought home another cat.

“When I adopted Colette, I would say I adopted a good year’s worth of hell,” says Carol Zytnik of the then 4-year-old ragdoll mix’s uneasy transition into her New York City apartment. The sisters blocked access to the litter box and relentlessly stalked the younger, larger feline. It’s not that Colette wasn’t a nice cat. But she’d intruded upon their territory—a violation of kitty law.

Turf battles in the feline universe are legendary. Internet videos showcase cats with the moxie to face down animals many times their size—dogs, bears, even alligators (we won’t talk about the wimpy kitty terrorized by a turtle).

In spite of this reputation, Zytnik was undeterred. After several months of patience, intensive play sessions, and cat calming sprays, she negotiated a peace treaty. A year after Colette’s arrival, the Siamese extended the ultimate olive branch—they allowed her into their kingdom, the bedroom.

Attaining that type of kitty contentment involves more than just plunking cats down into your domain and hoping for the best. Whether you’re thinking about adopting another feline or already have a kitty crowd, understanding how cats see the world will help you prevent mild skirmishes from escalating into all-out war.

Give Me Some Space

Cats who feel at home send a strong statement—“ I own this place”—by walking into a room and rubbing up against people, scratching a post, or heading to the litter box, says Redondo Beach, Calif.-based feline behavior consultant Jackson Galaxy. Less confident kitties have another way of spreading the message, he says: “If they walk into a room surrounded by other cats and go, ‘I own this, right? Right? Right?’, then they’ll pee on stuff, because they’re saying the same thing in an anxious way.”

To provide elbow room, says Galaxy, spread out territorial identifiers such as bowls, litter boxes, beds, and scratching posts— things that cats “can walk by, look at, smell, and say, ‘This belongs to me.’” Clustering these items may be more convenient, but it squeezes territorial significance into small areas, Galaxy explains, causing competition that can trigger aggression and anxiety.

Higher Ground

A TV personality (he hosts the show My Cat From Hell on Animal Planet) and celebrity among feline aficionados, Galaxy classifies cats as “tree dwellers” or “bush dwellers,” roles they play in the natural environment. Tree dwellers feel more secure watching the world from on high, while bush dwellers prefer staying close to the ground. With some simple changes, you can offer your cat similar choices within the safety of your home.

“When you have [multiple] cats, there has to be a way for them to make the [territorial ] snake dance … without going nose to nose at every turn,” Galaxy says. “... It’s like having a one-lane country road with 100,000 people in town. You have to build a freeway.”

About the Author

Arna Cohen is a former Associate Editor at The Humane Society of the United States.