Feline behavior Q&A: When peace turns to war in a multi-cat household

Feline behavior Q&A: When peace turns to war in a multi-cat household

A client tells you her companionable cats have launched all-out warfare. How can you help? Here are one behaviorist’s insights.
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May 11, 2016

Strange smells--such as those acquired during a trip to the veterinary hospital--can cause one cat to turn on another. (Getty Images.)

Dr. Sarah HeathQ: Why would two cats that have peacefully coexisted for years suddenly start having horrible fights?

While cats are social creatures, they are solitary survivors, and the relationships they form are far more fragile than those of obligate social creatures such as dogs and humans. The first question a veterinarian should ask when faced with an owner reporting the onset of “horrible fights” between cats that had previously coexisted peacefully is whether that was indeed the case.

Feline social tension is often manifested through passive behaviors such as staring or even simply avoiding being in the same place at the same time. If no physical confrontation has arisen, the owners may have been oblivious to the level of social tension that was actually present, and subsequent “fights” will appear to be sudden and unexpected.

If the cats have been truly compatible in the past—if they’ve been seen to rub and groom each other in affiliative social interactions—it’s still possible for the relationship to break down. Natural feline social behavior leaves little capacity for reconciliation, and the fragility of feline social relationships can be distressing for owners. Relatively trivial disruptions (from a human point of view) can cause feline relationships that were stable for years to fall apart.

For example: If one cat is away from home due to veterinary hospitalization or because it was missing, when it returns it brings with it novel and potentially challenging scents that can disrupt the social relationship. As a result, the cats no longer regard each other as part of the same social group.

What are safe measures cat owners can take to break up a cat fight in the house?

Before anyone intervenes in a physical confrontation between two cats, it’s important to realize that fighting is a last resort in feline circles and the cats involved will be in a high state of emotional arousal. This means that the risk of injury to the cats is high but also that the risk to any humans who get involved is also high.

It’s preferable to avoid direct intervention. If there is an object nearby that can be placed gently between the cats to separate them, that’s the best approach. The object should not be used to physically touch either of the cats or used in a rapid or forceful fashion, which could induce fear.

Of course, fighting incidents often take people by surprise so they aren’t prepared with something suitable to use. In these cases a sudden and unexpected noise can be successful, but remember—the sound should be unconnected with the person and should not be used to frighten the cats but rather to startle them.

While feline physical confrontation is intense in nature, it is often short-lived. Provided the cats are not somewhere where they could become trapped, it’s likely that they will separate quickly. When they do, the cats will both likely retreat to hideouts or elevated locations to lick their wounds—literally.

It’s best to leave the cats alone for at least half an hour to allow their emotional arousal level to fall. But obviously if wounds or severe bleeding is present, that may not be possible. In any case it’s important for the owner to calmly examine both cats after a suitable delay since veterinary treatment may be necessary.

How would you address this situation long-term?

First, it’s necessary to establish how many social groups of cats exist within the household. Owners can do this by observing the cats over a one-week period and recording any incidence of allorubbing or allogrooming interactions.

Once the number of social groups is known, owners need to be educated about the need for separate core territories and suitable distribution of resources for all groups. Cats have a fundamental need to be in control and to have free and immediate access to life’s essential resources at all times. The result of this is that food bowls, litter boxes, water sources and resting places need to be distributed throughout the house in a way that enables all of the cats to access the appropriate resource without running the gauntlet of another cat if they should need to eat, rest, drink or use the litter box at the same time.

Bottom line? Addressing feline environmental needs is the key to preventing feline social tension. Excellent information is available in the ISFM/AAFP Feline environmental needs guidelines.

Dr. Sarah Heath qualified from Bristol University and spent four years in mixed general practice before setting up a behavioral medicine referral practice in 1992. She is an external lecturer in small animal behavioral medicine at Liverpool University and a certified clinical animal behaviorist under the Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour (ASAB) accreditation scheme. In 2002, she became a founding diplomate of the European College of Animal Welfare and Behavioural Medicine and served as president from 2002 to 2008. Heath has a special interest in the interplay between behavior and physical illness in dogs and cats, particularly in the role of pain. She lectures at home and abroad on behavioral topics and is an author and co-editor of the recently published Feline Behavioral Health and Welfare.

Heath will be a speaker at the American Association of Feline Practitioners’ 2016 annual conference in Washington, D.C., which will address feline behavior and respiratory diseases.

The American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) improves the health and welfare of cats by supporting high standards of practice, continuing education and scientific investigation. This year’s 2016 Annual Conference in Washington, D.C., will address feline behavior and respiratory diseases. Presentations will be geared toward all levels of feline practitioners and include both a paraprofessional track and full-day shelter track. For more information about AAFP and the conference, visit catvets.com/education.