Cats fighting

Cats are a unique species. They’re not 10# people in furry suits and they’re certainly not dogs with short ears. Despite those differences, or maybe because of them, their presence is essential to my wellbeing and maybe to yours too. In fact, I love cats so much I’d adopt more of them but I know how things can go wrong.

Does your cat seem lonely? Maybe he’s the sweetest, most playful creature you’ve ever met. And he lives inside and he acts bored sometimes. He would love to have a friend for cuddling and a bit of good-natured rough-housing, right? Well, maybe. The potential for a fruitful feline friendship will depend on who the cats are. Their genetic programming, their accumulated life experiences, and their ages will play major roles in the drama ahead.

It’s not that adding a second cat would necessarily be a bad idea but any candidates under consideration deserves a serious evaluation. That’s because kitties who are thrust into a confined space (your house) could declare war on or be the victim of intense hostility from the moment of introduction, even if they are brought together carefully.

How do I know these things? Well, I’m residency trained in veterinary behavior medicine. I’ve practiced this specialty for a long time. I treat a lot of aggression between household cats, not to mention other manifestations of anxiety and fear. Consider that 64% of bladder disease in cats is a direct result of stressful living conditions. A cat whose housemate wants him dead is not enjoying a peaceful life. Urine and fecal soiling, fighting, caterwauling, over-grooming, and reduced immunity to infectious diseases like feline leukemia and upper respiratory infections are just a few examples. If I were a cat who spoke a human language (one of my fantasies) I would assert my feline-specific needs. Sadly, we humans assume way too much.

This is not to suggest that your existing kitty couldn’t find happiness in a cat-cat friendship. But if you’re planning this pet parenting path please pay attention to potential pitfalls. The following is a tale fraught with peril that ultimately led to an acceptable state of resolution. Fret not; I’ll also explain how to improve your chances of getting it right.

Seven year old Zoe and her littermate, Emma, had been the best of pals since, well, day one. Their person, Kathy, found her two kitties to be a great comfort as she struggled through a difficult divorce and faced other life challenges. The girls, spending most of their time indoors, played together, snuggled, and kept each other great company. But their lives took a bad turn one day. Emma was outside in the evening and tangled with a raccoon. Hearing the commotion Kathy found this special cat suffering with severe injuries. The emergency doctors and staff did their best but despite their efforts she could not be saved.

We are so attached to our pets. Emma’s sudden passing was really hard for Kathy. Zoe became depressed. Her appetite suffered and she moved about the house as little as possible. Feeling guilty about Emma’s tragic injuries and believing that replacing Zoe’s missing companion would make things right she made a beeline the animal shelter. And there she found a cute and energetic 4 month old kitten she named Mika. His playfulness and healthy attitude were sure to be the right medicine for her grieving household.

Kathy had heard that gradual introductions were best. So she held Mika and approached sad Zoe, hoping that a bit of sniffing and purring would ignite a healthy bond. But for the established resident kitty who had known only one other cat since adolescence there was no pretense of affection. One look at that alien and for Zoe, it was hate at first sight. An ear-splitting shriek was immediately followed by her explosive assault on young Mika, sending him scrambling for cover. Only Kathy’s heroic intervention of covering the petrified youngster with a blanket and hurrying him out of the room saved him from injury.

There is nothing unusual about this scenario. Cats have complex brains, genetically programmed to adapt early in life to almost anything in their environments. Kittens under the age of 7 weeks, in particular, can accept any number of other cats including the vagaries of a multi cat colony. If raised in a free-living group, they develop social skills consistent with some members staying, others leaving, and the occasional new kid joining.

Pet cats, living in a caring home like yours or mine, however, can become behaviorally handicapped. By protecting them from outdoor hazards like cars, dogs, wild animals, and infectious disease we unintentionally prevent them from learning to roll with life’s punches. This doesn’t mean that indoor cats are a bad idea but it’s useful to understand the limitations of this nonhuman species.

Zoe’s early life with her sister Emma exposed her to the simple dynamics of an exclusive feline group of two. But because she never adapted to life in a feline colony she was incapable of recognizing anyone but Emma as belonging. Mika’s sudden appearance was a rude awakening. He had to be eliminated. Human logic had no place in Zoe’s paradigm. If it wasn’t Emma it was an enemy. There could be no middle ground.

Kathy was determined to make this friendship work. Like so many pet lovers she was sure that she could reason her way into the brains of these confused cats. Her mistake is common. Because she cared for her pets as though they were little people, she felt sure that she could bridge this gap.

Cats do share a few social structures with our species but there are some very big differences. Kathy’s sheer will to succeed wasn’t enough. Literally every time Zoe and Mika laid eyes on each other their aggression spiked with even greater intensity. With no way to escape or avoid a confrontation, leave home and live on her own Zoe could only try desperately to repel the kid. This was serious business. Aggression between family cats goes well beyond the hurling of insults and epithets. Cats in these situations will kill or be killed. Really? Yes, really.

Mika may have done well some other place. He was young enough at the time that moving in with older cats who’d been accustomed to a shifting feline population would have worked out fine for him. His adolescent brain could have accepted this natural way of life. Instead his fear of annihilation was triggered by Zoe early and often. He became immediately defensive-aggressive when recognizing her heated threats. She wanted him dead; he would do whatever it took to survive.

Hostility between family cats doesn’t always have end up with one of them moving out. In clinical behavior practice we try hard to avoid this not just because these pets are loved; cats are often even more bonded to their territories than they are to their people. A cat losing its home is one tragedy; getting accepted by a whole new group of people and pets is quite another challenge. When Kathy realized the futility of her well-intentioned efforts she brought Zoe and Mika to my office for help (in separate carriers). It was immediately clear that nobody was happy. My first priority was to reduce their collective angst.

Zoe and Mika needed to abandon their mutual enmity. Starting immediately they were to never see each other, at least not for a long time. They would be allowed separate access to the major living areas of the house, each of them alternating with a stay in one bedroom. Each of these areas needed at least one floor-to-ceiling cat tree located against a window. Multiple hide boxes at various heights in different rooms would make it easy for Zoe and Mika to live more like real cats who, by the way, are largely wild animals we keep as pets.

Twice daily the cats were to be rotated (not in place, of course, but between the bedroom and the rest of the house). While these areas each had two litter pans, one pan was to move with its respective cat and the other would stay. The pan that remained would have a small piece of stool left behind as a scent signature of the kitty who, we hoped, would someday be recognized as part of this future two-cat feline colony.

I instructed Kathy to wipe a towel on the cheeks of one cat and then rub it on the sides of the other’s chest every day. By trading scents and natural facial pheromones we were promoting recognition of membership in this fledgling (we wished) club of two.

False hopes can abound. Kathy noticed Zoe and Mika playing footsie beneath the closed bedroom door, believing that this was a good sign. Sorry, but it was not. Those unpredictable paw movements simulated prey. We did not want these future BFFs (in our dreams) associating predatory aggression with any part of each other’s anatomy. These two former adversaries where to be allowed near the door that separated them only under adult supervision.

Reintroducing cats can only succeed if it’s undertaken very slowly and painstakingly. For Zoe and Mika to have any hope of finding each other remotely acceptable they needed every possible advantage. We wanted them to associate a social emotional state with knowing that the other was nearby. A Feliway Multi Cat diffuser was plugged in on each side of the door that separated them. I also prescribed the natural antianxiety supplement Anxitane. It’s chewable, safe, and effective for mild to moderate fears and anxieties. Like all of these methods, Feliway and Anxitane are supported by research but none of them hits the home run by itself.

Realistic expectations are important. Integrating multiple science-based methods spawned hopes of moderate improvement. Plans for a spring wedding were, frankly, absurd. (Does that sound silly? Tactfully separating pet lovers from their overly optimistic expectations has tested my diplomatic skills on more than a few occasions.)

Over several months I had Kathy, with the help of a reliable friend, feed her kitties several feet away from their respective sides of the closed bedroom door. Sometimes Zoe or Mika would be brushed or even taught basic obedience skills like Sit or jump through a small hula hoop. By having fun and relaxing experiences while catching the scent of the other cat we intended for them to someday feel less nauseated by thoughts of each other. We knew we were climbing a steep grade. Détente was our highest aspiration.

After about 6 months Kathy reported that Zoe and Mika could actually see each other briefly without launching incendiary grenades. I counseled my committed client to continue taking the process slow. Very brief sightings would be too short, at this stage, to allow time for a ramp-up in histrionics. This was real progress, however incremental. There may actually come a time when these two cats can be in the same room without inflicting wounds and life-altering stress on each other and the woman who loves them.

Kathy ended up investing substantial amounts of her time and energy in improving life for her cats but she hadn’t bargained for this challenge the first time she carried Mika across the threshold. If she knew then what she came to learn later she would have recognized that, despite the passing of Zoe’s sister Emma, she and her solitary kitty would have eventually adjusted just fine. This would have been hard but with a more enriched home environment that included foraging opportunities and lots of evening stalk-and-pounce activities Zoe could have adapted and learned to enjoy life as an only cat. (For a good list of environmental “naturalizers” you can visit this page on my website, https://drjeffnichol.com/feline-environment-enrichment/).

So how could a 7 year old cat, set in her ways as a member of a colony of two and then suddenly alone, have made this transition? Cats have been broadly described as a socially asocial species. They are certainly capable of close relationships but their behavioral genetics also has them programmed for life as loners. Unlike humans and dogs, cats don’t gather resources, like food, as a community. Rather than hunting with their buds they stalk, pounce, kill, dismember, and consume alone. Also in contrast to more social species, when a cat gets sick or injured she does not cry out to her comrades for aid. She handles it herself, gets small, hides out, and rests until she recovers – or doesn’t. Being part of a group or not is a cat’s prerogative. They are not inexorably drawn to communal life like dogs and humans. Being solitary is OK for a cat.

And that’s the primary species difference that Kathy missed until she stumbled into her mistake. Being a social creature herself she thought that Zoe must have similar needs. A replacement for a lost sister might have made human sense. As it turned out Zoe would have had a much easier time adjusting to life as an only kitty than she did trying to adapt to life with Mika, that foreign invader. She wasn’t raised in a dynamic feline group; getting there in mid-life was damn near impossible for her.

Adding a second or even a third cat can work out fine – if you make feline-appropriate decisions. Adopting a kitty of about the same age as the resident cat’s is far more likely to be successful than going multi-generational. Had Kathy found a 6-8 year old cat, with a history of enjoying life with a variety of others, things may have gone better.

There is evidence that supports these cat combinations. We know that healthy feline relationships are more likely if cats are brought together much earlier in life. Younger is better; many do fine if everybody is under age 12 months when they move in together. Still, there are never guarantees. Even with very careful introductions, and all kitties having access to every environmental enrichment possible, there are some personalities that won’t ever fit. They’re like us that way.

Cats remind me of some of the people who have crossed my path. It’s easy to connect with folks who have a lot in common with me. If they share my feelings about pets, the outdoors, politics, and my philosophical bent on life it’s easy to become fast friends. But those from vastly different backgrounds or who feel strongly about ideas I dislike – now that can be a challenge. Having cats in my life teaches me to accept differences and enjoy people who are unlike me but still worthwhile. It’s not always easy. I’m working on this.

My cats have taught me to respect their alone time, to not pester them when they’re minding their own business, and to accept them as violent predators. They need to be who they are. These have been good life lessons. My cats are a couple of my best teachers.

Others have needs and wants that are different than mine. Maybe we can put aside some of our disagreements and focus on what we share. I know; it’s harder than it sounds. My pets have accepted more of my mistakes than any person ever has. They’ve set a good example.

I hope you found this information to be valuable. You’re welcome to share this blog with any of your cat-loving friends. Each week I share a short video, a podcast, or a blog to help bring out the best in pets and their people. You can sign up at no charge on my website www.drjeffnichol.com. And when you do, I’ll send you my free at-home pet first aid and CPR guide.

Thanks for your dedication to your pets. I’m Dr. Jeff Nichol.