MANAGING A MULTI-CAT HOUSEHOLD

by Joelle Steele

Cat LogoIf you come from a large family you are probably well aware of all the problems associated with so many people living together under the same roof, all trying to get their different needs met. All those personalities, sharing a limited amount of space, try not to step on one another's toes, but inevitably end up doing just that. A family of cats is pretty much the same.

Three cats in the sun

Twinkle, Timmy, and Muffin enjoying a sunny afternoon in the kitchen.

PERSONALITY CONFLICTS

When you take two or more cats and put them together, you can expect that some will hit it off instantly, some will ignore each other, some will maintain an aloof disinterest, and others will fight tooth and nail to establish dominance. Any cat may be sweet with one cat and nasty and surly with another. They may maintain these behavioral patterns until their dying day or they may change them over a period of time.

My cat Puff took an instant dislike to my 1-1/2 week-old orphaned kitten Twinkle, while Puff's littermate, Whisper, adopted her instantly as his own, giving her a bath, letting her sleep on top of him, etc. Puff eventually grew to accept Twinkle, but they were never best friends. Adopted adult stray Izzy didn't like anyone, and she never became friends with Muffin — they just allowed each other a great deal of space. But Timmy was persistent in trying to befriend Izzy and they ultimately became like an old married couple, sleeping all curled up around each other on a pillow for ten years and dying within two months of each other.

For many years, all of my cats were used to traveling between my home and my parent's house 300 miles away. At my parents house there were other cats, and they all got along together very well, and they always remembered each other from previous visits.

Two cats share a tiny spot

Puff eventually decided to tolerate Twinkle, and here they are, on a very rare occasion, sharing a very small spot together.

Give everyone time to get used to each other. If possible, keep new additions in a separate area with their own food and litter box. Mix a bit of used litter from your existing litter box in with the fresh stuff so that the latest addition can get used to the new smells. Your existing cats will know the new family member is in the room with the closed door, and they will patiently and diligently hang around that door listening and sniffing at its occupant.

After about twenty-four hours, you can open the door and let everybody get a good look at each other for about a half an hour or so, under close supervision. If the newcomer is gregarious or aggressive, reassure your other cats by giving them extra affection. Give some affection to the new cat too since he or she is probably frightened and unsure in the new surroundings.

Cat meets kitten

Twinkle, 4 weeks old, and 3 year-old Whisper on Twinkle's first day out of her kitten box.

It isn't necessary to yell or try to stop conflict. They will sort it out amongst themselves, and the hissing, growling, and snarling is inevitable. After a couple of days and several short meetings, leave them all together for an entire day while you are present.

Not everybody will get along with everybody all of the time. Occasional hisses or growls, an occasional paw slap, or even an out and out fight, are not that unusual in a multi-cat household. You may love them all, but you can be sure that at least two of your cats might only be capable of mutual tolerance. It happens in the best of families. Don't try to break them up unless they are really in danger of harming each other, which is rare.

INDOOR AND OUTDOOR CATS TOGETHER

It is rare that all cats will be the same age or even very close in age, and elderly cats need to be kept indoors as do injured, sick, or disabled felines. Those youngsters who are still healthy and able-bodied will want to go outside if that is their usual habit, and keeping some cats in and allowing others to come and go outdoors is not always easy. The simplest and best solution is to keep them all inside. It's certainly safer and they will all live a lot longer that way. But, if you want some to have outdoor access, close off a room or a portion of your house where there is an outside door and let your outdoor cats come and go outdoors through a pet door. The rest of the family can stay in the other part of the house.

OFF-LIMITS AREAS

Some cat owners don't want their cats in certain rooms of the house such as nurseries, home offices, dining rooms, and hobby rooms. Some people use screen doors so that air and heat can circulate freely between rooms. When a screen door is out of place, French doors or louver doors may be the answer.

LITTER BOX PREFERENCES

You almost need to be a detective at times to find out what everyone wants in the way of litter and litter boxes. Then you have to find ways to please them all in a practical way. Some cats don't like deep boxes, some don't like hoods over their boxes, some cats want a night light in the bathroom, some will not use the same box that a particular other feline family member frequents, and some will not use a box in a particular location because it is cold, too far from where they usually hang out, too close to the food, too hard to get to, or in the pathway of another cat. Many cats have litter preferences too. Most multi-cat homes have at least two litter boxes in different parts of the house.

Cat takes to new kitten

Twinkle, 10 years old, and 6 week-old Muffin immediately took to each other.

SLEEPING AREAS

Cats usually sleep where they feel safest and most secure. This could be anywhere from the top of the refrigerator (Muffin and Tansy) to your favorite bed pillow (Timmy, Izzy, and Twinkle). If you are lucky, they may even sleep on that big soft pillow you made just for them (Puff, Hedy), or they may even curl up in the little kitty condo you bought. But, if all your cats are not madly in love with each other, they will most assuredly not want to hang out together. Two sections of your kitty condo may be vacant, not because they don't like those two sections, but because they don't like the neighborhood — the neighbor who occupies the remaining section to be exact. The important thing is to make sure that there are enough available kitty condos and big fluffy pillows for everyone, in several places.

MEAL TIME

If there is one place where cats can best demonstrate their individuality, it's at the dinner table. Different dietary requirements must be met for kittens, adults, less active adults, seniors, and those with food allergies or infirmities that prevent them from eating what or where everyone else does. Experiment until you find the best locations for all the individual food dishes, and make sure there are several water sources throughout the house. Don't be surprised if two cats eating the same food want to share the same dish or will only eat out of individual dishes. They all have their own dining styles.

SHARE YOUR LOVE

Talk to everyone each day, and pet them daily for at least ten minutes each, playing with them for a few minutes as often as possible. Be sure to examine each cat for any signs of illness at least once a week. It is easy for a sick cat to be overlooked in all the confusion of a multi-cat household. Always be sure that everyone is getting the attention and affection they need at all times.

This article last updated: 04/03/2015.

The articles on this Web site are informational only and are not intended to be a substitute for professional veterinary advice or treatment. Cats are not "one size fits all." They are different in terms of breed, age, health, lifestyle, and tolerance for different foods and other substances.