KittyCats (copy)

Multiple cat households include cats that may not be compatible with each other.

Q: We live in West Ashley and have three cats. The oldest two cats (age about 7 now) are brothers that we got at the same time from Pet Helpers (Goliath and Gunther). The youngest one, Ginger, (age 1-1/2) was acquired from a friend whose cat had kittens. All are indoor-outdoor cats. All three got along relatively well until lately.

Recently, the two older cats have literally been "running" Ginger out of the neighborhood. Yesterday, he followed me home, came in the house and started eating. When he saw Gunther at the front door, he ran out the cat door. He stayed close until Goliath and Gunther both came over. I tried to shoo the older cats away, but they kept on.

They ran him out of the neighborhood and Goliath literally sat like a sentry on the corner of our street, watching in Ginger's direction. If I tried to pick Goliath up and bring him home, he snarled at me and attempted to scratch.

Now, I don't know what to do. I thought that the little one was staying away on his own, not realizing that our other two have literally bullied him out of the neighborhood. Any help that you can offer is appreciated.

A: Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon problem, and one I personally have dealt with in my own home. Ollie and Inky, our cats, have not gotten along well with my in-laws' cat, Eli Whitney, when they moved in next door to help with our twin daughters.

Ollie and Inky are not littermates but grew up in our home together and have lived compatibly for more than 10 years. Eli is much younger and, of course, creates a new dynamic. When he started coming in through our cat door, this created tension. He and Ollie would fight while Inky would run and hide.

In most multiple cat households, there are socially compatible groups that may or may not interact with each other unless forced to do so. It is important to take into consideration natural feline behavior and remember that cats do not have an inborn tolerance of feline strangers the way dogs may. They are more likely to cohabitate with siblings or other cats when introduced when both are young.

Intercat aggression within the household is most likely to occur when one of the following occurs:

  • A new cat is being introduced into the home or even a new cat in the neighborhood.
  • A cat was absent and has to be reintroduced (e.g. following hospitalization).
  • Too few resources for the number of cats (e.g., resting places, owner attention, food).
  • Cats do not have enough space to separate from each other.
  • Some cats in the group were poorly socialized.
  • Age differences, which result in different levels of motivation for social play and for nurturing interactions.
  • One of the cats has a medical condition.

It is always easier to prevent these issues from developing than having to deal with them later, as in your home. Probably there have been problems between the three for a while and something has changed to bring it to the surface.

The most important thing for you to do initially is separate them. Without a period of separation, the problem will continue. Once out of their high state of emotional arousal and the environment has been modified, you can attempt a gradual introduction.

Their environment needs to be modified to ensure they have adequate distribution of resources. Cats like privacy. Have at least one litter box per cat. Make sure they have private places to escape from each other. This includes the use of three dimensional spaces like cat towers and book shelves. My cat Inky created this space for herself by making a hole under my bed where she can hide in the box springs.

Have separate bowls for feeding, and, in your case, feed Ginger in a separate area. Give each of them time with you. Cats need human attention and will act out if they do not receive enough of it.

Have a veterinarian check out all three to ensure no one has an underlying medical condition that could be setting this off.

The use of feline facial pheromone in the environment (Feliway) may increase their perception of physical security and appease anxiety. In my experience, this or drug therapy has rarely worked without also environmental modifications that reduce stress.

Intercat aggression is a serious condition that may result in significant issues. Cats may either leave a home on their own, or the parents are forced to find them another home. With their claws and teeth, they can inflict significant injury. Hopefully, you can make some changes that will allow Ginger to again feel safe in her home.

Here are some tips for those considering adding more cats to their household:

  • Remember natural feline behavior and consider this when selecting potential housemates.
  • Consider the introduction process very carefully if bringing a new cat into an already-established feline household. Work on the principle that the newcomer is going to be part of a new and separate social group and provide sufficient suitably distributed resources to ensure that the cats do not need to run the gauntlet of one another.
  • Limit the numbers of cats within households to socially compatible levels within the constraints of feline behavior, and not according to human preference.

Dr. Henri Bianucci and Dr. Perry Jameson are with Veterinary Specialty Care LLC. Send questions to petdocs@postandcourier.com.