SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

November 29, 2013

Vet Connection: Creating a harmonious home for cats

Vet Connection
Dr. Elizabeth Bradt

---- — Can you remember a time before you had cats? Did you imagine a peaceful, quiet scene with the mellow cat basking in a sunny window while you relaxed with the morning paper/iPad? Perhaps you adopted a cat and achieved this scene of household harmony. Having one cat was so close to nirvana that you wanted more of a good thing and introduced another cat to the household. Suddenly, the atmosphere of your home changed to mayhem. What happened?

Tossing a new cat into a household with one or more established cats without prior planning can lead to all sorts of fun things such as yowling stand-offs, fights, protest poops (a term my sister-in-law coined) and territorial spraying on all your favorite furniture and belongings, including your shoes and underwear. Contrary to popular opinion, the behavior is not vindictive. It is normal behavior for an anxious, stressed cat.

The established cat has no warning that all its high-value items are about to be shared with another cat. Cats, whose ancestors were solitary hunters, do not easily share items such as food and water bowls, litter boxes and prime basking spots. If another cat comes into the territory to use high-value resources, there will be a lot of vocalization, followed by a hiss, swat or bite if the intruder does not leave. In a home, the new cat is trapped in an untenable situation. It can’t leave, and it is intruding on the established cat. It is highly stressed by being dropped into the new environment and encroaching on another cat through no plan of its own.

Cats will tolerate living in a group if they have to because of an excellent food source. Feral cat colonies will form outdoors because there is a source of food. If food is scarce, a cat will leave and hunt rather than fight because cats are natural solitary hunters and avoid confrontation if at all possible. However, an established group of cats will discourage and fight off an intruder. It is normal to do so.

Unlike humans and dogs, which have a wide array of behaviors meant to diffuse a tense confrontation and de-escalate it, cats do not. Humans smile, and dogs yawn to calm others down. Cats really just have a few things they do in a confrontation, and none of them are de-escalating behaviors. They will stare another cat down. Their ears go down and the body tenses. They will yowl endlessly while facing off with another cat. You’ve probably heard that yowling sound in your backyard in the summer. If neither cat backs down, one or both of them will hiss, bat, swat and possibly bite.

To acclimate your new cat or kitten to the household, start with the newcomer cat in its own room with the door closed for 24 hours. Let the cats sniff each other under the door. Make sure the new cat has been to the veterinarian for a physical examination, worming and has been vaccinated and checked for the absence of fleas, feline leukemia virus and feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV). Make sure you have one more litter box than you have cats. Two cats require three litter boxes in different private spots all around the house. The boxes cannot all be in the basement. They must have separate water and food bowls, and those must not be in the same area of the house. They need excellent hiding spots and vertical height to climb and exercise. They need enough space so they can decide to be social or be by themselves.

When you let the two cats meet each other, make sure to have lots of treats, toys, attention and exercise for both of them. You may want to bring the new cat out of its room several times a week for these short 5- to 15-minute sessions. Then, on a day you can observe most of the day, let the new cat out.

It may take a couple of months, but after several spats, they should start getting along. Sometimes, it a can take a year, but usually, two cats will bond. You will know because they will sleep together and groom each other. Grooming another cat’s head is a bonding activity.

Enriching the environment is a great way to keep your cats entertained and well-behaved. Cats need to jump and climb, so think vertical space to keep your cat active. On http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ceyqSYHQb2A and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0mnxWBk5IaQ, you will see a home with stairs and shelves on the wall staggered so a cat can jump from one to another to get up a wall and onto a bed or balcony. Litter boxes can be tucked away under furniture. Check out ikeahackers.com or whiskerstudio.com and hauspanther.com for ideas. Toys that swing and drop a piece of kibble when it is batted around provide endless entertainment.

One great way to enrich the environment is to train your cat to sit and come when called. All training, if done properly, is enriching for your cat. The training will make your cat more secure in the home environment. Dr. Yin has videos that will teach you how to train your cat on Askdryin.com and on YouTube. Now you can achieve peace and harmony in your multiple cat home.

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Dr. Elizabeth Bradt is a 1986 graduate of Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and the owner of All Creatures Veterinary Hospital in Salem. Email your pet questions to docliz@creaturehealth.com. Please title your email “Vet Connection.”