An opinionated feline in Edmonton, Canada who lived with a retired cat behaviourist, Greyce provided behavioral advice to cats in need until her death in July 2014. Because her entries are useful even today, the blog remains posted.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Helping Cats to Get Along

Dear Readers,

Sometimes problems come in threes: Three feline families, three cats per family, and none of them happy about it.

Lucky Little Guy
There are Raffiki and Black Berry, senior cats with chronic ailments who feel their home has been invaded by a rambunctious young stray male, Lucky Little Guy. As far as Lucky is concerned, he'd love to have the run of the house. And he'd like to pounce on Raffiki. On the other paw, Raffiki wants to have nothing to do with him. Both senior cats prefurr to stay locked up away from harm.

Gracie and Tom
There are Tom and Gracie who are having to adapt to the presence of another rambunctious young stray male, Spike. You may remember Tom. He was a stressed out and very ill adult who had great difficulty adapting to his young companion, Gracie, over a year ago and got seriously ill as a result. Thankfully we got him back on track and he and Gracie now live companionably - though he'd prefurr that she not follow him around like a shadow. Meanwhile Spike would like to have the run of the house but neither Gracie nor Tom can cope with that at the moment.

Patches and Buddy
And then there are Patches and Buddy, adult cats quite happily ensconced in their home, only to have it disrupted by the arrival of a rambunctious young male kitten called Max. To make matters worse, Patches went for dental surgery only a few weeks after Max's arrival. When she returned, Buddy did not recognize her! (A common reaction of his, but too much at that moment.) And so his relationship with both his beloved Patches and young Max has been teetering.

These families have a lot in common. They all have purrsons who love them dearly and wish ever so, that everyone would get along. They have visions of a happy cat family filled with pet and purrs. And yet I'm sure if the cats had their way, each of the triad would come to an understanding and the vanquished one would be forced out of the house.

And there's the rub, because they are all indoor cats with no possibility of escape. Besides they all live in winter climates where fending on your own as a stray would be precarious.

What to do?

Almost without exception, cats introduced to other cats too quickly do not get along. We cats know this and we know this well. It's the purrsons in our lives who don't seem to 'get it'. Their idea of a suitable pace is usually far, far faster than some of us can handle.

Even when we give them plenty of evidence that we are not happy, they ignore it - either because they miss the subtle signals by which we usually communicate or because they think we should just work it out amongst ourselves (with no options to leave the house!). So the problem simmers, and simmer and slowly get out of hand.

Usually by the end of the first month, the honeymoon is over. There are fights. Some cats hide. Some start to spray. And others get so stressed they get sick. Even the thickest purrson will understand that there are problems when the yowling starts, the fur flies, and there are trips to the vet to deal with puncture wounds.

They say things to each other such as,

"Why is this happening?" they wonder. "We love them dearly. They have everything they need. Why can't they just get along?"


" Does this mean that (insert whatever name you wish) has to be re-homed? I can't stand the thought of him/her leaving!"


"I must be a bad cat purrson."

Have no fear, fellow felines. Your purrsons are not bad, though they may feel guilty or angry or just confused. They are ignorant in the true sense of the word, meaning that while their intentions are good, they just don't know any better. And that is where I come it, because I can provide you with information to share with them, to try to get them on board.

General Principles for Solving this Problem

Regular readers of my blog will note that  my advice on this matter tends to go along the following lines:

1. An explanation of the importance we place on our territory.
2. Education about the ways in which we communicate.
3. Anxiety: How it works with us and what to do about it.
4. How to step back and start over.

So let me take each of these and expand.

 1. An explanation of the importance we place on our territory.

Educate your purrsons about territory and its importance to us. Take it from me; most of them haven't a clue about why we get anxious when it is disrupted.

Here are the key points to emphasize:

We are territorial animals. In the wild, unless we live in a feral colony (with abundant shelter, food and water), we will tend to be solitary. We establish individual (though overlapping) territories sufficient to support ourselves and only ourselves. Our territories can be huge or small (depending upon our purrsonality, sexual status and the availability of key resources). We patrol our territorial several times a day to ensure that it is secure.

Our territory is so important that we may go without food or sex or proper sleep if it is under threat; it  is our MOST important asset. A change of food source, litterbox location or water bowl sends off an alarm. Change could mean a change from abundance to scarcity! And this is especially so, if a new cat enters the territory and attempts to settle in.

Okay, I can hear your purrsons now. "But we introduced Fluffy, a new baby kitten, and everything went so well."

Well that depends. The biggest chance of a quicker-paced introduction involves a very young kitten (because we adults are pre-disposed to be more accepting of them) and a household where the rest of us tend to be friendly to our species and laid-back. Then the process of getting to know one another will be relatively quick. But that doesn't happen that often.

Usually our first thought upon the entry of such an invader if of  THREAT! Our next, to get rid of the invader or, if we feel very vulnerable, to hide. This is the context within which introductions to new cats in the family have to take place.

Just because we behave so like our wild ancestors, some purrsons think we should get over it. But as you know, they are territorial beings too. Just last week, Herself got her knickers in a twist because someone else took 'her' parking space in front of our home; and we don't even have a car! And lots of people who attend meetings return to the same spot after taking a group break; wow, do they get bent out of shape if someone else is sitting in 'their' seat. And let's not get started about how distressed some get if something they value (like a picture or even a mixing bowl) gets moved from its regular place by someone else.

Solving the Problems with Territoriality

There are several ways to deal with territorial issues.

- Put the newcomer in a safe and secure space, to start getting used to the new home. It takes a lot for a newcomer to get used to the location of everything, to incorporate household smells into his or her smell profile of friendly things, and generally to get the lay of the land. That is why I recommend starting in a safe and secure space and only when adjusted to it, to start to explore the rest of the place - beginning with small amounts of time and small amounts of space.

- We all feel better if resources are abundant. And so with the arrival of feline number three should also come the arrival of an extra litter box or two - distributed throughout our territory rather than put along with what we already have. Ditto, an extra water bowl or two and an extra feeding area and things to scratch. A few more toys are not out of order.

And most importantly, give some consideration to important aspects of feline interior design - sufficient viewing perches, sleeping areas and monitoring sites. Many households (in spite of my harping) still have far few levels on which we cats can arrange ourselves. For many of us, being off the ground is a way to reduce the stress of feeling crowded by an additional cat. And if there are more than two of us, we do better if those off-the-ground sites are staggered at different levels. That way, either the most confident or the most frightened of us can go to the top level (scared cats tend to like either very high places or places on the ground behind things) and the rest of us can arrange ourselves accordingly.

Unless we are very, very good friends, we prefurr staggered levels in the cat class system. That way we each have our place in relation to everyone else. And that is why I'm in favour of cat trees, cat shelving systems and more than one of each in every home. They don't have to be fancy or expensive. They just have to do their job.

Behaviourist Jackson Galaxy refurrs to feline interior design as Catification and there are lots of ideas on his site. Also check out Hauspanther by clicking on "Design Finds" for inspiration. And there is my entry, A Cat Tree for Every Cat (2/7/10).

2. Education about the ways in which we communicate.

Your purrsons need to know about cat signalling systems so they can tell when we are are about to become angry, or frightened, or anxious. Distraction (through the use of a "no" or a hand clap or a wand toy, etc.) is such a wonderful way of breaking off the potential for aggression. But it will only work if they catch the subtle signs before things start to blossom and get our of hand. And knowing when one of us is just starting to get uncomfortable is an excellent way of telling when an introduction session should come to an end. In other words,  if they do not know how we communicate with each other, they cannot intervene appropriately and we are left to fend for ourselves.

Purrsons think they largely communicate by speaking - except for the younger generation that thinks that texting takes its place. Both are wrong.

Over 90% of human communication is non-verbal (which is why e-mails, texting and Facebook entries can so easily be misunderstood). Humans rely on physical distance, pupil size, facial expression, head tilt, eye contact, posture and a host of other cues - only they are not that conscious of doing so. When speech and body cues do not match, the purrson gets an uneasy feeling but cannot quite say why.

So let's face it, fellow felines. We are dealing with people who use sophisticated systems themselves but haven't got a conscious clue about them. Don't forget, these are the same people who visit France and get upset when the French don't speak English! If you live with these kinds of purrsons, you will have your work cut out for you.

We cats have a sophisticated communications system which seldom requires vocalizing (unless humans are involved). Ear position, whisker position, pupil size, tail manner, staring, posture and proximity to another feline are solid cues about what we are thinking; not to mention purrs, meows, and yowls. But for many purrsons, we have to get to the yowling stage before they notice something is wrong. So do yourselves a favour and swat them silly until they read and understand some key resources:

As many of you know, I am a great fan of photo books that capture cat communication. Check out relevant cat books by  Roger Tabor and by Bruce Fogel  (which you can order or likely get from your library). Tabor
is famous for his careful studies of the feline world. Fogel is a well-respected veterinarian.

I like Tabor's Understanding Cat Behavior and his 100 Ways to Better Understand Your Cat. And I enjoy the photos in Fogel's Know Your Cat. Both authors are prolific writers and have many other relevant books from which to choose.

Raffiki Recommends the DVD
Also Raffiki strongly recommends Tabor's video, Understanding Cats (dvd) because it so clearly shows what feline aggression looks like and how we hunt (to give our purrsons better ideas on how to play with us).

Amy Shojai has at least three entries (likely more) of interest on this topic:

3. Anxiety: How it works with us and what to do about it.

Every day our anxiety levels go up and down because we are wired to be predators. Increased arousal (anxiety) gets us off our butts and out to hunt. And even though our food comes from a can or a bag, we still think as hunters. And once we have hunted, we eat and then relax because our arousal level lowers.

If we don't get the chance to reduce our arousal level, it stays up. After a while (days or weeks) we can be so fired up that even something relatively small can set us off. We become reactive, meaning that we over-react to whatever comes our way. And then problems start.

Solving the Problem of Anxiety

If we don't get hunting opportunities, then we need to simulate them through predatory play. Such play involves another party. If we are matched in purrsonality and energy level, then we can take turns being victim and victor with a feline companion - often several times in a play session. If not, then we need help.

Not the so-called well-meaning help of solitary play toys; in the absence of live prey we need things that move and behave like prey. That is why I've taken such pains to describe appropriate kinds of toys and most importantly how you need to train your purrson to play with you.

Because most people get their ideas of appropriate play from commercials that are designed to show off the toy rather than demonstrate a proper play session, they think that just waving the toy in front of you (which usually triggers our defensive reactions) is all there is to it. They need to learn that this is not enough before we give up on them.

Daily interactive play sessions are one of the best and least expensive ways to reduce anxiety. But there are others.

Alter the design of your home to increase abundance, offer staggered levels in three-dimensions thorough cat trees and shelving, or closeoff areas so time-sharing can occur between cats that are still getting to know one another. I've already outlined this in discussing territory.

Many purrsons prefurr to sit on the sofa and have you sit on or beside them. Nice for them. Not great for you when you are uptight. At the very least, get them versed in some form of touch therapy (meditative stroking, Reiki, Therapeutic Touch or massage).

And if you need extra help, there are anti-anxiety medications (and non-pharmaceutical calmatives)  and Feliway.

Speaking of anxiety, one of the contributing factors is your purrsons' anxiety levels. Tell them to chill. They need to know that we are excellent readers of their moods. Faster heart and respiration rates, changing body odours, postures, and changes in voice pitch and speed can all tell us that they are uptight. If they are going to work with us, they need to relax. Have them take some deep, regular breaths to cause their bodies to relax, and make sure they read the resource materials to get their confidence up.

On interactive play, consult my entry, Three Black Cats Who Don't Get Along (8/14/12) or
Cat Stalks Human: Tux's Trials (December 11, 2011). Both contain detailed descriptions of the rationale behind and method of implementing the necessary play sessions.

The Feliway entry is What Good Is Feliway? (4/30/10)

On touch, go to my entry, Lifting the Sadness - The Healing Power of Touch (1/28/10) or Meditative Stroking - Touch That Can Heal (1/20/10). 

4. How to step back and start over.

Since you are in a confined system, that is, one in which you are not free to leave if and when you choose, you must go back to square one in your introduction process -  with the newcomer sequestered in a safe and separate area, and start over, s-l-o-w-l-y.

I've outlined a typical series of steps in my entry May I Present? Another Cat! (1/14/10)

When more than two cats are involved (like one newcomer and two residents) then the steps need to be modified, depending on the ages and purrsonalities of those involved. And each family has its idiosyncracies and special needs.

For example, Max, Patches and Buddy live with two purrsons but one is out of town for long stretches. This means that Herself must manage on her own, so advice involving two purrsons will be more difficult for her to implement. We have to get more creative and offer one-purrson solutions here.

Tom wants to be alone
In Tom, Grace and Spike's home, Tom has greater-than-usual difficulty accepting new things and is easily stressed. So it is very important that things proceed at an even slower pace in order for him to feel comfortable. In his case, letting him be and working on getting Gracie and Spike acquainted takes priority.
In Raffiki, Black Berry and Lucky Little Guy's household, the cats get along better outside (where Lucky has an enclosure); but the Canadian climate means this is not an option for almost six months of the year. Inside the house, Raffiki and Black Berry refuse to come out of the bedroom when Lucky is upstairs, even if Lucky is in his very luxurious cat apartment in the living room.

Forcing them to come out is far from easy, because the senior cats have illnesses that can be made worse by stress and because the open plan of their home makes it easy for them to hide elsewhere. Besides, their purrsons are reluctant to force anything, having has to intervene in too many cat fights.

In this situation, one of the best things they can do is to pool their catnip allowances to hire someone to cut an opening in the bottom third of the bedroom door and securely line it with hardware cloth - so they can start establishing visual access with Lucky, without having to have physical contact with him. It would start with the opening being fully covered over (with, say, cardboard) and then, as all cats get used to it, raising it an 2.5 cm (1 American inch) at a time; letting everyone get used to that before moving it up yet another inch - until all is fully revealed. This gives everyone a chance to adapt to full visual access and yet no one can harm the other because their paws won't fit through this extra-thick screening.

You can gather than theirs will be a slow process. But moving slowly in the right direction is much better than not at all.

So as you can see, while each family is asked to follow the same set of guidelines, the way in which they are implemented varies with the household. Besides purrsons often lack the confidence (or know-how) to understand when we are truly ready for the next step in the introduction process, and so they like to e-mail me just to be sure. And sometimes there are setbacks and everyone needs re-assurance of how to get the situation under control.

So while you are reading the blog entries, know that many times they are the result of more frequent e-mails back-and-forth to settle the details with the respective households.

And if you are interested in following the adventures of the three cat families in this entry, here are the blog entries about them to date:

Raffiki, Black Berry and Lucky Little Guy
Three Black Cats Who Don't Get Along (8/14/12)
Three Black Cats Who Don't Get Along: Progress Report (9/18/12)

Tom, Gracie and Spike
Newcomer Hampers Sick Cat's Recovery (4/4/11)
Re-integration After Disaster: Old and Young Cats (5/4/11)
And Now We Are 3: Getting Used to Another Cat (12//3112)
Getting Used to a Third Cat: Tommy, Gracie and Spike (1/14/13)

Buddy, Patches and Max
Cat Fights in the Family: For Buddy the Pressure is TOO Much (12/30/12)

Keep your paws crossed that there are happy endings for each of these families. With knowledge, patience, and consistency, such integration usually works.

Purrs and whisker kisses,