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Making peace in a multi-cat household

Making peace in a multi-cat household

Posted by Armarkat on 1st Jul 2024

If you have more than one cat, you’re in good company. Multi-cat households may very well be the most common living arrangement for adopted cats in the United States. A third of US households own at least one cat, and each household has 2.2 cats on average (data from Alley Cat Allies). Of course, some cats prefer to be the only cat in the household, and not all cat parents have the space, time, and resources to care for multiple cats. However, cat owners who have adopted more than one cat know that keeping the peace in a multi-cat household can be a challenge.

Cat lovers Marina G. and her boyfriend care for six cats in their two-story house. They obtained their felines over time through three of the most common ways American cat parents find their cats: adopting from a litter cared for by someone you know (24% of cat-owning Americans), adopting through a friend or relative when that person is no longer able to care for their cat (43% of all adopted cats in the US), and rescuing a stray or feral in your neighborhood (over 30% of US cat-owning households).

The first two cats Marina adopted after moving to her house were kitten siblings Jupiter and Stella. They came from a litter that her boyfriend’s coworker had been caring for. A couple years after adopting Jupiter and Stella, Marina adopted Patches, a cat with a very special connection. “She was the cat of my friend who lived in my parents’ neighborhood. Unfortunately my friend passed away, but Patches showed up at my house, in my new neighborhood, literally the day after my friend's funeral. I don't know how she found me. My friend hadn't even been to my new house, but it's not far from my parents' neighborhood. I reached out to her mother about Patches, and she said I could keep her, so she stayed. I think it was a sign.” As the common cat lover quote says, sometimes cats adopt us instead of us adopting them.

But Marina’s cat crew still had room for more. After Patches became a part of their household, Marina and her boyfriend adopted kitten sisters Junebug, Cinnamon Swirl, and Cinnamon Toast. Marina found the three of them abandoned in her backyard, struggling to survive without a mama cat. Once again, fate brought new cats into their life.

Marina’s cats are many different ages and come from different situations, but what actually matters most for a cooperative multi-cat environment is each cat’s personality, according to Preventative Vet. Marina and her boyfriend are well aware of each of their cats’ habits and how they relate to each other. One cat is especially dominant, whereas two are particularly submissive, and the remaining three are socially in the middle. The cats’ peaceful living arrangement depends on the careful introduction phases the cats went through and how the owners prevent kitty conflicts. The process for a harmonious multi-kitty household starts with careful introductions that get the cats used to each other.

How to introduce a new cat (or cats) to a cat group

Don’t underestimate the importance of well-planned kitty introductions. MediVet reports that rushed introductions frequently lead to hostility between cats that could have been prevented. If you plan to add more cats to your kitty crew, it’s important to know the best way to introduce new felines to the group. When multiple cats are involved in meeting one or more new cats, the typical introduction process requires some extra considerations.

For the cat or cats moving into your multi-cat household, you’ll need to set up a designated area that cat expert Jackson Galaxy describes as a ‘basecamp.’ It can be any comfortable closed-off room where there is space for all of their necessities, including the litter box, feed bowls, and toys. This is where your new cats will adjust to their surroundings. The cat or cats will stay in the basecamp until they are familiar with their initial territory. With multiple cats in the basecamp, you’ll need to watch how they are acting around each other to see if their behavior towards each other has changed since you brought them in. Some of the new cats may become ready for the next steps sooner than others if they show more confidence, but all cats in the basecamp need to be relaxed before you move forward in the process. Signs of confidence include walking around with head and tail upright, an eagerness to explore, and not hiding frequently. It’s important to not rush the process. Do not expose unready cats to the scents of resident cats before they feel secure in their new surroundings.

Once your new cat or cats are all feeling confident in their base camp, the next step is to start feeding the new cat or cats by the closed door of their basecamp while feeding a resident cat on the other side of the door. This helps both new and old cats to identify the other cat’s scent with the delight of eating food. When all cats are used to eating nearby without seeing each other, and when they don’t show signs of fear, such as hissing or running away, you can continue the process. The next step is “site swapping,” which involves temporary swaps of placing the new cats in the home outside of basecamp while the resident kitties spend time in the new cats’ basecamp. It could be just a few minutes to start with, and you’ll know when it is time to wrap up a swap if a cat starts to panic or freeze up. The goal of site swapping is to get all cats used to each other’s scents and allow new cats time to get familiar with the full range of their new home.

After that step has been achieved, you can expand the basecamp to multiple rooms or hallways and start to feed the cats with a pet gate separating the new and old cats. Pairing the scents of their new companions with their appearances through the pet gate is the last step before introducing each new cat to the others separately. According to the animal rescue PAWS, “If you’re bringing a new cat into a household with multiple cats, introduce each resident cat to the newcomer individually. After each of your cats has met the new cat one-on-one, you can start to allow all of the cats to mingle as a group.” Once new cats have interacted multiple times with current resident cats individually face-to-face without incident, all cats can be brought together in the same room. Once the cats accept being together, it’s time to give all cats full reign of the home. That means moving litter boxes out of the basecamp to their new, permanent locations and spreading your new cats’ toys across the house so that they can feel comfortable with their scent being part of the new territory.

All cats’ food and water bowls should be kept in the same location. Jackson Galaxy emphasizes that “the emerald city isn’t necessarily cuddling and grooming together. It’s tolerating one another, and that starts with meals. To a cat, nothing symbolizes ownership more than where we eat–so start feeding meals in a common area.”

Your patience is critical to the success of your new kitty’s integration. PAWS writes that “Following the initial introduction, it can take a very long time for a relationship to grow. It takes most cats eight to 12 months to develop a friendship with a new cat. Although some cats certainly become close friends, others never do. Many cats who don’t become buddies learn to avoid each other.” Mutual avoidance is natural for some cat personalities. Not everyone is going to be friends, but what matters most is that the cats cohabit a space respecting each other, even if they don’t ‘hang out’ together.

To help maintain a calm cat household after introductions, learn about ways to make your household more accommodating for multiple cats.

How to prevent aggressive situations

Taking steps to decrease the likelihood of cat fights can go a long way. Your home’s setup needs to be as cat-friendly as possible. Cat behavior experts at PAWS advise that “Your cats will be more likely to get along if they’re happy in their environment. Make sure there are plenty of hiding spots for your cats. Some like to sit up high, on shelves and on kitty condo perches. Frightened cats, on the other hand, tend to hide under and behind things, so make sure you provide spots at floor level as well.”

For cats, the size of a room is just as much about vertical area as it is for floorspace. Installing cat shelves and wall-mounted scratchers and condos creates more area for your cats. The more room there is in your multi-cat home, the more space there is for each cat to enjoy when they need time to themselves. For example, Armarkat’s wall furniture can make even a small space feel large for cats.

Cat parent Marina has seen the benefits of a well-planned house layout for her cat crew. “Out of six cats in our household, Jupiter is the most dominant. He is the only boy. Junebug and Patches are most submissive/skittish. Junebug and Patches consider our basement their safe space. The other cats tend to stay in the main level, so they keep their distances. Additionally, my boyfriend and I have built a catio in our backyard that they enter and exit through our bedroom window. They have free roam in and out 24/7 unless it is bitter cold out.”

Marina has also strategically placed cat furniture around the home to maximize the space. “I was unprepared for having so many kitties in a small home, but we have adapted. Most of my furniture is for the cats. My cats love their trees and perches! We have three in the living room, one in the basement, a couple in the bedroom, and another in a different room.” Marina made sure that cat furniture was located in all cat territories in the house so that no cat’s favorite space was without trees and perches.

Nonetheless, even with physical improvements for your cats’ space, not all aggressive situations can be prevented. It’s essential to know how to respond when conflicts happen.

How to handle hostility

Knowing how to react when cats show aggression will go a long way towards decreasing the frequency of future fights.

According to PetMD, your cat hisses when they feel threatened–it is a defensive reaction, not an offensive one. However, the cat they’re hissing at should not be blamed, either. Hissing does not make a cat an aggressor, but it is a sign that cats need to be separated to prevent the negative interaction from escalating. Some cats will avoid each other once one hisses, but other times a fight or standoff may ensue.

Separating cats who just engaged in hostile behavior will help give cats a chance to calm down. According to experts at Preventative Vet, you can consider it a time to “reset before coming back together again. You can always crack the door between the cats and just monitor the meeting. If it seems that each are curious and seem relaxed, try having them mingle without barriers.” Some cats may need to be separated for a few days before they are ready to live together calmly again.

However, when the hostile interactions continue for more than a few seconds, you need to know how to break up a full-on fight. Avoid taking any action that the cats could consider negative because you don’t want your negative action to reinforce each cat’s belief that the other cat is bad. As summarized by Preventative Vet, “Yelling, swatting, tossing things at the cats, trying to startle them apart… these won’t help them feel better about each other. The bottom line is, anything that causes stress, fear, or discomfort is more likely to make things worse, not better.”

During fights, cats need to be distracted from the other cat and then have their energy redirected towards something positive. Do not put yourself between the cats because that will not adequately distract the cats, and doing so will also put yourself at risk of injury. Preventative Vet suggests that you “Stop negative interactions in a neutral way instead. You simply want to pull their attention from each other to something else that’s neither good nor bad. It’s just a thing that happened.” They recommend that “If something negative has already started, neutrally distract by covertly tossing something small across the room. Ping pong balls work well. You’re not throwing it for play. You’re certainly not throwing it at the cats. They shouldn’t see you throw it. They’re focused on each other. Suddenly a ball flies into the corner and your cats think, ‘Hey, what was that? Better go check it out!’ And they’re distracted.” Once the cats have focused on the neutral event instead of each other, you can play with them, putting their attention on a toy. However, if you attempt to distract them with a toy while they are still fighting, it can send the message that if a cat wants to play with you, they need to start a fight.

Caring for your cat crew

Caring for multiple cats can be a very fun and rewarding experience. Whether you are adopting new members of your household or taking care of foster cats, kitties can become great companions. Your cat crew will benefit when you carry out a strategic introduction process, create cat-friendly furniture arrangements, and prepare for potential conflicts.

Quote of the day: “One cat just leads to another.” -Ernest Hemingway


“Brady Bunching: Introducing Two Groups of Cats,” Jackson Galaxy

“Cat Hissing: What You Need to Know,” PetMD

“Introducing Your Cat to a New Cat,” PAWS Nonprofit Organization

“Multi-cat Households,” MediVet

“Sources of Cats in U.S. Households,” Alley Cat Allies

“The Dos and Don’ts of Introducing Cats,” Jackson Galaxy

“Why My Cats Started Fighting: How to Get Cats to Like Each Other Again,” Preventative Vet