By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 1 September 2011)
Cats that are otherwise good friends may have a little spat from time to time, and this isn’t anything to be concerned about, but serious conflicts should be addressed before they escalate.
Types of Cat Conflict
Two cats vying for dominance may engage in open conflict, stalking, turning sideways with their fur standing on end to increase their apparent size, hissing, swatting, tackling, and even biting. With serious conflicts wherein one cat is dominant and the other yields, a bully and victim relationship may develop, or one cat may become a social pariah in a multicat household. Such silent conflicts can be identified by observing feline interactions. A feline aggressor:
- Stares directly at the other cat
- Blocks the other cat from accessing resources such as food or prime sleeping spots
- Stalks the victim with head held low and hindquarters elevated (fur may be puffed up as well)
- Growls at the other cat
- May spray or urinate outside the litter box to assert territorial claims
A cat that feels threatened or intimidated may:
- Avoid eye contact with more assertive cats
- Spend a lot of time hiding
- Back off and let other cats access food or desirable sleeping spots
- Crouch low and then run away when encountering a more aggressive cat
- Spray or urinate outside the litter box to mark territory
- Urinate or defecate outside the litter box because he is too afraid to leave his hiding place or another cat has attacked him while he was using the box
- Attack another cat in the household, passing the aggression along
- Suffer from health problems such as cystitis
Causes of Feline Conflict
Most conflicts that arise between domestic cats result from competition for resources and status. Housecats may fight over everything from food to favourite sleeping spots to litter boxes to the general desire to be top cat. Conflicts are particularly likely to occur when a new cat is brought into a home with one or more resident cats.
Conflicts may also begin when one or more cats that have previously lived together peacefully reach social maturity. Although cats are physically capable of producing kittens as early as 5 months of age, cats don’t reach social maturity until they are between 18 months and 4 years old (depending on the breed and the individual cat), at which time new conflicts may occur.
Misdirected, fearful, or non-recognition aggression may also create new conflicts, which can arise in response to the following scenarios:
- One cat, angry or frustrated over something, takes it out on another cat that just happens to be in the vicinity.
- An aggressive cat running after another animal crashes into an innocent bystander cat that gets in the way.
- A cat goes away to the vet or a groomer and comes back with a different set of smells attached to her, leading one or more household cats to treat her as an interloping stranger because they don’t recognize her.
- Something scary happens nearby (such as a balloon popping) and two cats misread each other’s subsequent startled postures – puffed fur and defensive stances – as threatening, leading one or both to attack.
Such unfortunate episodes can create an ongoing series of conflicts, as one or both cats feel that they have been targeted and begin to behave in a fearful or aggressive manner.
How to Prevent Feline Conflicts
To prevent cat fights and related problems such as urine marking:
- Use the right strategies when introducing a new cat to increase the likelihood of harmonious relations (if two cats have developed a pattern of conflict, they may need to be confined to separate areas of the house for several days and then reintroduced slowly, as though for the first time).
- Avoid competition over resources by providing a litter box, food bowls, water dish, cat bed, and toys for each cat so that they don’t have to share.
- Place resources such as feeding stations and litter boxes at different locations around the house so that the threatened cat can eat and eliminate in peace.
- Place a litter box in an area where the fearful cat can escape easily so that he won’t feel cornered when using it.
- Provide “kitty condos” (cardboard, wooden, or plastic boxes with cat-sized doorway holes and some bedding inside), cat trees with high perches, and other places to escape, hide, and claim as personal territory.
- Have all cats spayed or neutered.
- Don’t yell when catching two cats fighting – this can actually increase aggression and will also frighten the victim – instead, if catching the aggressor in the act, squirt her with water if there’s a water bottle or small squirt gun handy.
- Separate fighting cats using an object as a barrier, wearing oven mitts, or wrapping the aggressor in a towel to reduce the risk of injury.
- Clean any areas that have been sprayed or urinated on with an enzymatic cleaner such as Nature’s Miracle to remove all scent traces that would encourage future marking.
- If one or more cats persist in scent marking, after cleaning, spray the spot with a pheromone product such as Feliway to discourage future problems.
- In extreme cases, a cat may require behaviour-modifying medication prescribed by a veterinarian, though this should be considered only as a last resort.
Some cats will never be the best of friends because they are simply not compatible, but most cats can learn to live harmoniously as long as they have sufficient resources and spaces to call their own. For more information on cat conflicts and dealing with feline aggression, see Why Some Cats Attack When Being Petted, Cat Aggression Treatments, and Why Do Cats Fight?
For more cat articles, see the main Cats page.
- Cats International. (2007). “Aggression Towards Other Cats.”
- Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine. (2009). “Indoor Cat Initiative: Conflict Between Cats.”
- Rainbolt, D. (2008). Cat Wrangling Made Easy: Maintaining Peace & Sanity in Your Multicat Home. Guilford, Connecticut: The Lyons Press.