Helping two (or more) cats live peacefully together can be a big challenge. While most cats can live with others, many of these relationships take time and work. When there’s trouble in your home, you may have been told that the cats just need to work things out for themselves. In this installment of bad internet advice, I’ll share why that’s a bad idea and what you can do instead.
Subtle Signs of Cat Conflict
First off, recognize if you have a problem. Two cats that are all out fighting in the home are pretty obvious. But typically the signs of conflict between cats are more subtle. Without any fights at all, there may still be tension and wariness that is causing stress in your cats.
Avoiding each other, staring, and blocking access to certain areas (by sitting or laying in a particular area so another cat can’t pass) are all signs of trouble. Other red flags that many owners miss include litter box avoidance and some health issues. Even without actual fights, stress due to not feeling safe or relaxed can lead to serious problems, many that may seem unrelated to the relationship between the cats. That’s why it’s so important to identify if there is a problem and take steps to help the cats. You can learn more about signs that two cats aren’t getting along in this post.
Just Let Them Working It Out? Maybe Not…
Cats are often pretty independent and clear about what they want. That’s probably why some people offer the advice that they just need to work out their issues between themselves. Or that they need to determine who is “alpha” (or do they?). The idea being that they may fight at first but then one of them will back down and they’ll live happily together.
Unfortunately this advice can seriously backfire. In general, cats don’t “get over” fear or discomfort simply because they’ve felt it many times. Quite the opposite, they can become more anxious with repeated exposure, which is often when other health and behavior problems appear. Bad experiences with one another don’t build trust or create positive feelings between cats.
If your cats had tons of space, they might be able to work out a plan to share the house without crossing paths (like they might if they were feral and living outdoors) but most homes don’t provide enough space for that. Instead, the cats are forced to interact just to get to their food, water, and litter. Forced contact leads to conflict. Repeated conflict can cause one cat to begin to react faster and more strongly to the other. Instead of hissing and trying to move away, they may feel they have to go on the offensive and chase the other cat out of the room. Rather than working out their issues, cats can develop far worse problems over time.
Try This Instead
Rather than waiting for your cats to “work things out”, get proactive and help them live peacefully together.
Add resources like food and water bowls, litter boxes, perches, beds, and scratching spots so that the cats don’t have to share. Spread them throughout your home to make it easier for the cats to avoid each other when they need to. Create raised places for the cats to perch off the ground; this increases the effective size of your home and makes it easier to share. Make sure each cat is getting plenty of interactive play and has outlets for their energy (food puzzles are great for this).
When the cats are hanging out in the same space, offer them play and food to create positive associations with being together. Watch for staring or approaching in a low posture as these could be signs of trouble and distract with a toy or treat. It’s better to interrupt early and prevent a problem from even happening than to try to deal with a fight after the fact.
Finally, consider separating the cats for at least part of the day. If you aren’t around to supervise and make sure they are doing well together, there could be continued conflict happening. Putting one cat in a separate room (with everything they need to feel comfortable; this isn’t a punishment) can give the cats a welcome break from the tension. This lowers stress and can ultimately help them rebuild their relationship. Short, positive times together are much more powerful than lots of time that includes some conflict.
A happy cat home requires more than crossing your fingers and hoping the cats work things out. They need a home that is designed to share and support from you to build positive feelings toward each other.
If your cats are struggling to get along, consider scheduling a private behavior consultation.