The multi-cat household
18 July 2017
Multi-cat households are becoming increasingly popular, with the current trend being towards larger numbers. Owners often refer to ‘hierarchy’ in their own cats and easily identify the ‘top’ or ’alpha’ cat. This is, however, one of the most common misconceptions about the cat as a species and the situation is actually more complex. In reality, related social groups arise, and are maintained through cooperative behaviour and mutual grooming and rubbing that creates a communal odour. This works satisfactorily, providing the environment contains sufficient resources for the number of cats within it.
Once members of these groups mature socially (usually between 18 months and four years of age), there is no guarantee that they will all form one cohesive social group, as most multi-cat households do not consist of family members. Separate factions can occur, some containing pairs of cats and others even consisting of single individuals that form splinter groups, all of whom view each other as potential adversaries. These groups will then use scent and body language to avoid ‘inter group’ contact and avoid physical disputes.
The ancestor of all our pet cats is the African wild cat, a solitary species rarely seen in close proximity to each other, as a result of this they did not develop the signals that cats use to ‘read’ each other. In evolutionary terms, our cats have only recently been domesticated so they still lack the ability to show lots of visual signals to interpret one another’s behaviour. In the domestic setting it is not so easy for cats to avoid other cats so aggressive encounters occur more frequently and just living in close proximity to others can be stressful.
A potential problem relates to those owners who decide to keep kittens from their own female’s litter. The female cat produces hormones during pregnancy and gestation that programme her to care for her young. Once those kittens are weaned and the mother’s hormone drive is no longer present, a very different relationship often develops, as females are potential competitors for mating.
Some cats are better suited to social living than others, but unfortunately this is difficult to establish when kittens are chosen. Littermates of the opposite sex would seem the most sensible combination, providing those kittens are observed playing with each other and obviously enjoy each other’s company. Most multi-cat households work best when care is taken to mix the right cats in an environment that has enough resources for all- e.g. litter trays (one per cat, plus one is the rule), feeding stations, toys, and beds. A plug-in pheromone diffuser can also be useful.
Multi-cat households can be challenging, but if the right balance is achieved, can make a great home for both cats and owner.