Have Your Cats Un­friended Each Other?

The im­por­tance of so­cial hi­er­ar­chy in your multi-cat house­hold


The im­por­tance of the so­cial hi­er­ar­chy in your multi-cat house­hold.

Many cat own­ers I work with at The Cat Be­hav­ior Clinic of­ten re­fer to one of their cats as the “al­pha cat.” But as men­tioned in my cat be­hav­iour book, The Cat Whisperer, the truth is, there is no such thing as an “al­pha cat.” In­stead, cats have a very flex­i­ble so­cial hi­er­ar­chy and their rank­ing sys­tem is based on tak­ing turns us­ing dif­fer­ent re­source lo­ca­tions in their en­vi­ron­ment. Cat be­haviourists of­ten re­fer to this rank­ing sys­tem as a spa­tio-tem­po­ral dom­i­nance hi­er­ar­chy.

If there are not enough re­source lo­ca­tions around your home for food, wa­ter, lit­ter boxes, cat toys, cat scratch­ers, and perch­ing and rest­ing ar­eas, it will make time shar­ing, or estab­lish­ing the hi­er­ar­chy, very dif­fi­cult. Bul­ly­ing be­hav­iour and hos­til­ity among your cats may sur­face. In ex­treme cases, some cats will be­gin urine spray-mark­ing around the home to con­vey to other cats who gets what area and when.

“For cats, is­sues of rank and ter­ri­tory are in­ex­tri­ca­bly en­twined so cats look for ways to move up in rank in or­der gain more ter­ri­tory and vice versa.”— ex­cerpt from The Cat Whisperer

Ex­am­ples of How it Works

When a par­tic­u­lar cat is us­ing a food lo­ca­tion, say in the kitchen at 9:00 a.m., they are the high-rank­ing cat in the kitchen at that par­tic­u­lar time of day. A dif­fer­ent cat will then come along and use that same food lo­ca­tion at noon and they are the high-rank­ing cat at that lo­ca­tion at that time. This day-to-day ac­tiv­ity is called time shar­ing. Be­gin­ning at about two years of age, cats move into adult­hood and start think­ing ter­ri­to­ri­ally about im­por­tant re­source lo­ca­tions be­cause they want to be­gin struc­tur­ing the so­cial hi­er­ar­chy. To do this, they will take turns us­ing all the dif­fer­ent re­source lo­ca­tions (food and wa­ter ar­eas, perch­ing and rest­ing ar­eas, lit­ter boxes, cat toys, and cat scratch­ers) in the en­vi­ron­ment to show who is high­rank­ing and when in spe­cific lo­ca­tions.

In­ter­est­ing fact: Claim­ing re­source lo­ca­tions to struc­ture the so­cial hi­er­ar­chy ex­plains why cats are more ter­ri­to­rial than dogs.

Another ex­am­ple: You have one wa­ter bowl in the kitchen for your five­cat house­hold. This will make it dif­fi­cult for cats to work out a time shar­ing ar­range­ment for that sin­gle wa­ter bowl lo­ca­tion. Even if you have five wa­ter bowls in the kitchen a few feet apart, this is still only ONE ter­ri­tory lo­ca­tion in your en­vi­ron­ment for the wa­ter. Your cats will still have to fig­ure out a way to fil­ter in at dif­fer­ent times of the day to claim that area and drink the wa­ter. This not only causes com­pet­i­tive­ness and po­ten­tial hos­til­ity be­tween your cats, but cer­tain cats in your house­hold may not be drink­ing enough wa­ter be­cause you’ve cre­ated this dif­fi­cult time shar­ing sit­u­a­tion for them. This can lead to health is­sues. Dr. Brad Krohn, DVM, Pro­fes­sor of Vet­eri­nary Tech­nol­ogy at Port­land Com­mu­nity Col­lege says, “Help­ing main­tain your cat’s hy­dra­tion is crit­i­cal to their over­all health. Cats can quickly be­come de­hy­drated, es­pe­cially kit­tens and geri­atric cats. Com­mon dis­eases such as fe­line lower uri­nary tract dis­ease, uri­nary tract in­fec­tions, and chronic re­nal fail­ure can be ex­ac­er­bated by seem­ingly mild lev­els of de­hy­dra­tion.”

Our do­mes­tic cats still have wild­cat in­stincts thanks to their pre­de­ces­sor, the African wild­cat. The wild­cat’s en­vi­ron­men­tal land­scape did not have all their re­sources con­sol­i­dated in just a few ar­eas. Food and hunt­ing grounds were in many ar­eas as op­posed to just one area. Trees to perch in were not all lo­cated in one cor­ner of the for­est; they were lo­cated all over. Mimic this

Cats who were the best of friends may sud­denly, on the oc­ca­sion of their sec­ond birth­days, log into Face­book and un­friend each other. —ex­cerpt from The Cat Whisperer

by plac­ing all of your cats’ im­por­tant re­sources North, East, South, and West through­out the home in mul­ti­ple lo­ca­tions. This will de­crease ter­ri­to­rial think­ing and help your cats get along bet­ter and think less com­pet­i­tively.

How To Do It:

• Food: Feed your cats in very sep­a­rate lo­ca­tions through­out your home. It goes against a cat’s in­stincts to eat to­gether with all the other cats on 5th and Maple. Just like the African wild­cat, our cats are soli­tary hunters and want to eat on their own and feel as if they own that par­tic­u­lar ter­ri­tory. Your cats may ap­pear to get along while eat­ing near each other, but you might see fric­tion and bul­ly­ing be­hav­iour later on in the day be­cause you have given them the sense that the food lo­ca­tion is scarce and have made time shar­ing (aka estab­lish­ing the hi­er­ar­chy) nearly im­pos­si­ble.

• Wa­ter: When­ever pos­si­ble, have mul­ti­ple wa­ter lo­ca­tions for your mul­ti­cat house­hold. If you have three cats, have three wa­ter lo­ca­tions in very sep­a­rate ar­eas through­out the home.

• Lit­ter boxes: Have at least one lit­ter box for each cat and then add one more to the to­tal. A four cat house­hold should

have five boxes, but in at least three lo­ca­tions and prefer­ably five lo­ca­tions if pos­si­ble. Again, where in na­ture do all cats visit just one la­trine site? This doesn’t hap­pen. Hav­ing all your lit­ter boxes in the laun­dry room can ac­tu­ally be caus­ing hi­er­ar­chy struc­tur­ing is­sues and hos­til­ity be­tween your cats. It can also cause them to carve out new lit­ter box lo­ca­tions on your sofa or din­ing room car­pet.

• Perch­ing and rest­ing ar­eas: Be sure to have mul­ti­ple perch­ing and rest­ing ar­eas (cat trees, cat beds) for your cats, but have them in very sep­a­rate lo­ca­tions around the home.

• Cat Scratch­ers: Have mul­ti­ple cat scratch­ing ar­eas in dif­fer­ent ar­eas of the home in­stead of just one area.

• Cat Toys: Repli­cate the feel­ing of plen­ti­ful “prey” for your cats by hav­ing cat toys lo­cated in sev­eral ar­eas around the home as op­posed to only one bas­ket of cat toys in the liv­ing room. Also, be sure to never play with your cats at the same time us­ing just one wand toy and ex­pect them to take turns. Again, cats are soli­tary hunters and this kind of ac­tiv­ity goes against their in­stincts. It can cre­ate com­pet­i­tive think­ing lead­ing them to un­friend each other. And we cer­tainly don't want that!

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