Solstice, my ruddy Abyssinian, is out of sorts these days. There are still a couple of kittens hanging around, waiting on their new homes, and they irritate the heck out of her.
Solstice is lovable but high-strung and has a jealous streak wider than her body. She makes a point of snarling and hissing at the kittens if they so much as look at her.
This is the kind of scenario that those of us with multi-cat households deal with daily. It’s an ever-shifting landscape, and we never know what’s going to pop up.
How Cats Show Jealousy
A number of cats living together aren’t so very different from a number of people living together. They hang out together, argue and make up. Sometimes 2 cats start out loathing each other. Then, suddenly and inexplicably, they call a truce.
They also can get jealous of one another. “All that jealousy requires is that the cat perceive that another cat is getting more of something than it should,” writes John Bradshaw in his book Cat Sense.
Many years ago, my 3-legged Siamese, Christy, used to chase another female cat out of my parents’ backyard and down the field. She was so fueled by jealous rage that she completely forgot she was literally a paw short. And I’ve seen cats deliberately spray pet beds and toys that their housemates liked.
Not all cats show jealousy in the same way, of course. Some “react by swatting, growling or hissing as they encounter their new ‘rivals,’” Naomi Millburn notes. “Other cats aren’t as direct in their approaches. More reserved felines might ignore their meals or hide away from everyone. They might display unusually clingy behavior, too.”
Giving the jealous cat extra attention and maintaining his favorite routines goes a long way toward making him happy, she adds. Keeping the new cat or kitten away from his toys and sleeping places also helps.
Sometimes a cat will start acting agitated or aggressive because he sees you fussing over his housemate. If that happens, says cat rescuer Pamela Merritt, “we must continue our attention to the other…while verbally reassuring the cat that we still love them. We wait for a point when the cat is not showing bad behavior to transfer our attention to them.”
Getting the Balance Right
The more cats involved, the trickier keeping the balance becomes. A new addition can upset that balance if you don’t handle it carefully.
I favor giving the established cats a large chunk of attention. Don’t ignore the new guy or gal — that would be unkind and stupid — but make sure the others know their place is secure.
Here are a few things you can do to make the transition easier:
Keep Up the Rituals
As Millburn points out, make a point of keeping up with them as much as possible. Set aside regular playtimes. One fishing toy isn’t going to cut it in a multi-cat household. Somebody will hog it, and the others will get left out. So go for 2.
Grooming can also help you give each of your cats some one-on-one time.
Spread the Love
Set up more than one feeding station. “Don’t ask cats to share one community food bowl,” advises cat behaviorist Pam Johnson-Bennett. “That can become an invitation to intimidation if one cat bullies another in an attempt to be the first one (or the only one) at the dinner plate.”
Likewise, have litter boxes scattered throughout the house.
Watch the tension brew in the background as one cat gets more attention than the other:
In Mary Calhoun’s The House of Thirty Cats, Miss Tabitha Henshaw has a room set aside just for the cats. “There are so many cats here,” she tells her young friend Sarah, “they need a place to be alone sometimes.”
It’s a good idea. Cat rooms, catios and enclosures can help alleviate the tensions in a multi-cat home.
My cats don’t have an enclosure or even a room all their own here. But they’ve found their own nooks and niches. For Fey and Violet, it’s the study; for Moonlight, it’s a shelf full of old quilts in the basement. But it could also be a special chair, a cat bed or a condo tucked away in a quiet spot.
Solstice and I are still working on this one. She hops up to join me whenever I sit in a particular chair upstairs. Her eyes close, and her tension immediately falls away. The kitten intruders have ceased to exist — for a while, at least — and she is utterly blissful.