Friend or foe - should cats be kept in groups?
There has always been debate about multi-cat households; some feel they are good ('after all, cats need company') and some bad ('cats walk alone!'). So what is the truth behind keeping cats in groups? Top cat behaviourist Vicky Halls explains.
Let's begin by learning from the wild. Cats have historically been described as asocial [antisocial] creatures, but more recent studies of feral free-living groups have shown that this is not the case.
They are indeed social creatures that can develop close bonds with each other, despite having no biological need to develop social relationships to survive.
Feral colonies, formed predominantly of related females and their offspring, congregate in areas where humans have created plentiful opportunities to eat. The amount of food available and the quantity and quality of other significant resources in the area will greatly influence the size of the group that forms.
It's important to remember that the capacity to be social is a relatively recent development in evolutionary terms so it is not inevitable that all cats will love each other. In order to achieve harmony the environment and social circumstances have to be just right. Even established groups actively resist intrusions from outsiders, using feline communication (scent, vocal and postural) largely aimed at avoiding strangers and maintaining a safe distance.
Relationships within groups that have been studied are complex, with stronger bonds between some cats and less direct social contact with others - this may in part be influenced by how related they are, their age and their gender, for example. Within each colony subgroups of two or more cats exist that spend a lot of time together and show genuine signs of friendship. They rub and groom each other, enabling the scent of the two cats to be mixed and the communal odour of the colony to be maintained. It is this recognized group scent that binds them together.
The females cooperatively rear the kittens in the colony and, as the males reach adolescence, they normally leave or remain on the outskirts of the group. Fighting is rare within a colony unless the resources are scarce.
However, these cats develop neither a social survival strategy nor a pack mentality and they continue to be self-reliant, solitary hunters. It is important for us to remember that some cats choose social contact with their own kind, many will avoid it (given the choice), all cats are capable of living alone and most cats will adapt to a solitary existence.
Making it work
It's quite clear that multi-cat households need careful planning to work successfully. This includes catering for their needs by providing the necessary resources in sufficient numbers to avoid competition. Their location is equally important, ensuring that places are chosen which provide free and immediate access whenever required.
There is no absolute rule about the quantity but a frequently quoted formula recommends one resource per cat, in separate locations, plus an additional one (for example, four separate feeding stations for a three-cat household). The cats also need privacy, to have time alone when they choose, and the ability to escape from, or avoid, conflict and threatening situations.
With the ever-increasing numbers of cats in 21st century Britain, there is also a wider issue that doesn't only impact on how our multi-cat households function. This issue has already been raised as a potential risk factor, namely choosing to have multiple cats in an area already densely populated with cats.
Multiple cats in one localized area means more pressure on the cat population as a whole - leading to more fighting, spread of infectious diseases, irresponsible breeding if unneutered cats roam (adding to the huge numbers of cats without homes) and the potential nuisance of other people's gardens being used as latrine sites.
Keeping multiple cats indoors does remove the impact on neighbours but there remains an equally pressing responsibility to the cats to ensure they are content to live in such close proximity to others in a social situation that cannot be escaped.
So how can we learn from our understanding about social life in a colony and apply it to our own multicat households, full of companion cats rather than ferals?
We selectively breed for individuals that are social with humans and more likely to be tolerant of their own species, however this alone is insufficient to guarantee harmony. We still need to fulfil fundamental criteria that mimic more closely what might occur naturally, that is, two family members brought up together in an environment that contains resources that are sufficiently plentiful to avoid competition, and where the population of 'outsider' cats is low within the territory and surrounding area. If this is taken as the basic building block of a functional and content multi-cat household then you can, in theory, add a series of 'risk factors' that increase the likelihood of problems occurring at some stage.
The following are elements that could jeopardize a harmonious household:
- Selecting incompatible family members (for example, pairing a highly confident and assertive individual with a shy and timid sibling)
- Selecting more than two family members, putting pressure on the environment to meet their needs for resources (these include feeding and watering areas, beds, litter trays, high perches, scratch posts, hidden locations and entry/exit points)
- Selecting non-family members that have not been brought up together
- Adding to an established group by introducing a new cat or kitten (the more this is done, the higher the risk factor)
- Choosing to have multiple cats in an area already densely populated with cats
- Keeping cats indoors with brief supervised access outdoors
- Keeping cats indoors exclusively
- Having insufficient resources creating a sense of scarcity and the need for competition.
What does it look like when it all goes wrong?
Most multi-cat households are exposed to at least one, if not more, of these risk factors and yet often the impact remains unrecognized. The group is often judged to be content because the cats don't fight and 'appear perfectly happy'. This is where, you could argue, the self-reliant nature of the cat doesn't act in its favour, as humans just don't see or appreciate the subtle signs of stress in one or more of their cats. These include, but are not limited to, the following:
- Feigned sleep - resting as if asleep to avoid facing the consequences of any interaction
- Hiding for the same reason, to escape conflict and danger
- Dependency on owners or withdrawal (dependent on personality type) as a consequence of the anxiety caused by social tension between cats
- Defensive aggression towards people or cats due to a state of constant arousal in anticipation of an attack
- Extreme vigilance and heightened startle response, for the same reason
- Lack of play behaviour - leisure activities are out when a cat feels in danger
- Lip licking (tongue to nose) and exaggerated swallowing - a big giveaway that the cat is not as relaxed as you might think
- Excessive facial rubbing to attempt to self-comfort in difficult social situations
- Excessive scratching on furniture and other surfaces as a marking behaviour and signal to others
- Displacement activity (repetitive out-of-context behaviour, such as overgrooming) in an attempt to self-soothe
- Redirected aggression - fighting with an 'innocent victim' when the true source of danger is out of reach
- Ambivalent behaviour (approach/ withdraw, conflicting signals occurring almost simultaneously), the message here being that the cat is in a state of complete emotional confusion
- Urine marking (spraying), a means of communicating to others to avoid contact and a behaviour that appears to have a calming effect on the sprayer
- Urine or faeces deposited in unacceptable locations in the house - stress is often associated with elimination in places other than acceptable latrine sites.
One common misapprehension is that if cats come together at feeding time without fighting, all must be well. This however is rarely the case; food is a vital resource for survival so cats will often suppress hostility in order to acquire essential nutrition.
Unfortunately, this appreciation for vital resources does not always extend to water so drinking may be avoided if cats are in conflict, leading to urinary tract disease such as stress-related cystitis.
So, finally, for those who do allow their cats the opportunity to enjoy the great outdoors, the responsible stance as 'good citizens' is to ensure that indulging a passion for cats is not to the detriment of others.
Following these simple rules could make all the difference to neighbourly relations:
- Be aware of the cat population in your area and consider the impact of your cats on the territory and vice versa
- Have sufficient grounds (gardens etc) with well-turned soil in discreet places to enable your own cats to have places within your boundaries to eliminate in comfort
- Provide an enhanced and richly diverse environment (full of different levels for look-out perches and plenty of camouflage at ground level) within your own garden to satisfy the needs of your cats
- Keep boundary fences well maintained to prevent all but the most determined to venture beyond, or provide a secure enclosed garden
- Provide indoor litter facilities! Most cats, given the choice, are perfectly happy to eliminate in comfort in a centrally-heated environment
Multi-cat households need commitment, care and the right social environment to work well. It is not sufficient to simply care for cats, we need to care about them and ensure their needs are met, as well as our own.