Cats are territorial creatures.
In the wild, a cat will determine his home base – the place he eats and sleeps – and then project outward from this space to encompass a range around it that he’ll consider as belonging to him. All within that territory – especially all food sources – he considers his own.
A cat will patrol his territory. He’ll find a high spot within it to survey. To ensure there’s no infringement on his space while he’s on patrol in another area within his set boundary or sleeping in his home base spot, he will spray the parameter with urine or leave feces as signposts to other cats to stay away. Cats have scent glands on top of their heads and both cheeks. To further mark his domain, he will rub his face against trees and rocks. The clear message to others is, “This is mine. Keep out!”
Of course, cats are independent and willful creatures, too. A cat who crosses over the invisible boundary lines set by another is looking for trouble, and usually, a catfight will ensue. The fight is more about dominance and the right to the territory than anything else. If the challenger wins, the loser will wind up having to concede some of his territorial boundary lines. If the challenger loses, he knows he better cut his losses and high-tail it out of there.
So, what happens when cats are kept indoors and live in a multi-cat household?
Cats in your home establish territories just as wild and outdoor kitties do. Who has the larger and more prime area all depends on who is at the top of the home kitty totem pole.
If you share your home with three or more cats, you’re probably well aware who the feline ruler of the house is. He or she may dominate the other cats, and the other cats, in turn, defer to them. The top cat on that totem pole will be the one who seeks resting spots high above all the others so they can survey their domain as well as their subjects (the other cats and you). They will be the one who eats first, greets you first, seeks your attention before the others do.
You’re also probably aware of who the low man on the home kitty totem pole is. He or she is the one who slinks away when challenged, tries to be as unobtrusive as possible, and who concedes nap spots and food to cats he knows rank higher than he does. The other cats in the household will consider him or her the scapegoat or pariah. This cat will stay closer to the floor and usually out of everyone’s way. He’ll be the last to eat, and when he does eat, he’ll be constantly wary of others stealing his food. If someone’s going to be picked on by the others, he is the one.
All the other kitties in the home fall somewhere in between. You may not be 100% certain of their rank on the totem pole, but they definitely know amongst themselves.
When a new cat is introduced into the home or a kitten who comes of age asserts himself to be acknowledged by the other cats as rating as an individual in the hierarchy, it sends all the established cats into a tizzy. In the case of a newcomer, suddenly there’s a stranger in their midst. That stranger will need to be fed THEIR food, will sully THEIR cat box, will take up THEIR napping spaces. This newcomer will also completely upset the territorial divisions and allocations in the home, and, what’s more, they’ll completely screw up the established order of the hierarchical totem pole.
Young kittens under the age of 4 months don’t entirely count as far as the older and established cats in the home are concerned. When they come of age and want to assert themselves as a ranking cat, you’ll begin to notice little fights in the house from time to time. A teenage kitten will challenge the other cats, starting with the lowest and moving higher up the pole until he gets a smackdown. When that happens, he knows – as do all the other cats in the house – where he ranks: below the cat that beat him but above all the others he challenged and won. Unfortunately, this natural behavior also sets off a chain reaction amongst the other cats. They now have to figure out their new ranking as well and may choose to challenge other cats for their positions.
It’s always amusing to us when new foster parents or adopters accustomed to just one or two cats express concern that the new kitty may not be accepted by or might fight with their established cat or cats.
We guarantee them it will happen. Expect it to happen.
It has to happen.
No amount of human intervention, fretting or fussing at the cats is going to prevent it from happening.
It is natural and necessary for them to do. We know it seems counter-intuitive, but rather than try to keep it from happening, it should be allowed.
A slow introduction process over a week or two can help ease the process and minimize the initial aggression displayed, but not totally. The reconfiguration of hierarchy and territory in the home has to happen for the home pride to find a new normal so they can co-exist in relative harmony. It is something they need to work out on their own. Human intervention is often ineffectual because we are not part of their hierarchy. We have no position on their totem pole. In essence, to them, our opinion doesn’t count, and our interference isn’t welcome or appreciated.
Eventually, things do calm down once every cat on the totem pole has accepted their new position and territorial allocation. This reordering of the hierarchy process can take anywhere from a week to a couple of months. Sometimes it can result in a new ruler of the house – but not often. Usually, the established ruler remains the ruler until he or she grows older and less able to keep the other cats in line.
Just remember, although the process might be anything but peaceful, allowing cats to work out their hierarchy is fundamental to a relatively harmonious multi-cat household home.