Chris Kouwenhoven

Sharing the turf

The wild counterpart of the domestic cat has a large territory, with males patrolling about 150 acres and females, about 15 acres. With the provision of food by humans and the elimination of the mating behavior (by spaying and neutering), the territory of our house cats can shrink to a fraction of the space utilized by their country cousins. The wide variation in the size of feline territories is a tribute to just how flexible the cat can be. There is a limit, however, to what even the most adaptable cat can handle, especially when the already restrictive environment is diminished further by the addition of multiple feline companions. (An average-sized home with three indoor cats has a feline density of about 30,000 individuals per square mile.)

It's hard to see life from the cat's point of view, but try to imagine yourself living in a society where there were no property rights. Anyone could move into your home at any time without your permission. The first new residents might be kind of fun to have around as company. As the population increased, you found that you were in competition to use the bathroom, someone was always eating the food you had saved for your supper, and even your bed was occasionally claimed by a newcomer. Do you think that this situation would make you frustrated and irritable, stressed to the point that even your friends might want to avoid you?

It's no surprise that tensions occasionally erupt in multicat households. Cats adapt to living with one another to varying degrees. In some cases intercat aggression can escalate to the point where certain cats become social outcasts, or "pariahs". These frightened felines may be so intimidated that they won't leave their hiding places to eat or use the litterbox. Even a cat that tolerates several housemates may become aggressive with the addition of one more cat.

If you have given careful consideration to the effect of the addition of a newcomer to your cat family and you feel that they can handle one more, then here are some suggestions to make the turf more "cat friendly":

1. The first step in eliminating the stress of group living is to make sure all of your cats are spayed and neutered.

2. Introductions are very important. Follow our suggestions for a systematic and gradual introduction utilizing the principles of desensitization and counterconditioning.

3. Create feline hide-outs--special places where cats can go to be alone. It can be as simple as a cardboard box with a hole cut into it and soft bedding on the bottom.

4. Make use of the vertical space in your home by adding floor-to-ceiling cat trees, window perches, and kitty condos. It has been observed that cats living in groups are more comfortable if they can "layer" themselves.

5. Provide one litterbox per cat plus one and place them in widely separated sites. Some cats will not use a litterbox if other cats are nearby.

6. Reduce competition at mealtimes by providing several feeding stations. A more dominant cat can keep a shy cat from the food bowl if there is only one location.

7. Remember that you are a very important part of your cats' territory (or turf) and every day give each of your cats some time alone with you for cuddling and loving attention.

It is essential to understand the importance and function of feline scent marking if we wish to control it. All cat owners have observed rubbing behaviors performed by their cats for the purpose of marking objects or individuals in their territory. Cats have greatly enlarged sebaceous glands around the mouth, on the chin, in the ear canals, in the perianal area, and at the base of the tail. When rubbing these areas of their bodies on objects or individuals, they leave a chemical scent behind which is very reassuring to the cat and non-offensive to humans. (The sweat glands in the skin of the paws also leave an olfactory cue when the cat scratches.) When we stroke a cat or it rubs itself against our legs, we pick up these scents ourselves. Consequently, we then have a group scent identification. Allorubbing creates group scent between cats in multi-cat households. This potpourri of familiar scents helps cats feel comfortable and secure in their home territory. Any change in the scent structure of the home (eg., a new pet, person, or even a new piece of furniture) may trigger a highly objectionable form of scent marking--spraying.

Spraying is accomplished by squirting a powerful jet of urine backward onto vertical features of the environment--doors, windows, drapes, walls, etc.--about 8 inches above the floor. Both male and female cats, whether neutered or not, can do this. Cats regularly revisit sprayed areas to "freshen up" the scent when it starts to decline. When investigating another cat's urine mark, the cat will display a curious, grimacing pose with its mouth partly open. It is using the vomeronasal, or Jacobson's organ, which is located behind the incisor teeth in the roof of the mouth. This extra sense allows the cat to smell and taste an odor at the same time and sends a powerful signal to the cat's brain activating a territorial response.

A new product that has been available for about a year promises to be very helpful in reducing the stress that leads to spraying. Feliway is an environmental spray that consists of a synthetic chemical that mimics the scent found in the gland near the lips of cats (the facial pheromones). It is available through veterinary clinics and sells for about $35 to $40 a bottle. Feliway is sprayed directly on spots that have been previously sprayed by the cat and washed with water. When the cat returns to the area to freshen up his mark, he sniffs the Feliway and gets the message that this spot has already been marked facially. It appears to have a calming effect on cats and cat carriers and cages in veterinary clinics as well as in humane societies that have been spritzed with this product tend to be less traumatizing for cats.

Even with the use of Feliway, the fundamental cause of the spraying problem must be addressed. It is necessary to reduce the cat's exposure to the stimuli that trigger marking and altering the cat's response. If it is caused by the sight of outdoor cats, the drapes must be pulled or the cat must be kept out of the room during the time of day when the strays are most likely to appear. If tension between cats in the household is contributing to the problem, the competing cats may have to be restricted to separate areas in the house. (A gradual and systematic reintroduction may help to diffuse the anxiety between the cats.) "In households with a large number of cats, the problem may not stop unless the number of cats is reduced"--Wayne Hunthausen, DVM.

If there is no other viable solution...a drug that has also been recently introduced for use in cats, Buspirone, has proven helpful in a number of spraying cases involving territorial stress due to competition between cats in the home. Discuss this option with your veterinarian.

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