By Sophia Yin, DVM, MS
It’s a multi-cat household where all get along, then one day a change and now everything’s wrong. Before they were buddies or at least sort of friends, but now one chases the other to no happy end.
While disputes among human family members are often status quo, a sudden feud among felines can leave everyone frazzled. It seems strange that amicable individuals could erupt in a friendship-ending fight. Anyone who watches soap operas though sees it happen all the time with humans. Two college buddies are closer than a sock and a shoe. Then add a big party, alcohol, and a woman out of their league. Next it’s lights out for one and 12 stitches for the other.
Similar situations, sans the alcohol, can occur with cats. Take two humble housecats, just minding their own business until a trespassing tom tramps into view. From their window upstairs the brothers spit their assault. Then in the excitement, Moe waps Joe and a fight breaks out.
Or maybe Sylvester goes to the vet and comes home smelling sinister. His astute amigo Alice ambushes the suspiciously scented alien disguised as her pal and the fracas that ensues spooks both into seclusion.
Both incidents can lead to lifelong leeriness and even all-out war between kitty cohorts.
Perhaps the most common case is when everyone else in the house gets along, except for timid Tabby who acts like a mouse. When the others cross her path or look at her the right way, she’s outa there quick with the others at bay. For the predator cats this becomes a fun game, so timid Tabby often ends up seeking asylum in one safe room.
How to Mend the Rift?
The solution is surprisingly simple but may take a month or two. Teach the feuders that good things-and only good things-happen when they’re together. For most cats, the best thing that can happen is food. All cats eventually need to eat, so make sure that the only time the two can eat their meals or receive treats is when they are together. Start with the two far away and secured so they can’t move closer, either by putting each in separate cat carriers or by putting the predatory puss on a cat harness and leash that’s tied to one spot. Note you’ll first want to train the predatory puss to love wearing a leash and harness or he’ll be agitated whenever it’s on. Make sure the cats can’t face and just stare each other down. Such body talk will scare a timid Tabby away and signal a Moe and Joe to fight.
If both cats comfortably eat their meals without focusing on each other, the distance and positioning are right. When they finish their meals, immediately separate them in order to make the association clear. Once you’ve established that they are comfortable at one distance for several meals, move their meal locations closer. If they won’t eat continuously at this new distance, you’ve moved them too close.
After they are clearly comfortable even when they’re very close, you can let one loose during feeding. If it’s a situation of predator and prey, confine the pouncer and let timid Tabby do the wandering. The goal is for her to gain confidence around the bully so that she no longer draws him into a chase. In some cases your veterinarian may need to prescribe medications to facilitate the behavior modification for the anxious cat.
Other ways to speed the process
With two daily feedings, you get two training sessions a day, but you can speed the process by adding other sessions too. With the pouncer temporarily harbored out of sight, let timid Tabby have the run of the house. To lure her out of hiding, offer her treats. Better yet, make her earn her rewards. Hold the tidbit above her nose until she sits and then give it to her.
Or teach her to touch a pencil target by holding one out and giving her a treat when she investigates with her nose. When she has this task down, make her move to reach the target and then give the treat. Now she has a game she can play to take her mind off her fears.
Also play this game with the pouncer so he hones in on the target rather than on Tabby. With two humans to supervise, you can play with the cats in the same room as long as you keep them from focusing on each other.
Other variations can help too. Try diverting attention with toys or feeding the cats on opposite sides of a closed door instead of in the same room. Even try a toy that spans both sides of the door so that when one cat plays the moving toy entices the other to join. Make sure that they are both playing rather than becoming agitated with each other.
When to Leave them Together
How do you know when you can leave them together? Well the biggest mistake people make is leaving them together too long without keeping them engaged. For instance, the cats may eat their meals next to each other and may be able to do this for a week. So then the owners decide to let them hang around for 5 minutes after they are done with their meal and at minute 4, the cats start to fight.
A safer method at this stage is to spread the meal out by training the cats for their food, or just tossing their kibble one-by-one to them with longer and longer intervals between treats. The goal is that the cats get short bouts where they are not eating, but before they have a chance to get into a fight you engage them in their alternate fun behavior—the behavior you’d rather have them perform. Every time they might even think, “Hey wait a sec, I can’t stand Moe,” or “Hmm. Maybe I should chase Joe,” get their attention and have them perform their fun trick or behaviors in rapid succession. Ideally when they are with the cat they fear or can’t stand, instead of thinking, “chase” or “run,” they learn to think “target” or “play fun game for rewards.”
Start by having them perform the tricks continuously and in rapid succession. Once they are good at it in the presence of the other cat, then have them perform tricks for you in short bouts and then stop for 5-10 seconds and then engage them in another bout. Then systematically increase the interval between play bouts. (Read the blog A Super Simple Method for Training Cat Tricks.)
To improve your timing you can even do this using the Treat & Train® (formerly MannersMinder) system, which dispenses kibble and treats by remote control. This will improve your timing and make the training easier. In fact you can use the Treat & Train® to reward your cat for just staying in one spot for longer and longer periods of time and fewer and fewer treats by increasing the time between treats Treat & Train® . You can even set the machine on automatic so that you don’t have to time the intervals yourself.
An alternate variation is to train the one cat that looking at the other and then looking back to you equals food rewards. First train him that a toy clicker means a treats coming so that you can use the click to signal to him to look to you for a food reward. Then when he looks in the direction of the other cat, hurry up and click and treat. Make sure you start at a distance where they won’t stare or ignore your click and food reward. Once he gets the idea he’ll start looking at the other cat and then quickly looking back on his own for the food treat. Again, the Treat & Train® can help with the timing and dispensing of treats.
All of this training may seem tedious, but it’s really just about changing how you feed your cats. In other words by just altering the feeding routine in a systematic manner, you can train your cats to be civilized to each other again.