By Helen Anne Travis
It’s not always easy to keep the peace in a multi-cat household. Hissing, biting, and scratching can be as hard on pet parents as it is on the cats. Fortunately, there are ways to stop cat fights before they start.
Why Do Cats Fight?
The first step to stopping cat fights is to understand why they start. In the wild, cats generally have strong relationships with their moms, aunts, and siblings, says Dr. Jill Sackman, head of behavior medicine service at BluePearl Veterinary Partners. But once they’re on their own, they tend to be more solitary creatures.
Should another cat cross into what they consider their territory, there’s bound to be a stand off, she says. This applies in the home as well. Many fights start with a cat protecting what she considers hers, be it an area, a toy, or a human.
Then there are cats who used to get along, but the relationship changed after a traumatic event. Sackman says she is working with a cat who had a painful accident in the kitchen. The kitty got her foot caught in a wire rack and, after falling to the floor, the first thing she saw was her brother. She now associates him with the pain, and the two fight like mad, Sackman says.
Signs that cats aren’t getting along can be obvious—all you have to do is listen for the hissing. But other times, the aggression can be subtler, says Dr. Franklin McMillan, director of well-being studies at Best Friends Animal Society.
You might notice one cat leaving the room when the other enters. Or a more submissive cat may try to hide or disappear to avoid a confrontation when the more dominating cat gets close. “Cats have different personalities,” McMillan says. “And sometimes those personalities just don’t mix.”
How to Stop a Cat Fight
When a cat fight starts, your first instinct may be to yell, clap, or break out the water gun. But this could just make things worse, Sackman warns.
Instead, you should take a deep calming breath and insert an object like a large piece of cardboard between the cats, McMillan suggests. This creates a gentle but impenetrable barrier between the two felines. If the cats are locked together, pick one up by the scruff, which will force him to release the other cat.
Keep the cats separated for a while to let them cool down. “Every time you have a fight, the relationship gets worse,” Sackman says. “The longer the fights have been going on, the harder it is to correct the relationship.”
How to Make Cats Like Each Other
Trying to mend a bad relationship between cats takes time, space, and a whole lot of patience. The following tips can also be helpful when introducing a new cat into the household.
Start by putting the cats in separate areas with their own food and water dishes, litter pan, and climbing spaces. Make sure to spend plenty of quality time with each cat in their respective areas.
Then, slowly reintroduce (or in the case of a new cat, introduce) the two cats. The exact timing of when to start this process will vary from case to case, depending on the severity of the relationship problems.
The first step is to allow the cats to share scents. Feed the cats at the same time on the opposite sides of a door, the doctors recommend. This allows them to associate the other’s smell with something pleasant, like treats or their favorite wet food.
Continue the scent swap by mixing their used litter together, Sackman says. You can also take a cloth, wipe down one cat’s paws and tail, and let the other smell it. McMillan recommends switching the cats’ spaces so they get a full dose of the other’s smell.
After that, it’s time for a face-to-face meeting. Put the cats on opposite sides of a screen or baby gate. This setup allows them to see and smell each other, but there’s still a protective barrier between them.
Once they get to the point where they can see each other without trying to start a war, you can remove the barrier completely. You’ll likely have better results if a friend or family member helps with this step.
Bring the cats into the same room and lavish each with tons of attention and praise in the presence of the other, McMillan says. Over time, this classical conditioning allows the cats to start associating their former foe with positive experiences instead of fear, domination, or pain. “It’s a matter of teaching them to like the presence of one another,” he says.
Keeping the Peace Between Cats
To prevent future disputes, make sure each cat has her own food dish, play space, and litter pan. Both doctors also recommend having an extra pan, just in case.
Cats like to climb, McMillan says, so give each cat her own perch where she knows she can get away from the other if needed. “The most comforting thing for any animal is to be able to seek out your own safe haven when things aren't going well,” he says.
Pheromone dispensers may also help relax anxious cats. Both doctors say they’ve also seen positive results with nutraceuticals, though they recommend talking to your vet first. You want to make sure these products won’t interact negatively with any medications your cat is prescribed. Your vet may also recommend anti-anxiety drugs to help preserve the peace.
Remember: some cats may never get along. But hopefully, you can get to the point where they at least tolerate each other. “Living in peace is the goal,” McMillan says. “They may not like each other, but they can at least live together and not cause problems.”