Using Rotation to Reduce Stress in Multi-Cat Situations
Multi-cat homes where all the cats live indoors are growing more and more common in today’s feline world, as shelters, breeders, and behavior consultants recognize the benefits of bringing more than one cat home. In fact, most people who have cats have two or more (Crowell-Davis et. al 2004). Cats in these types of situations are expected to act peacefully, with little to no territorial behavior. With a good chunk of cats coming from shelters and rescue situations as adults, however, rather than being bought or adopted as sibling pairs, it’s important for adult cats to be able to successfully get along with others even if they weren’t raised together. For some cats, that means learning a new set of social skills. For behavior consultants, it means teaching clients how to set their cats up to successfully practice these co-living skills. In this article, I’ll talk about how to use a rotation system to control exposure and minimize the chances of aggression between cats in a multi-cat home.
Free-roaming cats who live in clusters around a resource (such as city strays) already use rotation as a way to reduce fighting. Close groups of cats will overlap territories, and unless they want to spend every day fighting, they simply work out a “timeshare” schedule of who gets to occupy where and when. Individuals still require personal space, and some loners may choose to occupy the outskirts, but for the most part, free-roaming cats get along a lot better than most people imagine. Even intact males that are familiar with one another may rotate areas while they are patrolling. It is up to us, the humans, to craft an environment where cats have the best chance of living together peacefully.
Clients may start to see behavioral issues from cats that are not acting like good citizens when there are more than two adult cats living together. Aggression is the most obvious undesirable behavior, but other issues related to stress may also arise, such as inappropriate elimination and destructive scratching. Research suggests the most influential factors in cat-cat aggression cases appear to be the sex of the cat, with males being less likely to be aggressive, and also their age (Barry & Crowell-Davis, 1999), although as Professor John Bradshaw (2016) points out in this review article, individual cats can vary greatly in their reactions to other cats, and no one factor is straightforwardly predictive. In a recent Australian study, the age of a cat was found to be correlated with the likelihood of their owners’ reporting them as being aggressive toward other cats (Wassink-van der Schot et al., 2016); as cats get older they seem to be less tolerant of other cats, and therefore starting a rotation system for senior cats (particularly older females) could be a way to prevent stress.
A client may not need to rehome or isolate problem cats if they start a rotation program along with other work upon discovery of an issue. Rotation work can be accomplished with a dedicated client, some treats, and an inexpensive Internet-connected camera.
Rotation: A step-by-step guide
Step One: Assess the cats on an individual basis. How do they interact? Do they show any fearful behavior? Are they targets for harassment, or do they do the harassing? Do they mark, use body posture or otherwise tell other cats to “get lost”? You will need to make a note of how they interact with the owner, as well. Cats that are obviously pushy and demanding are likely the best candidate for separation when it comes to initiating a rotation schedule.
Step Two: Select the “pushy” cat out to be placed into the first group (Group A). If there are more than two cats, you and the client can decide later if another cat can be placed into Group A. This may be difficult for some clients to understand why the “nice” cat is being singled out. Remind the client that this is not a punishment, and that this is to make sure each cat gets enough attention. As we know, pushy cats can be some of the worst offenders, often causing the other cat to act out and get all the blame.
Step 3: Using a webcam or other remote security camera, observe the behavior of the cat from their “room” or setup. Clients who live in apartments or other small spaces may choose to build a “stall” or use a crate. Again, reassure the client that this is not a punishment; it is used in much the same way that dog owners crate dogs as a temporary means of isolation. Many clients will use a spare bedroom, but some may be unwilling to place litter pans in them. A large canvas crate is an excellent choice, as it offers the cat more privacy, and there is no way for them to get their paws stuck. If, later on, it is decided that Group A will have more than one cat in it, use the webcam to observe interactions and make adjustments as needed.
Step 4: Have the client document what, if any, changes they notice in the cat in “Group B” (the cat who did not go into isolation). Is the cat more outgoing? Did they display more different behaviors like exploration, or playfulness? Or did the cat remain the same? Some cats may even act distressed, if they are closely bonded. It may take a few practice runs before either cat “understands” that they are, in fact, alone or away from another cat. If there are cats that show severe distress being away from a bonded cat, that rotation may not be a good choice.
Step 5: Rotate. Switch cats so that Group A is loose, and Group B is confined. Note the changes and make adjustments to groupings as needed.
Step 6: If the client wants to attempt to continue to allow the cats to house together, rotation can be a part-time thing in the daily routine to allow for the cats to get “breaks” from one another, thus reducing stress. Time of rotation, duration, etc., is a plan you and the client will have to work out based on needs and fit. A small amount of time in the company of the other cat may ward off them becoming too unfamiliar with the other. Based on need, the client may choose to only rotate their cats for part of the day, or indefinitely in the event the cats will not get along.
Troubleshooting and tips
Cats that are not used to being confined are going to be resistant and may vocalize, scratch the door, or pace. Remote webcams are a good tool to observe the cat and ensure they are not under too much stress. Clients may have a hard time with this “acting out” as well, so it is important to go over what amount of stress is acceptable. It is also important to talk to the client about reinforcing undesirable behaviors like loud vocalization. Cats are very smart and will learn that if they make enough of a fuss, they will be let out. It’s recommended that you watch the webcam stream with the client during the first session so you can coach them during the transitional period. Initially, you will want to keep the rotations to short periods of time, and instruct the client to only let the cat out after they have been quiet for some time. It will depend on the cat on how long that is, but it will get better over time.
If the client is unable to provide a room, a large enclosure will work. Cats not used to crates will do better with sturdy, soft-sided large-breed dog crates or playpens. The client will want something well made, as cats have been known to break zippers. Some cats will also figure out how to carefully unzip them. Lobster claw keychains or other such fasteners work well. Again, remind the client these are meant as temporary “rooms” for a cat, and not as a permanent living space. In extreme cases where the cat has failed to adjust to a program, and all other possibilities have been exhausted, the client may want to construct longer-term housing.
If more than one cat is going to be in Group A or B, the room must contain individual spots such as cat beds or boxes. Even if the cats are bonded, the option of a separate bed should be provided. Desks, chairs, etc. make great surfaces to put a cat bed on. Be sure to talk to the client about the importance of vertical space, hiding spaces, and scratching surfaces. Along with the typical items such as a litter pan and water bowl, clients may forget to include beds and scratching objects. Windows are strongly preferred as light sources, but a plant light on a timer can be used. This is to ensure the cat is still getting enough sunlight. Temperature and other factors should be considered. This is not kitty jail, but rather a kitty hotel!
Emotional barriers to rotation
Some clients may have a hard time putting a needy cat “away” or listening to them meowing at the door. Assure them that this for the benefit and health of all the cats, and to make sure every cat is getting the emotional nurturing they need. It may be helpful to find something they can relate to, such as human siblings having their own room. While we don’t expect our kids to live in their bedrooms, they may choose to have alone time. Cats cannot operate doors, and shy cats may not have the courage to tell an offending cat to “go away.” It could help a client who is feeling guilty about implementing a rotation system to discuss the positive changes they’re seeing in the shy cat, noting how they play more, move around more, or seek attention more.
Training cats to go into rooms
Anyone who trains cats will know that it is better for the cat to think they were the ones who decided to do anything! This is no different for rotation, and they best way to get a cat to go into their place is to have them freely go. The easiest way is to simply serve meals at the same time you wish to place the cat into rotation space. For cats that are used to eating together, place one dish in the room, and when the cat rushes in to grab dinner, lure, bribe or pick up the cat and place them at their own dish just outside the door. This may take the clients several tries to establish a new routine. Another way is to use treats or toys in a similar fashion. For easy-going cats, the client may choose to simply pick up the cat and place them into their room, as some learn to like the alone time. There is no wrong answer, as long as the cat associates this task with a reward. For those with larger groups in each room, a third room can be employed as a “holding area” when switching out cats or getting an individual out. The client will learn the best way over time, and most cats will adjust to a routine.
Rotating cats can be an investment on the client’s part to retrain and get cats used to another routine, but the benefits are well worth it. Cats that are less stressed get sick less, play more, and show fewer problems—cats from multi-cat households were found in one study to have overall fewer indicators of biological stress than singly housed cats (Ramos et. al 2004). It is a good way to make sure no cat is forgotten or neglected. It can be a great practice for rescues, catteries, and other living situations where large groups of cats are in one space.
The most important things to communicate to clients are, firstly that it is normal for cats to need individual space — domestication has reduced their typical levels aggression toward animals larger than their prey, but it hasn’t been completely eradicated (Bradshaw 2018). Sometimes cats just aren’t going to get along and share the same space at the same time, and this is only a problem for the clients if there is no system in place to make sure the cats can keep out of each other’s way. Secondly, it’s important to communicate that it is possible for cats to learn to share space. A classic study on the behavior of indoor-only cats found that even living at population densities 50 times higher than the densities of most outdoor cat colonies — 14 cats in one single-story house — cats maintained stable social groupings and had minimal aggressive interactions (Bernstein & Strack, 1996). While 14 cats in one house is not what most people would call comfortable, clients should take from this and other studies that, as Turner & Bateson (2017) put it, “most cats are able to work out their social structure to establish an equilibrium where each cat has its place and role relative to the other cats” — they do have behavioral flexibility and, with the right intervention, many of them can learn to live together.
Barry, KJ & Crowell-Davis, S. (1999) Gender differences in the social behavior of the neutered indoor-only domestic cat. Applied Animal Behavior Science 64:3, pp. 193-211.
Bernstein, PL & Strack, M. (1996) A Game of Cat and House: Spatial Patterns and Behavior of 14 Domestic Cats (Felis Catus) in the Home. Anthrozoös 9, pp. 25-39.
Bradshaw, JWS (2016) Sociality in cats: A comparative review. Journal of Veterinary Behavior 11, pp.113-124.
Bradshaw, JWS (2018) Normal feline behavior….and why problem behaviors develop. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery 20:5.
Crowell-Davis, S., Curtis, TM & Knowles, RJ (2004) Social organization in the cat: A modern understanding. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery 6:1, pp.19-28.
Wassink-van der Schot, AA et al. (2016) Risk factors for behavior problems in cats presented to an Australian companion animal behavior clinic. Journal of Veterinary Behavior 14, pp. 34-40
Kat has been caring for and learning from felines all her life. Her experiences as a young adult included farm, kennel, and veterinary work. While she lived in Michigan, Kat founded a cats-only rescue called Tiny Tales. It was rescuing the “death row” cats that inspired her to start educating others on feline behavior. Kat spends her free time showing and training her Oriental Longhairs. She is active in TNR feral cat work and loves to garden.