Nearly all members of the cat family, from our domestic moggies to jungle leopards, are solitary predators who do not tend to form social groups. The only real exception of this are lions, who form prides.
Domestic cats (our pet cats), when living in the wild, don’t tend to live in multi-cat situations, and instead are solitary hunters. They tend to live alone and eat alone, only coming together either to fight for dominance and territory, or to mate. Cats will mark their individual territory with scents and pheromones, and if another cat strays onto established this territory the resident cat will hiss and growl at initially, and fight if the advances continue. Furthermore, because cats have evolved into a generally solitary lifestyle, they are not nearly as good at some of the visual and vocal cues for interaction. Think of how many signals a social species like dogs have – wagging tails, a multitude of different barks, sniffing and more. Cats lack many of these, so it can be much more difficult for them to have complex interactions and properly socialise, although of course cats do have the ability to communicate between each other and with people.
This is not to say that cats can’t live together. They are masters of adaptation, and they can form social units if the situation presents itself. Feral cat colonies are one example, where groups consisting generally of females and juveniles will congregate around areas with plentiful food and shelter. These situations, however, usually only occur when there is sufficient food and shelter, and no competition for resources. Cats do not tend to work as a pack to hunt or achieve goals like other species, and if resources are scarce they will tend to compete rather than working together.
Humans, on the other hand, are very sociable. We live in social groups, be it within the house or within the neighbourhood. And because of this, we tend to expect the same for our cats. Most cat owners tend to have more than one cat, and in many cases the cat will live in peace and harmony with their feline companions, but this is usually due to their adaptability rather than a desire to be a pack animal. And unfortunately we do see instances where the social dynamic breaks down quite regularly.
Benefits of multi-cat households
However, there are definitely benefits of multi-cat households. In many cases these adaptable domestic felines have learnt to not only tolerate the presence of other cats, but to enjoy the company. The biggest benefit of a multi-cat household is the company and mental stimulation that having a buddy provides. When we live in a country with working hours as long as we have here in Hong Kong, having two cats at home can mean less reliance on the owners being there to play and entertain. Sure, cats do sleep for up to three quarters of the day, but when they’re awake they want to play and interact. Having a buddy at home allows them to do this. Of course human interaction, love and affection is very important too, but a feline friend can help supplement or add to the social contact.
Young cats will often also play together rather than playfully attacking the humans or the curtains in the house, enjoying the feline company and using their energy with some wrestling, chasing and games. Even as they grow older and aren’t playing so wildly together, they’ll still enjoy the interaction of having another cat in the house. Cats will usually not lie next to each other, but they’ll usually stay in the same room, content in knowing they have a companion nearby.
Potential issues in multi-cat households
The main drawback of keeping cats in multi-cat households is the inter-cat stress and territorial disputes that occur. As discussed previously, cats are highly territorial and solitary animals by nature, and in some cases keeping more than one cat in a small area such as a flat can result in high levels of stress and anxiety. Sometimes the signs of this inter-cat stress can be obvious: growling or hissing at each other, fighting or hiding away. In many cases, however, the signs are far more subtle. Inappropriate elimination, where a cat goes to the toilet around the house, is one of the most common signs of inter-cat stress. They will often go in a very obvious place, such as on a bed, chair or table, to try to give a very public signal of their displeasure. Cats will also hoard resources, and some cats in multi-cat households will overeat and become overweight, or prevent other cats from eating. Lastly, many cats in a stressful multi-cat situation will overgroom, repeatedly licking their legs or abdomen, resulting in hair loss and sometimes skin abrasions.
The best was to avoid these behavioural issues stemming from inter-cat anxiety is to make the house as cat friendly as possible. The most important starting point is to prevent any competition for resources such as food, water and shelter. Each cat should have their own food and water bowls, and these should be placed in different areas of the house to prevent one cat from guarding all of them. Each cat should have a bedding area to rest, preferably in quieter, peaceful areas of the house. Cat they should also have play areas such as a cat tree, scratching posts and toys. Scratching can also help a cat vent aggression and be soothing. Lastly, the house should have one litter tray per cat, and possibly one extra spare tray if there is inter-cat anxiety occurring. Although this sounds like an awful lot of work, it normally is fairly simple, and it’s much better than cats fighting or going to the toilet around the house.
One product that can really help cats settle in a multi-cat household is Feliway. This is a pheromone diffuser that is plugged into the power socket and releases a special cat calming pheromone or signalling chemical. It has no smell or effect on humans and is not a drug, but does greatly help prevent stresses and inter-cat issues developing. I would recommend this for all multi-cat households.
Medically speaking there are a few infectious diseases, such as FIV (Feline Immunodeficiency Virus) and FeLV (Feline Leukaemia Virus) that a new cat could bring into a house, so I would recommend any new additions are tested by your veterinarian prior to moving in.
We see the greatest number of problems when cats of the same sex are kept together, especially when they are males. Undesexed males are even more of a problem – in my nearly two decades in the profession I’ve only ever seen two undesexed male cats living happily together once. As we discussed earlier, cats are highly territorial creatures and if they’re the same sex they’re even more likely to compete… and this is magnified if they’re both un-neutered males who might think they’re still looking for a mate.
In general the most successful multi-cat households are either female cats, or a mixture of females and desexed males.
The benefits and draw backs of multi-cat households
The main benefit is more love and attention from the multiple cats. Cats are not always in the mood for affection, so having a couple of cats makes it more likely that one of them will want a pat and a play. The costs and time involved in keeping more than one cat is also often not that much more than having a single cat.
The main drawback for the owner is the increased chance of inter-cat problems, which as discussed above can manifest both directly, with fights, hissing and caterwauling, as well as indirectly with going to the toilet on furniture or damaging property.
Many of the issues in multi-cat households can be prevented, or at least greatly minimised, by preventing any competition or struggle for resources. Food and water should be plentiful, as should toilet space. This means one food bowl for each cat, often in separate areas to prevent the boss cat dominating the feeding zone. Water should also be available in more than one place. Lastly, some cats won’t like sharing the litter tray, and cat experts recommend up to one litter tray for each cat, plus one extra in difficult situations.
Cats should also each have their own area for relaxing and resting, so there do need to be different beds, cat trees and scratching posts around the house.
However, this doesn’t add significantly to the amount of work, and in general keeping a couple of cats is not a great deal more work than keeping one cat.
How many cats should I have?
Any number that I pick will upset somebody, but I generally think when the house smells strongly of cats and friends don’t want to visit, you’ve probably got too many cats. Seriously though, cats need their own space, and territories are important. The chance of a problem increases significantly with each extra cat, so I’d say for anything except for a very large flat or multi-level apartment, two cats is probably ideal.
I truly think that cats are one of the most misunderstood pets. Despite all of efforts, I still think that cats haven’t been entirely domesticated, and we live on their good graces rather than them living on ours. Instincts run strong in cats, and trying to fight against those instincts of territory, roaming and solitude can be an uphill battle. Cats make wonderful pets, and they add something special to the house they are in, but the happiest cats are the ones whose owners understand their true natures and desires.