Having several cats gives me endless opportunities to observe the interactions between them. I almost always enjoy these interactions and what they teach me about these fascinating creatures. Usually, things between the cats have gone very smoothly.
When a new cat comes into the household, I introduce that cat as slowly as the situation calls for, even if it takes months. I’ll start by placing the cat in a separate room and proceed with a gradual introduction.
But even after a successful introduction, bullying can arise out of nowhere. When I first fully integrated Zorro with the rest of the cats, for example, it seemed that he was unsure of his place among the others. He’d bully Jamie Bluebell (the only girl of the six cats) and continually chase her into my office, her safe zone. It never turned into an all-out cat fight, but she was clearly stressed and felt most secure in the office, especially if I was there. She’d often sit behind me on my chair.
Thankfully, that dynamic has changed. The two cats have a much friendlier and teasing type of relationship. Their interaction slowly morphed from a slightly aggressive bullying dynamic to almost a flirting tease with an occasional bop in the face. At this point, Jamie often initiates the teasing, bopping Zorro in the face and running away. Zorro isn’t bothered and doesn’t react at all. They will sprawl next to each other, and she seems to look for opportunities to tease and engage him, though I’ve never seen them cuddle.
My efforts to prevent bullying have included:
When Zorro was in the habit of chasing Jamie Bluebell, and when she seemed to be stressed by this, she gravitated to my office, where I spent a lot of time. So, I gave her the office and often shut Zorro out of it. I let her spend the night in the office alone, if Zorro was to be unsupervised.
If the bullying is not too intense — if it doesn’t resemble an all-out cat fight or the beginnings of one — I have redirected the cats’ attention by grabbing a toy once bullying begins. I have a theory that if I play with my cats enough, they might have less pent-up energy for scuffling and getting into situations that could turn aggressive.
I used Feliway and Jackson Galaxy’s Bully Remedy. These helped manage and prevent aggressive situations in my household.
We’re lucky in that we have a lot of space for the cats to be by themselves when needed. Mostly, they like to hang out together. The wood stove in the wintertime is a great cat unifier.
However, if your living space is small or has no place for cats to escape, create vertical space and provide options such as well-constructed and sturdy cat trees. According to Marilyn Krieger in her book Naughty No More!, the best cat trees have shelves that are not directly above each other and that allow cats to easily escape from the cat tree if needed.
Krieger also suggests noting if there is a pattern to when or where bullying or aggression occurs and working around that. If the bullying behavior is mild, separate the cats, but make sure that separation is not a punishment. Cats should have food, water, and litter provided where they are isolated. If the bullying behavior is more severe, Krieger suggests the cats might have to be slowly reintroduced, as if they were being introduced for the first time.
I asked wehther bullying behavior included a situation I’ve sometimes seen where one cat will jump another, and then a third cat will also jump that other cat. But Krieger pointed out this is not a good example of “copy cat” action, or what is called observational behavior.
“There are many reasons that cats will jump on top of each other — it might be status issues, it might be due to a health problem in the pariah cat, maybe a variety of stimuli or, it may be play,” Krieger said.
This reminded me that cat behavior can always mean a number of things, and that I have more to learn.
Have you experienced bullying behavior in your multi-cat household? What have you tried to stop or prevent it?
More by Catherine Holm:
About Catherine Holm: Cat Holm is the author of The Great Purr, the cat-themed memoir Driving with Cats: Ours for a Short Time, and a contributor to Rescued: The Stories of 12 Cats, Through Their Eyes. She’s also a yoga instructor. Cat love living in nature and being outside every day, even in winter. She is mom to six adorable cats, all of them rescues.