People often think of cats as solitary souls, and some of them certainly are. For instance my cat Vicky entered my home as the second of two cats and was fairly tolerant of that situation, but when cats numbers three and four entered her life, she was none too pleased. Now that natural attrition has made her the queen of our castle, she’s never been happier and I wouldn’t consider bringing another cat home until she has moved on to the great kitty condo in the sky.
Multi-cat households do create their own distinct set of challenges. Clients often ask, “What combination of cats (male/female, young/old, etc.) stands the best chance of getting along?” To answer that question, I look at the way cats live when left to their own devices. Feral cat colonies provide a glimpse into the ways that cats naturally organize their societies in the absence (or near absence) of human intervention.
A group of related females forms the heart of a colony of ferals. Mothers, daughters, sisters, aunts, and cousins tend to stick together and help each other with “child” rearing, food acquisition, etc. For this reason, if cat-free clients are considering bringing home several kittens at the same time, I recommend that they consider littermates. Technically, I suppose two females stand the best chance of maintaining a harmonious relationship, but since most of our house cats are spayed and neutered, the effect of sex hormones is much reduced in comparison to the feral situation. I’ve seen just as many brother-sister or brother-brother pairs succeed as sister-sister combinations.
The situation gets a bit trickier when cats of different ages have to be mixed together or a new individual is to be added to an established housecat family. With ferals, young adult males are the most mobile. They tend to leave their relations and move to another colony after they mature. This fits with what I’ve observed in house cats, too. Adding an adult male to a home seems to be easier than bringing a new female into the mix, but the personalities involved can certainly trump generalizations like these.
When adding a kitten to the mix, I have one unwavering recommendation. Leave the kitten with its mother and litter mates until it is at least eight weeks old. This is where and when cats learn all their social graces. Feline moms and siblings practice tough love and will simply not tolerate rude behavior. When kittens are removed from this environment too soon (this applies most of all to those bottle-raised monsters out there), they simply don’t know how to behave around other cats and seem incapable of learning how to do so past a certain age.
Finally, always make feline introductions S-L-O-W-L-Y. Isolate the newcomer and get everyone used to the idea through a closed door before allowing face to face contact. Plopping a new cat on the living room floor and wishing them good luck is like throwing them to the lions.
Dr. Jennifer Coates