Cats in the House

Recently we asked one of our long standing clients to share her knowledge and experience about cats with us. Specifically, we asked her to talk about living with multiple cats, and some of the issues that might crop up for their humans.

Kari is the co-host of WZPL’s Smiley Morning Show in Indianapolis, IN. She frequently talks with viewers about their cats, and has a feature spot called “KJ’s Strays” where she highlights events sponsored by Indy animal rescue and shelter organizations. She has long standing, active roles in both Cats Haven and Indy Feral. Kari also works part time as a vet tech with the only certified feline veterinary specialist in Indiana. Read Kari’s blog at WZPL.

Did you know that your cats form their own society or family unit, independent of the human family they live with? Kari has observed this with the 5 cats who live with her. Her cats have interactions amongst themselves that have absolutely nothing to do with Kari at all. In fact, she has inadvertently walked in on “cat family councils” where all of her cats were gathered together communicating and interacting with one another. Terri and I observed similar “cat councils” between a then stray cat called Frank and our 5 house and barn cats. Kari and I both think that cats are very different than dogs in this respect, probably because the cat/human relationship started out as a very non‐interactive one, where humans observed that cats killed mice and rats. Early humans probably decided to do things to entice the cats to stay around their dwellings to keep the rats and mice in check. Dogs, on the other hand, began their relationships with humans by doing jobs WITH the humans – hunting, guarding, herding, and eventually draft work.

The interactions within an independent cat family can sometimes be challenging for the humans living with them. Kari spoke about a recent event in their house. Their cat Leia has been “head cat” for many years now. Recently, Leia decided that she no longer wished to be the head cat. The much younger cat Nandi has decided that SHE wants to be the head cat. As a result, Nandi acts aggressively towards Leia. Kari does not interfere because Nandi is not physically harming Leia, but also because the cats must work things out within their own society /family. It is a very hard thing for Kari to do. Kari is able to understand what’s going on because she has observed and come to understand the personalities of each of her cats, as well as their behavior. She understands the Leia can be very clear when she is not ok with a particular behavior, because she will react quickly and decisively when that boundary is crossed. She also understands that Nandi is very sensitive, and that her typical reaction to change is to act out in an aggressive (but not harmful) way towards the other cats. Kari also understands the personalities of the three male cats, and that their behavior indicates that they are staying out of the position change between the females.

If you are considering bringing another cat into a home where there are other cats, Kari suggests spending time with that cat so that you really begin to understand their personality and behaviors. Think about the personalities of the cats at home, and make your decision based on that. Recently one of our other clients adopted a mature cat from a no‐kill shelter. She knew the personality of her cat at home, and was looking for another cat with a specific personality type that would blend with his. She spent a lot of time with the female cat she selected getting to know her before she ever brought her into the house. Things have worked out very well in that situation because of our client’s approach.

While cats maintain a separate social structure, they also maintain close relationships with us. The cats and the humans living together have separate schedules, but these schedules intersect and impact each other. For example, cats tend to be more active at night due to their instinctual nature. However, most humans work during the day and sleep at night. Cats have learned to adapt to a certain degree to this. Our cat Diana and we compromise by having a “playtime” right before we go to sleep at night. This allows us to have interactive time with her when she tends to be more active. She will then usually settle down and let us sleep. When we humans change our schedule for more than a couple of days, this can really upset the schedule for our cats. This can result in some unwanted behavior such as not using the litterbox, crying, or demanding more attention. If we really observe our cats so that we understand their personalities and behaviors, then we can easily become more sensitive to how our behavior impacts theirs. When we must change something like the furniture or our work schedules, we can then talk with them to let them know what is happening ahead of time, and we can also take steps to try to minimize the impact to them.

Kari stresses that if you do see a sudden change in a cat’s behavior, the FIRST THING to do is get your cat to a vet, to be sure that there is no physical issue involved. Very often behavior changes in cats are an indication of a serious physical issue. Unlike most dogs, cats may not indicate illness by changing behavior until the situation becomes quite serious. She also suggests that you be careful in changing things like litter or food. If you’d like to use a different cat litter, for example, let your cat know what you are going to do, and then gradually mix the new litter in over time. If your cats show a reluctance to use the litterbox, they are telling you they don’t like the new litter.

We’d like to thank Kari for taking the time share her wonderful knowledge and experience with us.

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