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The Real World, Cat Style

By Kim Everson, DVM

Feline dynamics are not easily understood. Sometimes, as if a switch has been flipped, two cats who have been best of friends for years suddenly act like mortal enemies, and only time will tell if they can recover any of their former fondness.


I worried a little about this possibility after performing an elective surgery on two feline sisters this week. Raised in a small cage at a local shelter, these girls had been unavoidably inseparable their entire lives. So following recovery from anesthesia, we moved the girls into the same large kennel for the duration of their hospital stay. Would the stress and strangeness of their situation unhinge their happy friendship? I sighed with relief when Inky and Binky* started grooming each other affectionately.

Earlier in the week I visited with the owners of a tiny stray kitten. This cute little fuzzball joined a household with two older cats. The male adult is tolerating the kitten’s presence (barely) but the older female has objected vehemently! The kitten has been found cowering under a bed in the spare room. She hesitates even to venture out to use the litter box. “Given enough time will they start to get along?” the anxious owners ask. It is impossible to predict how their relationship will change over time.


Cats have unique personalities just like people. A feline household’s emotional and political dynamics would probably make a great reality TV show. Let’s imagine the above scenario in these terms. “Queenie” is the established feline ruler in this home. She and “Tom,” the adult male, have worked out some very intricate rules for coexistence. Queenie puts up with Tom, and Tom has learned to stay out of her way. Introduce little “Orphan Annie.” Like a child Annie doesn’t understand adult rules of engagement; like a child she can be a whiny, unruly pest. Already henpecked into submission, Tom just rolls his eyes and sighs. Queenie, however, is ticked off that she has to share her space with yet another cat–an obnoxious bratty one to boot–and she is not going to give in without a fight!

Just imagine what it would be like to be locked in a house with another person or two. Not only must you share the same bed and bathroom with these perfect strangers, but you are also expected to eat off the same plate and drink from the same cup for every meal. Now imagine if one of these people is that overbearing, opinionated coworker you just can’t stand. Will you ever learn to get along in this artificially constructed home environment? Probably. Will you eventually be best of friends? Eh, probably not.

If Queenie, Tom and Annie are going to find peace in this home they need their own space and resources and plenty of time to work things out. A rule of thumb in cat households is “one litter box per cat plus one.” So this home needs four litter boxes. And more importantly, they need to be spaced far apart so Annie doesn’t get bullied when she has to go. Queenie should likewise have her own food bowls and dining area so she can eat in peace. Tom, used to putting up and shutting up, will probably be happier with these changes, too.

While Queenie, Tom and Annie may never adore each other like Inky and Binky do, their owners can do a lot to ensure a peaceful coexistence. There are many tips and techniques for introducing new human and animal family members into an existing human-pet dynamic. Ask your veterinarian for suggestions and resources.

UPDATE: I just learned today that Annie has found a new home where she is the only feline family member. She is incredibly happy and doing well!

* Names have been changed to protect privacy.

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