When I talk to clients and guardians about creating an enriching environment and routine that keeps cats happy, I almost always start to talk about cat ethology, which is a fancy way of saying how cats behave in their natural environments.
I find that the more a cat’s environment strays from their natural one, the more we can inadvertently create stress, manifesting as behavioural issues. In most of my consultations, we speak for most of the time about how to change and create an environment that allows cats to partake in their natural behaviours.
I will do many articles on this subject, but today we’ll focus on an ‘issue’ I see in many multi-cat households – feeding locations.
Please note: this can be somewhat of a controversial issue (for some reason) and I tend to get a bit of flack from owners who ‘have had no problems feeding their cats together for x years’. We all have different experiences, and that’s ok. But in my role as a cat behaviourist, I’ve seen time and time again how separating eating locations can reduce territorial tension in the house. In my view, even if you don’t think it’s causing an issue, it’s still instinctively better to let them eat by themselves, just like they do in their natural environments.
You see, in their natural environment, cats will choose to hunt and feed by themselves. They are what we call ‘solitary predators and feeders’.
Now, cats can and do maintain social relationships successfully when there are enough food resources in a given territory, but the act of feeding and hunting will generally always be alone, given the choice.
Domesticated, indoor cats still share this genetic desire. And forcing multiple cats to feed close together is one of the many of what I call ‘pressure points’ that I see when helping clients. Many guardians have told me that their cats have fed this way since they were kittens and they are totally fine with it. Even though it may appear that they are fine eating together, doesn’t mean that they would choose it, or that it isn’t a source of underlying stress!
It’s not just for meal-fed cats either. If you free-feed (keep food out at all times), only having one food (and water) location fits into this category as well. Inadvertently, it’s creating a perceived lack of resources, which can create territorial stress.
When forcing cats to feed together in one location, I normally notice one or more of the following behaviours:
By forcing cats to feed together or in one location, we are essentially creating un-needed territorial stress. The level of this stress and how it manifests will depend on the individual cats’ personalities, and how the rest of the environment is set up. But either way, it is creating some pressure and competition whether it shows or not!
Firstly, you need to work out the sub-territories in the house. You’re probably thinking, “What the…sub-territories?!”.
Yes, in a multi-cat household, many cats will have their own sub-territories where they like to spend their time. This is often self-restricted and is based on social relationships and personalities. It doesn’t mean that the territories don’t overlap, but you might find that one cat might spend most of his time upstairs, or in certain rooms or parts of the house. Some cats may even go to all rooms, while others will stay in certain parts.
This is important to try and note because, for them to feel most comfortable when eating, we should be feeding them in the areas they feel secure, rather than forcing them out into another territory.
For meal-fed cats this is easy – just feed them in their sub-territories, and out of sight of one another if possible.
For free-fed cats, you need to make sure you have multiple food bowls out (please not just one!), and that they are distributed amongst the sub-territories.
To feed properly and without stress:
If you are currently feeding your cats together, consider separate feeding for a while and see if there is a difference in their overall behaviour!
Here’s to happy and healthy cats.