Have you ever wondered how many cats is too many for one house? It’s a good question, and one that I field often.
Over the weekend I had a lovely behaviour consultation with a cat guardian who had seven (7) indoor cats.
Her main complaints were some perceived aggression between a couple of the cats (particularly one who had an anxious temperament), litter box avoidance, and spraying.
Before each consultation I ask clients to fill out a behaviour questionnaire which gives me some background understanding of the situation, and helps shorten each consultation to 1-2 hours.
Upon seeing that she had 7 cats, I prepped myself to have ‘The Conversation’.
‘The Conversation’ is one I have on a regular (enough) basis where I need to explain to a cat-loving guardian that sometimes you can just have too many cats in one house and there may be no other remedy to behavioural issues than reducing the count to bring down the territorial stress.
I was pleasantly surprised with this particular consult that the issues weren’t as bad as I was expecting, and the owner was extremely receptive to my suggestions (lots of litter boxes, increased vertical space and other catification etc).
All in all, a very enjoyable consultation, and I’m sure that the proposed actions will improve the situation.
BUT… I explained that with 7 cats it’s likely it will never be ‘perfect’ and that she will always be managing… something… between them.
After reflecting on the consultation, I thought it might be a good subject to broach in this week’s article…
Unfortunately there’s no single correct answer to this. Even amongst our readers, some have trouble with 2 cats, and others seem to get by ok with many many more!
Whilst there are always exceptions, one thing I tend to notice is that those who have 3 or more cats almost universally tend to be managing something between them. Don’t get me wrong, there are some lucky owners who have 3 perfect cats! But as a general rule, 3 cats or more requires a dedicated guardian who will referee and troubleshoot on a somewhat regular basis.
To understand why this is, let me review some things we know about cats and territory.
In a natural environment (think stray, or unowned cat), a cat’s territory is very large. Some cats will travel up to 10’s of kilometres per day patrolling and hunting.
The size of the territory is usually determined by the richness in resources. That is, a food and water-rich territory will be smaller because there is no need for the cat to travel as far.
Cats are generally happy to share an overlapping territory, as long as it doesn’t impede on them getting what they need. Most of the time, cats are solitary, and would rather it this way. So, they get by sharing overlapping territory with a nifty traffic-light system.
Scent and visual marking are the traffic lights. A cat who deposits their scent on a tree at the territory boundary is telling other cats who pass by a whole host of information, including gender, reproductive status, health and the time.
A cat who smells the scent will know exactly when the other cat came past, and will avoid being there at that time.
With this system of scented traffic lights, cats can happily live their lives and avoid other cats (or socialise if they want) as necessary.
Though if the territory is depleted of resources, and suddenly there is competition for food and water, cats will defend and fight for territory ownership.
But just remember, that cats are (mostly) solitary, especially males, and especially when it comes to hunting and feeding.
Now let’s look at the ‘domestic’ indoor cat.
Most of the time, an owned, indoor cat has been raised and conditioned from an early age to be more social. Socialising them when they are very young can help with the acceptance of other cats.
Though this doesn’t completely remedy the fact that genetically, cats are solitary, and territorial.
I see it quite often – littermates who get on well suddenly start fighting, especially in the 1-2.5 year mark. This age marks a lifestage called ‘social maturity’ where for some reason, cats suddenly become more territorial.
And also consider that, we have now ‘shoe-horned’ an animal that is ancestrally designed for large territories, into a house with a footprint the (relative) size of a postage stamp.
This is ok… as long as we enrich the environment and routine as much as we can.
You see, the outdoors provides almost unlimited enrichment for a cat. The indoors, not so much. So, we need to compensate with lots of play, vertical space, food, water, toileting locations, and other important resources.
But what if we add another cat (or 3)?
Remember, not only does that cat have a smaller environment, but now they have to contend with other cats!
Thankfully, domestication has somewhat helped here and cats do seem to be a lot more sociable and tolerant than their ancestors, especially those that were socialised when they were young. There is even evidence to suggest that domestic cats have some genetic adaptations that make them more socially-tolerant.
But let’s not forget the fact that somewhere, buried deep, are those genetic switches that drive a cat to ‘own’ territory and feel insecure with competition.
But why do some lucky owners have multiple perfect cats, and others can’t seem to get on?
In my experience it comes down to these things:
A smaller space equals a smaller territory. For example, if you live in a 1 bedroom apartment, I wouldn’t suggest more than 1 or 2 cats.
Conversely, a house with a large footprint and an enclosed backyard is likely to be able to keep more cats happy.
Resources include the important things like food stations, water stations, litterboxes, cat trees, scratching posts, vertical space, sleeping/hiding spots etc.
Most have heard of the litter box number rule of thumb (the number of cats plus one). I like to extend that to all resources. So, 2 cats needs 3 of everything, and all in separate locations. This will go a long way to creating a perceived ‘resource-rich’ environment, reducing competition.
Sometimes when I explain resource requirements to clients, I’m met with a sour look. Some owners want the cat, but not the stuff a cat comes with (resources).
Unfortunately, cat ownership is a compromise. If you can’t deal with a few scratching posts, elevated space, and litter boxes around the house, cats may not be the companion animal for you.
Fortunately, there are many aesthetically-pleasing options for things like vertical space. Typing ‘catification’ into a Google Image search will help create loads of inspiration!
Going through a slow and steady introduction process is a must, especially for adult cats. Remember, they are naturally geared to see other cats as competition, so a gradual desensitisation and counter-conditioning process will increase the chances of acceptance dramatically.
This isn’t the be-all and end-all, but a cat’s early socialisation history can heavily influence acceptance of other cats. An adult cat who was (as a kitten) socialised early, exposed to novel situations, and handled by humans, is more likely to accept other cats (with an appropriate introduction). Whereas an adult stray who never got the early human conditioning, and has had to fight for their food and other resources, is far less likely to share a space with another cat without stress.
Some people are just lucky, and even with a considerable lack of resources and a small space, they seem to have a relatively stress-free household!
As you can see, the answer to the question, ‘how many cats is too many?’, is not easy. Ultimately it comes down to your space, what you’re willing to compromise, a good introduction process, and a bit of luck.
Ultimately though, if you’re considering 3 or more cats, to be on the safe side, be prepared for some behaviours that you’ll need to referee and manage.
Here’s to happy and healthy cats!