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Dear Molly, "Fighting"

Dear Molly, My cat, Harper, has always struggled with anxiety. She is loving and a lap cat with me, but when doorbell, repairmen, or visitors happen, she hides between my bed and the wall for hours. I was initially so worried about her overall anxiety level, but as I have been home all day since the COVID sheltering, I’m beginning to think this is an issue also between her and my other cat, Olivia. Olivia is very social, but the interaction between Harper and Olivia goes from play to Harper hissing and crying. Harper will “flight back” and will chase and play with Olivia, but it’s so hard to tell play vs fear... there’s no blood or hair flying. I think Harper is an overall VERY anxious cat, but Olivia exacerbates the problem? Or maybe Harper has been afraid of Olivia this whole time? They have been together for 2 years and I introduced them very carefully, keeping them completely separate. My goal is to help Harper be braver and help her feel safe. I wanted to start with a behaviorist before I look at medications.

Dear Fighting,

It is amazing how much we learn about our animals when we are home spending more time with them. However, that said, it is also because we are home more, that could be causing new tension issues to arise. And I’m not referring to your personal presence, but the change in routine. Cats are addicted to routine and when their schedules are changed, it causes insecurity in them. So the increase in tension between them very well may have not happened before the change; they may have peacefully slept most of the day.

Without video or witnessing the interaction, it is difficult for me to tell if the aggression is play or territorial protection. I have a podcast that helps to explain the differences and causes. Listen to that here:

There are many things you can do to help your cats feel more confident, however, you can’t really change their personalities; some shy cats will always be shy. I have a foster right now who was born from several generations of feral cats, and those cats just aren’t ever going to be as social as the ones who come from generations of affectionate and confident house pets. My foster will rub on me, roll on the floor; is very loving, but the minute something different happens, he dives for cover and won’t come out.

The biggest reason cats fight is over territory/resources. They have evolved as solitary creatures and don’t have much of a social hierarchy system in them; they are not like dogs, who have a pack order/system. Cats do exhibit dominance, which it sounds like Olivia is doing, and their sharing of space is fluid (changes back and forth.)

The key is providing enough resources so they feel confident in their area and have no desire to fight over it. Some things you should do are:

  • Litter Boxes – The box is a big resource for cats; they will silently block/bully other cats from using it by laying (seemingly innocently) across the floor on the way to the box. The rule of thumb is to have one more litter box than cats = 3 in your case. And they should be places around the home, not clumped together.

  • Food – This is an obvious important resource but often people don’t understand how cats eat in the wild. They have very small stomachs and eat 9-10 small meals a day – they snack. So when we feed them just 2 meals a day, it is equivalent to us eating every third or fourth day. I recommend feeding four times a day: 30 minutes after you get up, about 1:30, again at 6:00 and then about 10:30. There are inexpensive food timers to help with this when you return to work. Make sure you’re feeding them with bowls at least two feet apart. Here is a podcast on feeding you might want to listen to:

  • Beds/Posts/Trees – Cats need multiple beds, scratching posts, tall trees, etc. At least one more of each than number of cats so they have plenty of choices.

  • Zylkene is an over the counter anti-stress medication that might work well. I suggest you try it for about a month and see if you notice a difference. It comes in capsules; sprinkle one capsule a day on her food. You can get it here:

  • Podcast on Resources – I did a full podcast on resources that will help you to understand it better too:

Start with making the changes above and give it about a month and let me know if you are seeing changes. I suspect the tension you are seeing is due to the changes in routine, but making them feel secure is very important. There are many more helpful podcasts in the library you might want to listen to.


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