two cats fighting multiple cat household

Bullying in a Multiple Cat Household

Last Updated on May 3, 2021 by Holly Anne Dustin

Do you have a bully cat? Bullying in a multiple cat household is one of the most common problems cat guardians have to deal with. In nature, cats would have to compete for resources and territory. In the multiple cat household, bully cats do the same.

Bully cats can come in all shapes, sizes, ages, and genders. Bullying and aggression are one of the principal reasons people surrender cats to shelters. According to one study, 27% of surrendered cats were relinquished because of issues with aggression.

If your cats are fighting, there is obviously a bullying problem. But not all inter-cat aggression is obvious. Passive bullies are sneaky. But they can make life hard for their roommates in a lot of ways.

Subtle actions like guarding food and water dishes, preventing their victims from using the litter box, blocking access to prime sun puddles or toys, or even you, are symptoms of passive aggression. 

Brown tabby bullying a white cat in multiple cat household
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Play Aggression

Sometimes it’s tough to tell the difference between cats that are playing and cats that are fighting, especially with kittens. Kittens naturally play rough. They stalk and chase each other, sneak around corners and pounce on each other, ambush, attack and bite each other. But is it all fun for both of them?

If they are playing, they take turns. If they hiss or growl when the other cat is near, then things are getting too intense. Cats rarely puff up their fur, growl, or injure each other when they’re playing.

Understanding the Aggressive Communication of Bully Cats:

Cat guardians can misinterpret aggressive cat communication until the fur flies or one cat is hiding under the bed all the time.

Aggressive cats can hiss, or growl every time they walk past each other. They might bite each other on the neck. Or it might be subtle with one cat sitting and staring at each other until one pounces. Their ears and tails can tell you a lot about their feelings.

The Victim Cat:

Some cats are just drama queens and invite bullying. I have one of these guys. They slink around, flop over dramatically, using submissive ​body language. The more the cat responds this way, the more the bully will ‘up the game’. These victim cats tend to develop stress-related illnesses. 

The Most Common Bullying Scenarios with Cats Include:

  • New cat attacking resident cat
  • A cat bullying a new kitten or a kitten bullying an adult cat
  • Multiple cats in the household bullying one cat
  • An outdoor or stray cat bullying a household cat

Reasons for Aggression in Multiple Cat Homes

Lack of Resources:

There are bound to be problems if the cats feel they have to compete for access to food, water, litter boxes, and personal space.

The most important resource in a multi-cat household is the litter tray. But it could be a food bowl or a scratching post we expect them to share.

Changes in the Family:

Any changes in the family can set off bullying in a multi-cat household. It could be a new feline family member, a puppy, or a significant other moving in.

A new human sibling can create stress and lead to aggression if Kitty isn’t properly prepared.

Changes in the Environment:

Moving house, new furniture, or rearranging spaces can stress out aggressive cats. Especially if the rearranging involves Kitty’s feeding stations or litter boxes.

Redirected Aggression:

Redirected aggression is one of the scariest types of aggression. Kitty takes her stress and fear out on another cat or a person. A stray cat in the yard sets off a fight between your resident cats. Or Kitty freaks out and ends up hitting out at you.

Non-recognition Aggression:

A housemate coming back from the vet can make Kitty act out like the aliens have landed. Best friends can suddenly become enemies. This is usually a fairly easy type of aggression to correct with a quick reintroduction.

Medical Problems:

Illness or pain can make Kitty aggressive. A vet visit is the first step if your furbaby suddenly starts acting aggressively, especially if he’s an older kitty.

Social Changes:

Young cats have to find their place in the social hierarchy of your multi-cat household. If the bullying starts when a cat reaches age 1-3, the young cat may have started to challenge his elders to find his place in their cat society.

Sexual Tension:

Intact male cats and females coming in and out of season strain relationships in the multiple cat household.

brown tabby bullying a black and white cat in a multiple cat household
You can help prevent bullying among your cats

How You Can Help Prevent Bullying in Your Multiple Cat Household

Spay or neuter your cats.

Add more resources so your cats don’t have to compete for limited territory. Follow the one per cat plus one rule (2 cats = 3 litter boxes, 3 scratching posts, 3 feeding stations etc.) Make sure you have enough toys, cat trees, places to get up high, and hiding spaces so they don’t have to pass each other. Jackson Galaxy calls it the cat superhighway.

Play with your cats. Sometimes aggression results from pent-up energy. Some cats have a high prey drive or greater energy than others. A pairing of a young, high-energy cat with an older cat can be difficult.

Consider the breeds you are combining: a busy Bengal and a placid Persian is probably not going to be as successful as two cats with similar energy levels.

Do not reward aggressive behavior. Distract with toys. Reward them with treats and love when the cats stop the aggressive behavior. 

Try adding Feliway and calming treats.

If all else fails, you could try medication.

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What to Do if You Already Have a Multi-cat Aggression Problem

Try Reintroducing the Cats:

This is especially effective with non-recognition aggression. Your cats need to get to know each other again. Usually it will resolve in a short time. It will take longer to sort out if it is a more entrenched problem.

Break the Warring Cats Up:

As a last resort before re-homing a cat, you can separate areas within the house. Screen doors or microchip cat doors can keep a bully and his victim separate and safe. Be sure both spaces have adequate scratching spaces, climbing spaces, hiding spaces, litter trays, and feeding stations. Playtime and cuddles need to get shared equally. 

Deter Any Stray Cats:

Prevent redirected aggression by scaring off stray cats and other animals that wander in your yard. There are motion activated lights, sprinklers, or noise deterrents and fencing options that can help.

Don’t Break up a Fight Physically:

Instead, try to distract your cats. You can do this by clapping your hands, trying to distract them with toys, shaking a can of coins, or making a loud banging noise when you are out of sight of both cats. This should distract them and put a stop to the fighting. If you need to break up a fight, use a piece of cardboard to separate them.

Never Let the Cats “Fight it Out:”

Cats don’t make friends through fighting. In fact, the fighting usually just gets worse. Cat fights can quickly get out of hand and can easily cause injuries to one or both of the cats involved. Or to us humans if we get in the way.

Don’t Punish Your Bully Cat:

Spraying Kitty with a water bottle, yelling, or throwing things at him will not solve his poor attitude and will cause him to fear you. That just leads to stress and increased aggression.

Most aggressive cats can adjust their behavior and discover a new best friend. Inter-cat politics and bullying in a multiple cat household can work out, but it takes effort on our part to help the cats out. Training, interactive play, and strategic interventions will have our furry friends purring away together soon. Or at least learning to tolerate each other.

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22 thoughts on “Bullying in a Multiple Cat Household”

  1. we moved about 10 months ag0, it was a long move! about 3 months after our move our kitten (Drako) turned 1, he was not neutered. he started violently attaching, stocking, and watching the dad cat (Dwayne the rock Johnson) . we had to seperate them, Drako went in the basement apartment and the Rock was up stairs. the other cats got to go up and down as they pleased. we got Dracko and the Rock neutered and things seemed to be fine, for a two months. now Dracko will chase the Rock to make him scared, and Rock will run away. when this happens the Dracko and our other kittens Einstein and Kevin will all chase after Rock and Dracko will maul Rock and i mean chunks of fur scratches like they are rolling around in a ball of fury. now Rock will growl and hiss (he has never done this before). we have more than enough resources, and i am always adding more when i can. i am not sure what to do at this point as when i think that they are fine (head bunting, grooming and sleeping together) then something will happen or spook Rock and a switch will go off in Dracko and then it resets again. Also, i forgot to mention that it especially happens when rock is in the basement and runs upstairs when he gets scared that is when the other cats will chase him up the stairs and attack him upstairs.

    1. If you have enough enrichment for everyone, high spaces, hideaways, feeding spaces, toys, cat tv type things, litterboxes etc, I think I’d see the vet to make sure everyone is healthy. If they pass health checks I’d ask about anti anxiety meds for one or both of the boys. Then try a structured reintroduction. I’d keep them separate for now. Let the other two go visit. But don’t let Drako in Rocks space. Good luck. Ask your vet if there’s a veterinary behaviorist in your area.

  2. We’ve had a move combined with an escape shortly following, and now I’m trying to sort between non-recognition aggression and just old-fashioned territoriality. The cat who slipped outside was gone for almost four days, beginning on the second day after the move; and once she was back inside the other didn’t attack her but simply followed her around hissing. In retrospect I’m not sure if the one didn’t recognize the other or was saying essentially, “I know you but you weren’t here for four days so this is MY turf now!” After a little while she stopped pursuing but would still approach, sniff, and hiss. We’ve kept them separated for the past couple of days and swapped locations so the returning cat’s (new) scent could be on the bed, in the litter box, etc.,and tried to create positive encounters involving food and toys, but interactions are still tense and the returning cat now slinks away and hides even though she was confident when she first came home. Again I’m wondering how to tell the difference as our approach might depend on the actual situation.

      1. I have 8 cats. There’s plenty of space and levels, they don’t have to fight for food, there’s multiple litter boxes, and they’ve been together now minimum 2-3 yrs. I have one cat – head honcho, Ruger, who had taken on 3 newborns as their “dad”, along with a very young mom. He would snuggle them, clean them, protect them, etc. Suddenly about 2-3 mo. ago he turned on one of them, Lily, aggressively?! There have been no changes, no escapes, no surgeries. Both are fixed. Both get = attn. although, Ruger does get chased away by other cats around me because he has taken turns bullying pretty much all of them at some point – to the point where they just hiss when they see him. We never know if he’s coming for attn. or on the prowl. He sneaks up behind his victim and gets them when they’re most vulnerable – like in the litter box! The other cats know they’re safe by me so often times they’ll come flying to my lap from allowed by Ruger chasing them. However, they are able to get along once around me or in my lap?!

        1. I would take Ruger to the vet to make sure that there’s nothing going on with his health that could contribute to a behavior change. Then try reintroducing them. It’s hard when you have a lot of cats. I do too. A couple of mine are difficult. One has their own room because of it.

  3. You share some excellent tips! I have never really thought about bullying with cats as my last two were adopted ferals, who actually got along famously in the beginning, then we used to see some swatting going on! I think the one tired of the kitten she brought home to our house. Looking back, I think our first one was being bullied by the kitten! Pinning to my Mews News board to share!

    1. A lot of times it is the subtle bullying that’s the worst- and you have to be looking for it to see it. One of my girls is a subtle bully over one of my big boys. She just sits in a loaf and stares at him until he spazzes out.

  4. Great article – we have a bully dog in our home and I found a lot of your info very relevant to our current situation! Our youngest dog is a bully to our senior dog, and it’s always over toys. We’re always working with them and trying to find balance, but it’s definitely tough!

  5. We are having fear issues with Silver now Toulouse has joined the family. He is disappearing and we need to work on introducing them more.

    Other than than we don’t have real aggression issues, I think we do have a couple of grumpy cats though!

  6. This is great advice! We are lucky, Pippen and Jinx have gotten along well since I first brought a little 5 month old orphan Jinx into the house. I think Pip took on a motherly role. However, our experiences in the past weren’t always that easy! It’s so important to be aware of what’s happening so that you can address it early.

  7. Bullying can certainly lead to problems. My experience from the dog world is that the biggest bullies are the biggest cowards. The time I truly realized that was with a Rotty who lived on our block.

    When he was a little pup, he was an in-your-face type of puppy and Jasmine didn’t want to have anything to do with him. Initially, we thought she didn’t like so much in-your-face activity. But then she tolerated it fine with other dogs. It was puzzling … until about a year ago when I met the Rotty in a dog park. He was running around bullying all the dogs there. But the moment a dog didn’t run away scared in response and politely stood up for themselves, the bully Rotty ran away screaming that you’d think somebody is trying to kill him. That was his true disposition.

    1. That’s exactly right, I have a cat like that. I wish my drama queen cat could understand that. I tell him all the time – if you’d only stop freaking out they’d leave you alone.

  8. Very informative post! I don’t have cats myself, but will share this with friends who do. I’m sure having cats that don’t get along would be a frustrating situation, especially to those who get a second cat for the main purpose of keeping their 1st company.

  9. Oh my this post reminded me of when I had my two girl cats Precious and Dusty. Precious was a bit of a bully and would eat her food and then also nudge Dusty out the way and eat her food too. Eventually I learned to just feed one at a time separately so they could eat in peace. Dusty would get her “revenge” though and playfully jump on Precious when she wasn’t looking. Eventually my first baby Precious learned some patience and tolerated Dusty and her antics. Both are at Rainbow Bridge now but it would have been nice to have your helpful tips way back when.

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