Symptoms of resource guarding may be subtle, such as this calico blocking her housemate from getting to the top of the stairs, usually in an attempt to stop access to a treasured thing. Photography krblokhin | iStock photo

Multiple-cat households can experience squabbles similar to two toddlers fighting over the last cookie. That’s because cats need their own stuff, and they’re going to find a way to claim it.

Technically called “resource guarding,” these spats establish ownership over a valued thing, whether it’s a favorite toy, person, food, or even the litterbox. For example, you may see one cat block access to the litterbox by lying in front of the entrance to the room it is in. The cat also may hide and pounce when the other cat enters the area, stopping the cat from using the litterbox.

“Resource guarding stems from the normal desire to maintain access to valuable resources,” says Pamela Perry, DVM, PhD, behavior resident at the New York State College of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell. “It involves threatening behavior directed toward any individual—human or animal—that approaches the cat while he is in possession of or near something he does not want to relinquish.” And it can worsen. If one cat “wins” a disagreement and the other cat (or dog or person) backs away, the aggressive cat has learned that putting up a fight works.

Handling resource guarding in your cat household requires a few wise moves on your part. Most importantly, don’t punish the cat. It won’t help, and it may make things worse. Instead, work with your cats to provide each with a safe place where he feels protected, such as his own bed, cardboard box, or perch. This also means providing several water bowls, food dishes, and litterboxes in separate areas of the household. You may even need several perches or cat trees. If you see one cat sleeping on the cat furniture when a second leaps up, hissing, swatting, or body positioning to take over that spot, that’s likely resource guarding.

At feeding time, one cat may quickly gulp his food and then push another cat away from his bowl. Or he may block the entrance to the kitchen while you prepare the meals. He may hiss or even attack the other cat when food is present. An intimidated cat may hide and wait until the bully cat leaves to enter the kitchen and attempt to eat his meal. “The value of an item will vary among individual cats,” says Dr. Perry.

Allow your cats to demonstrate their prey behavior during play by providing food puzzles and playing with wand toys with a feathery, fuzzy toy on the end.  Treat each cat similarly (no favorites!). Allow as much human contact as each cat desires, whether that’s petting, grooming, sitting in your lap, or playing. Avoid the use of scents, cleaners, or detergents around cat toys and beds, as smells can be regarded as a threat.

With toys, disrupt the interaction before it escalates into aggression by calling them away from the toy. Then, with the cats separated, engage them in play with separate toys. Try to rotate toys and schedule mini-play sessions.

If you have a battle between cats over a spot on your lap or for your attention, the best thing to do is to stand up and walk away. You can do this whether the aggressive cat is in your lap or on the floor. In other words, if a cat is guarding you as the valuable resource, take it away. Instead, spend some time alone with each cat in a closed room where everyone is comfortable.