The Mind of Your Cat: 03/02

Question: I live in a rural area. My cats have access to the outdoors through cat flaps. Recently, my 14-year-old cat died. I am afraid another animal, perhaps a coyote, might have killed him. Although my other two cats continue to get along, the 14-year-old seemed to have had a stabilizing effect on the other two cats. Would adopting a pair of kittens help keep up the strength of the group?

Answer: I am sorry for the loss of your eldest cat. The wilderness certainly can be dangerous, and thats why many veterinarians and others who work with animals recommend its best to keep cats indoors or leashed if taken outdoors.

Your observation that your senior cat helped to stabilize the group is an interesting one. We are still learning about the nature of cat groups. Cats do not appear to form rigidly structured groups or packs. Nor do they appear to establish complex dominance hierarchies. If such hierarchies exist, we have not yet decoded the subtle communication systems that are used by the participating felines. Of course, we still have much to discover about the complex world of the cat. Remember that until recently domestic cats were typically described as antisocial animals.

Changing dynamics
Many families who live with cats do report behaviors that resemble dominance in other species. For instance, some cats behave as though they were deferring to other household cats. They may relinquish food or resting places to those cats.

Also, cats may assume rolling postures. This type of position resembles the submissive roll that we have generally associated with submissive dogs or wolves.

So, perhaps your eldest cat did play the role of the dominant cat. He may have kept the group in order through his calmly assertive presence. In that case, his passing would indeed have left a void in the group.

In many households, the loss of the dominant cat is followed by aggression among the remaining cats. One reason for this behavioral change is that the presence of a strong cat might help to inhibit aggression within a cat family. Upon the loss of this cat, any inhibition might be released. Another possibility is that household cats may experience anxiety as a consequence of the change in dynamics. For many animals, anxiety increases any underlying tendency toward aggressive behavior. Fortunately, you have not experienced that problem. Your two cats appear to have a very stable relationship.

Three possible outcomes
What would be the effect of adding another pair of cats? Unfortunately, it is difficult to predict whether either or both of your two cats would accept the new kittens. We know that your adult cats are quite social because they have lived in harmony with one another. Yet the individual personalities of the kittens will have a strong impact on whether they are accepted by the resident cats.

There are three possible outcomes. The first is that your present cats may enjoy the newcomers as playmates, and a harmonious group will form. A second possibility is that the four cats will simply tolerate one another by maintaining comfortable distances from one other. And the third is that the kittens may be physically injured or even driven away from home.

One advantage in your situation is that your cats have access to a large amount of space. The home environment is well suited to time-sharing. While we dont recommend you let your cats go outside unsupervised, if you choose to do so, you may find that the kittens may prefer to be outdoors when the adults are indoors and vice versa. A concern would be that if the kittens were extremely frightened, they could find themselves outside at night, a most dangerous time in your neighborhood.

You mentioned that the reason that you were considering adopting this pair of kittens was to attempt to strengthen the group. It is not clear that adding to the number of cats will have this effect. Although cats may return to a home base to share a common dish of food or a warm resting place, they do not usually hunt together. As such, much of a cats outside time tends to be spent patrolling on his own. It is not likely a potential predator would encounter your cats as an entire group. Such predators would therefore not be driven away simply because there were more cats living in your home area.

Despite risks, cats can live in harmony
If you do have your heart set on adopting the youngsters, you may be able to plan a two-week trial introduction. During this period, allow the kittens to explore the home while the adults are confined either inside or outdoors. Introduce the kittens to the yard under supervision – harnesses would be ideal. That way, they can distribute their scent in the yard. When you are not able to supervise them, they should be confined in an area with food and litter boxes, safely out of harms way.

A word of warning: In addition to the possibility of aggression among the cats, there are other risks to increasing the number of cats in your home. Adding cats could trigger marking behavior, including urine marking, in one or more of the cats. If the cats use litter boxes, additional boxes should accompany the additional cats.

In conclusion, it would be quite difficult to anticipate whether the personalities of the kittens would suit your present cats. Your cats sound as though they are rather content functioning as a pair. Still, after considering all the risks, it must be said that four cats can certainly live in harmony. In that case, they will surely bring you much pleasure.