Help despairing multi-cat household find peace before new baby arrives
January 17, 2021 6:40 PM   Subscribe

We’ve got 3 cats, and 2 of them are in relentless violent conflict. We’ve tried so many solutions (including recommendations from a consult with a cat behavioralist), and we’re at the end of our rope. We also have a baby coming in about 4 months, and can’t imagine continuing on this way with a newborn. Something needs to change — what is it?

Here’s the cast of characters and case history.

3 years ago
S adopted Miriam from a shelter at about 3 years old, about 3 years ago, when S was single. She was described as “fractious” in her shelter paperwork. She is incredibly sweet and demands lots of affection, but only on her terms (will climb up on our chests and give aggressive face bump nuzzles, but is quick to bite when she’s been petted for a moment longer than she wanted). At the time, S was ready to move to Crone Island and thought Miriam would be the perfect companion… (meaning that she would be a great cat for a single, unmarried person with no kids or other pets). But, life and love had other plans.

A adopted George and Sookie (siblings) as kittens at about 2 months old, about 3 years ago, when A was single. George tends to be a bit more outgoing and needy (always the first to come investigate a new toy or object, cries if on the other side of the door from A) than Sookie (generally more cautious and likes being left alone, but will be quick to curl up on A’s legs the moment she can). The two get along well with each other — there’s some aggression, but at the level of normal play fighting and never drawing blood — and are also very affectionate with each other and comfortable with human contact (no biting). We had high hopes they’d accept Miriam when S moved in….

2 years ago
Love happened. S moved in to A’s large 1-bedroom condo, and we had high hopes that all 3 cats would integrate. We followed guidance to start them out on either side of a door, so we started with Miriam in the bedroom and George/Sookie outside — eventually letting them meet. It did not go well. We’re assuming they saw Miriam as the intruder into their territory. Also, Miriam would growl and hiss at them. We think George was mostly upset that he didn’t have access to his beloved people in the bedroom. Sookie, usually the more quiet and passive of the pair, started displaying constant aggression whenever she saw Miriam and it hasn’t stopped since. Our temporary solution, since we knew we wanted to move to a larger and more permanent home, was to keep Miriam and her food, water, litterbox in the bedroom all the time and the bedroom door closed except for a few hours each day. During the few hours we’d let everyone interact… which meant Sookie had a chance to attack. Miriam would never be the first to show physical aggression, but if she saw Sookie she’d immediately crouch into a defensive position and start to growl/cry. Sookie would always be the one to break from the tense staring content with a lunge and swipe, which would lead to horrible yowls from Miriam who’d try to back farther away. We’d typically intervene by putting Miriam in the large walk-in bedroom closet and close the closet door so that Sookie could have some “bedroom time” with us for a few hours.

3 months ago
Marriage and pregnancy happened. Despite 2020-related delays, we were finally able to buy and move into a multilevel townhouse (doors on each of 3 bedrooms but otherwise open flow between the 3 floors), and hoped this would give us a chance for all the cats to start out on a more level playing field. For the first few days after the move, everyone was getting a feel for the new space and the dynamic between Miriam and Sookie subsided. We were extremely hopeful that the violence would stop. During those first few days, we met with a behavioralist and got some tips on general multi-cat household strategies, like having litter boxes and food available on multiple floors, using Feliway multicat diffusers, and having lots of vertical climbing options and interactive play time with each cat. We also had received gabapentin from our vet after some prior anxiety/aggression displays from Miriam and experimented with dosing the cats to help smooth things out. Despite trying these out, after a few days the violence returned — worse than ever, since we were no longer able to give Miriam a room of her own to retreat to.

We’re totally at a loss. There are screaming fights and violent attacks multiple times a day. Miriam has twice pooped in the kitchen overnight because it appears the other cats trapped her in there and wouldn’t let her get to any of the litter boxes. We react to the fighting by making a loud sound (like clapping hands loudly or stamping a shoe on the floor), which just sends Sookie scattering for a moment but she’s usually right back to continue the routine of staring-at-Miriam-lunging-at-Miriam-swiping-at-Miriam. Miriam also tends to put herself in bad situations to get away, like backing herself into a corner of the room where she crouches down and growls/hisses/cries until Sookie attacks. We don’t know exactly how often Sookie is actually drawing blood with these swipes, but we know it happens sometimes. Sookie will “get in a good swipe” and saunter away for a little while, but the cycle of aggression always starts again (maybe in a few minutes, maybe in a few hours).

What could change
Externally — we’re open to trying different interventions….
  • Maybe there’s more tips / different advice we could get from continued sessions with the original behavioralist… or maybe we just need to be more patient/consistent and try these things for longer duration (like using Feliway and “herbal remedies” for months instead of weeks?)
  • Maybe there’s a veterinary behavioralist we could see? (we’ve researched, and due to COVID etc the closest one accepting cat clients is in the next state over and has a wait list until March…).
  • We could keep Miriam (and her food/water/litter) in her own separate room, like we did in the old apartment… but with baby coming, this would have to be in our small home office (not our bedroom/nursery) and that’s a really small room to be cooped up in. When we’ve tried closing her in there for short periods of time (since one of the litter boxes is in there now, along with a food/water mat), she will cry to be let out and the other 2 cats are obsessed with getting into the office, so this doesn’t feel like a good long term solution.
  • We could do something more drastic, like remodeling the house so that one level is completely blocked off (so probably build a door to the finished basement where the 2 other litter boxes are currently placed, have Miriam permanently live down there, separate from the rest of the cats and sadly also from us).
  • And of course, the ultimate measure is to rehome one or more of the cats. One consideration is that since Miriam already has a tendency to bite us when getting more pets/touching than she wants, there’s a good chance we’d have to consider rehoming her down the road anyway if she can’t control aggression with an infant/toddler/small child.
Internally — the cloud of fear, aggression, and violence all through the day and night are taking a severe psychic toll — we are feeling:
  • Shame and guilt (for not being able to be better pet owners, for not being able to control the aggression or protect Miriam)
  • Anger — at the cats for acting like cats, and also at ourselves for losing our temper when we’re shouting/clapping/stomping
  • Fed up and irritable, like we’ve already tried all the advice we can take and are starting to have limited mental/emotional open-mindedness for more “quick tips” (ex: a well-meaning friend recently told S that another friend got her cat to stop peeing outside the litter box by putting out valerian root in old socks for the cat to nuzzle, maybe that would help…. S heard this suggestion and felt irritated and unmotivated).
  • General bewilderment and tiredness from often being awoken during the night from the cats’ fighting.
  • Urgency and worry about getting to any kind of resolution before our first child arrives in May — some days, it feels like we’re spending more emotional and psychic energy on the cat conflicts than we are on planning for the kid
  • Like we need more outside support (such as counseling to address the stress and mental health aspect). A note on this — S has previously discussed this cat-related despair with a therapist and received a lot of “quick tips for pet owners” (similar to what every google search and the behavioralist told us) and little acknowledgement of the emotional toll, so we have somewhat limited expectations of how much outside support is relevant here. But we feel we need some kind of outside guidance especially to help us come to terms with more drastic measures like rehoming or a significant home remodeling project that leads to permanent separation of the animals.
  • Questioning if we need to decide to accept the current reality, get over our emotional entanglements with our pets, and let the upsetting dynamic continue on indefinitely, even with a new baby in the house.
Please help. Can you give us a framework for thinking about this, or a decision-making flow chart to know when to rehome a cat, or a time machine to go back and buy a house with a layout that would have magically solved this dynamic, or a different cat behavioralist recommendation, or something that will help us move forwards and figure out what actually needs to change here?
posted by pants to Pets & Animals (21 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
It is ok to rehome your cat.
posted by aniola at 6:53 PM on January 17, 2021 [28 favorites]

FYI in many areas right now people who want to adopt cats aren't able to because the shelters and foster groups are empty. Rehoming your cat might give someone who really, really wants a cat the opportunity to have one.
posted by BlahLaLa at 7:02 PM on January 17, 2021 [21 favorites]

It is OK to rehome your cat.

That said... I started out with a fractious lady cat, and just out of sheer bloody mindedness ended up with four, and have stuck with four. Here are some strategies I used:
* Rotate who (single or pair) gets locked in their own room. Make sure they get a lot of attention. Every possible combination that should coexist peaceably should get their turn IN and their turn OUT of the room.
* If you can manage, they eat together, closely supervised, at limited times (i.e. morning, afternoon, night). The situation should be as clearly equal as possible, and closely supervised as possible. Substantial infraction means it's that cat's turn in the room.
* Clip their nails. It sucks. I know. But if they're not drawing blood, the temperature can come down a bit. There are also nail covers you can get that may limit their risk and be a little easier to apply, but I've never tried them.
* There shouldn't be a quadrant of the house where a cat can be trapped and can't get to a litter box.
* And it's worth remembering that cats do seem understand the concept of 'juvenile' and may have more patience with a baby or toddler than you'd expect. But I'd have a pretty short leash on that if I was in your place.

Sorry, no promises, but you seem pretty dedicated to giving it a shot. We successfully deescalated our latest, a big, punchy young orange kitty, from daily squabbles with occasional bloodshed (not by any degree all his fault) down to occasional, fairly minor exchanges of grumpy.
posted by wotsac at 7:19 PM on January 17, 2021 [8 favorites]

I had a similar situation in my life when I moved in with my partner. The emotion toll is enormous, especially if you’re a person who is (rightly) concerned about the cats' quality of life. It is terribly stressful to always have one ear listening for a brewing cat fight. In our case, we gave it a shot for 18 months but it became more and more clear that both cats were miserable - even the aggressor who started to lick his legs bald from stress.

We re-homed our version of Miriam who went to live with my retired in-laws. The second half of her life was absolutely heavenly and they doted upon her. For what it’s worth, Miriam instantaneously forgot all the sacrifices I made to keep her (or never perceived them in the first place) and when I would visit her I got no special treatment or special greeting whatsoever. She had lived with me for 8 years. Some cats really don’t care about us the way we think they do!
posted by cranberrymonger at 8:13 PM on January 17, 2021 [19 favorites]

I would rehome Miriam to someone who wants a single older cat. Maybe a Crone Islander. The cat will be better off, you will likely be able to move your anxiety level down (at least about the cats), there will be many axious sleepless nights with a newborn. Playing Kindergarten Cop to your cats will be a very low priority at that point. If moving into a new neutral territory did not work, the chances of it ever working are slim in my opinion. At one point in my life I had a similar situation of having an older female cat then my ex adopting 2 young brother males. Never did get along. We tried all the advice it sounds like you did. We had a big enough house that they eventually found their own safe places, but we rarely saw two of them because they were afraid and hiding. Eventually, because of a divorce and me moving into a place that did not allow pets and my ex refusing to take them, I had to rehome them all. It was emotionally painful. Like the death of a pet painful, but over time I came to peace with it mainly because I knew they were all better off for it.

Good luck. Congratulations on the new home. Mazel tov on the pregnancy.
posted by AugustWest at 8:16 PM on January 17, 2021 [7 favorites]

You've tried extensively for two years. It's ok to say "enough."

I'm also dealing with a high-conflict cat situation with similar behavioral problems. It can be incredibly emotionally draining and literally scarring.

I used the following questions as a guide after trying all the recommended interventions for a few months:
Are all the humans and animals physically safe around the cat?
Is the cat physically safe?
Is any part of the house unusable because of accommodating the cat?
Have I seen sustained, measurable signs of progress from previous interventions with the cat?
Is the cat happy with the current arrangement?
Am I satisfied with the current arrangement continuing indefinitely?
Any question answered "no" indicates rehoming as the better option at this point.
In my case keeping the cat was a very, very close decision made over the course of several weeks with help from a local animal shelter.
posted by VelveteenBabbitt at 8:23 PM on January 17, 2021 [10 favorites]

I think Miriam will be happier as an only cat in a household where she'd get the respect and boundaries such a beautiful cat deserves (I have a tuxedo cat sleeping on my arms right now). It will be hard on you, but it'll be for the best in the long run for all six of you.
posted by The corpse in the library at 8:53 PM on January 17, 2021 [7 favorites]

Please rehome your sad kitty. Adoption sites can specify "needs to be an only cat," and there is someone out there who can give her that.

Some cats just can't get along with others. Honestly it's really Sookie who's the problem but she needs to stay with George. Miriam is tired you are tired, there is a baby need to get her somewhere with less drama and danger.
posted by emjaybee at 9:35 PM on January 17, 2021 [5 favorites]

I think that it probably is kindest to you and Miriam to re-home her, especially if you can give her to a cat organization you trust-like others have said this is probably the BEST time to re-home a cat as people are clamoring for them.
But...forgive me if this is obvious or silly but have you watched My Cat From Hell? The cat behaviorist on that show seems to manage a lot of cat conflict by getting all of the cats 1. A lot more playtime, including leash walking, and 2. Elevated spaces to escape to, to the point where the cats can navigate the room without touching the floor. I have a foster right now who was persistently swatting at the other foster and he didn't avail himself of high up escape routes. We pretty much determined that the shelter was right and my foster should be an only cat. So you know, if it doesn't work...sometimes cats are just not friends. But might be worth a look at some of his tips if you're looking for a last ditch effort.
posted by clarinet at 10:42 PM on January 17, 2021 [1 favorite]

The other day a Mefite posted this question about helping his/her parents find an adult cat to love. Could it be fate?
posted by carmicha at 12:29 AM on January 18, 2021 [9 favorites]

Try putting Sookie in the office overnight, and also when she attacks Miriam.
posted by bashing rocks together at 3:35 AM on January 18, 2021 [1 favorite]

This is not a healthy situation for any of you. Do you want your child to be exposed to this kind of stress and violence? Whatever patience, compassion, and consideration you have for this situation will likely evaporate under the pressure of sleep deprivation - you will not be any better equipped to deal once the baby comes. It is OK to re-home your cat. Why wouldn't you want her to have a home where she can live in peace?
posted by epanalepsis at 4:19 AM on January 18, 2021 [1 favorite]

I had a similar dynamic among my cats - two young (2-3yo) boys who are besties and an (older by 3 years) female who would probably be better off being a solo kitty. Here's what we do:

She has access and opportunity for her own space where the boys don't bother her. Accomplished by both making hideaways for her that didn't feel like she was trapped (bedroom, comfy boxes, second cat tree, litter box) and making a completely different area super appealing to the boys (BIG cat tree, window-mounted hammocks in front of picture window with outdoor yard and window mount bird feeders)

Everyone gets their own special attention at different times, and treats all at the same time, a prolonged treat time if they're getting along.

LOTS of reinforcement during the rare GetAlong times, verbal and physical affection, like over the top.

Altercations don't get negative punishment from humans, just calm separation and encouragement to go back to safe/happy spaces, then lots of positive reinforcement if amicable resolution.

They eat together 2x day. But always make sure food is available at all times of the day. Less desirable dry food is out 24/7, they have their fancy wet food feedings together AM and PM.

Cats compete for resources: food, water, affection, entertainment, litter boxes. Are any of these things allocated in a way that one or more cats could feel like they're lacking? Try to figure out how to rebalance.

Seconding trying to figure out how to not get her trapped anywhere without a litter box. Litter boxes should be in places they all frequent and not an out of the way spot that's difficult to get to. Is your finished basement part of their day-to-day roaming territory or do they only go down there to do their business? If the latter, consider relocating to other areas of the house that are more accessible (using good relocation techniques).

And feel no guilt about rehoming. My first cat i got out of college was wonderful for years, then just started hiding and not getting along. Turns out he was in love with my mother, I rehomed him with her and he's a completely different cat and so happy. Do the work if you have the mental bandwidth to continue trying, but know there are lots of folks out there looking for cats right now and having a hard time finding them, and could be able to give your little love a life she might find easier.
posted by danapiper at 5:13 AM on January 18, 2021 [3 favorites]

Speaking as a cat owner and a parent of small children, you should 100% rehome the cat. Everyone sounds miserable. You reached the end of the “rehome cat?” flow chart a while back, you just hadn’t realized it yet. You will be happier, all the cats will be happier.

When my firstborn arrived (I’m the mom), it was amazing how the cats were immediately demoted from Beloved FurBabies to Needy Annoyances. Sleep deprivation from newborns is serious and when the CATS managed to wake the baby by yowling for food or screeching at a neighbor cat, I was incandescent with exhausted rage. Take whatever patience you have for the cats right now and bring it down to about 10% of that, and that’s what you will probably be working with when the baby arrives. (our cats have been promoted back to Beloved FurBabies again, but it was gradual). And my cats are siblings who get along. I would not have had the energy or brainpower to troubleshoot cat behavior during the newborn phase, with either child.

You’re going to want to be relaxed and and as rested as possible with a newborn in the house. Rehome the cat.
posted by castlebravo at 6:49 AM on January 18, 2021 [8 favorites]

Look I am the first person to say hey you bought the animal it's your responsibility to keep it no matter what, and even I'm saying rehome the cat. It's miserable, it's a prisoner in it's own home terrorized night & day for the love of god find the poor thing a new home. It doesn't make you a bad owner it doesn't mean you don't love the cat, in fact the opposite on both accounts. You've got 4 months to find it a nice home, do it now while you have the energy to put into finding is a good home, instead of just dumping it somewhere when you have to deal with all this & new baby exhaustion. You'll be happier, the cat will be happier it's the winniest of win/win situations.
posted by wwax at 9:00 AM on January 18, 2021 [2 favorites]

I have a very off-the-wall suggestion, so feel free to ignore if not helpful: I have a dog with some really challenging behavior issues, and I felt like I could relate a lot to the emotional toll that this is having on you (if not to the specifics itself). It's so incredibly hard, and people that haven't been through it can be spectacularly unhelpful and un-empathetic even when they think that they "get" it.

One thing that really helped me was this online Living with DINOS (Dogs in Need of Space) course, which isn't as much about dog training as it is about providing exercises to manage the human emotional toll of living with a challenging dog. I know that reactive dogs are totally different than fighting cats, so it's quite possible that this is not at all useful to you, but if you're looking for a community with a bit more empathy for what you are going through, you might find one through that.

(I'm not suggesting you take the course itself - though you certainly could - but you may also be interested in reaching out to some of the people associated with that class, such as Kristin Buller, LCSW who seems to specialize in pet-related emotional challenges. The DINOS class page even mentions a "Difficult Pets Support Group" that she runs.)

I haven't been in your shoes, but I've been close enough that I know you know your situation better than anyone. It's clear how hard you've worked and how challenging this is. Whatever decision(s) you end up making will be completely reasonable ones, and frankly, there are no perfectly right or wrong answers. Sending virtual hugs.
posted by mosst at 9:07 AM on January 18, 2021 [1 favorite]

We had a similar situation (except it was a cat and a dog) and rehomed the cat with a friend before baby arrived. No regrets, cat is happy in her new home where she's the only pet, dog is happy, and our house was as peaceful as it could be with a newborn. Sometimes it's the best solution.
posted by omnie at 11:09 AM on January 18, 2021 [3 favorites]

feliway diffusers, work a charm for us.
have one more litter box than cat.
posted by evilmonk at 12:47 PM on January 18, 2021

I have had cats that did not get along, and that occasionally attacked each other, although not to this extent. They lived together for years and it never got better. You have done everything right and have been patiently trying to help them get past this for years. It's not working, and it's not your fault. Please find Miriam a new home. You did not fail or give up on her, she just deserves a peaceful life without having to be on the defensive all the time and you cannot give her that if she lives with you. It would be one thing if your cats were seeing tangible, incremental improvements in how they get along. But from what you describe there is no realistic future time when your cats will be happy with this living situation. If you can, find a friend or acquaintance to take her in so you have the option of getting updates or visiting her in the future for your own peace of mind. Also--as a devoted fur mama for the last 20 years who had a human child 1.5 years ago, castlebravo is 100% right about how suddenly your priorities change. Congratulations and good luck!
posted by impishoptimist at 4:11 PM on January 18, 2021

Is Miriam your partner's cat?

I think this is kind of a lot of words stepping around the hard conversation that boils down to: "I love you and I love Miriam, but I can't imagine going on with this when the baby gets here, and I want to talk about finding a different home for her."
posted by latkes at 4:27 PM on January 18, 2021

Either rehome Miriam or rehome the others. Probably Miriam as you seem somewhat concerned she's going to swat the baby, but in my experience many cats are surprisingly tolerant of babies and toddlers.

I love my cat dearly but I Could Not Have Coped with this situation when our firstborn was brand new. Sleep deprivation is a real and horrible thing and it does end, but sometimes it may not feel like it ever will. You will all need a peaceful household and none of your cats are happy.

Incidentally, if your cats are likely to try to snuggle with baby in the bassinet I recommend this. We got the same model from a different store and while our cat never made an attempt it was good peace of mind. If you buy it I would replace the mattress, I think this is the one we bought. Both held up well and will be pressed into their second service a few weeks from now.
posted by The Librarian at 5:03 PM on January 19, 2021

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