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Territorial Behavior in Cats

Most species of wild cats live in relative solitude. A cat's territorial nature is very much a reflection of its social behavior. Pet cats that are permitted to roam freely outdoors rarely spend much time with other cats. For the most part, cats prefer to share their territory, indoors or out, with few or no other cats. The more densely populated the area, the greater the tension between individuals, regardless of gender or reproductive status. This applies to outdoor cats and to cats in multi-cat households. The territory of outdoor cats may be shared by many individuals passing through at different times of day. Cats confined as housepets occupy a restricted home range as compared with the area they might otherwise claim outdoors. Cats usually adapt well to being kept indoors, particularly if they have been confined from a young age. Some kittens that have never been outdoors, however, can be quite persistent in their attempts to escape. Cats adopted as adults, even as adult strays, often thrive as housepets. Clearly, there is much individual variation in the territorial nature of domestic cats.

Territorial Aggression
Conflicts may occur between cats sharing the same territory. This does not mean that cats always fight when they meet. When they see each other, each cat assesses the other's body language. Do they recognize each other? What was the nature of previous encounters? Is there hesitation and defensiveness, or is the posture alert and confident? One or both cats may detour from their usual route to avoid encounters. They may approach each other, only to change course at the last moment. They may approach closer to gain information that cannot be gathered from a distance, such as scents that indicate an animal is diseased and, therefore, a weakened opponent. If neither individual retreats, tensions may rise. If one cat tries to retreat when the other cat is ready to fight, a fight may result anyway. If neither cat is willing to retreat or fight, they may eventually pass each other by without conflict. If both cats are equally motivated to challenge each other, a fight often results. An assertive uncastrated tomcat, for example, is more likely to antagonize another cat during the mating season than at other times when sexual motivation may not be as high. Indoor or outdoor cats may leave scratch marks or mark with urine and/or stool to reassert territorial claims and to relieve emotional tension. Conflict may arise between indoor cats upon first introduction or following a period of calm coexistence. The age of the individuals may be an important factor. Kittens reaching physical and behavioral maturity, for example, may discover their own sense of territory or may be suddenly resented by another resident cat. Housecats may sort out their individual territories without fights. Cats may come to an understanding of each other's temperament and physical ability during play. Play times may end abruptly, however, if one cat perceives subtle challenges in the other's behavior. Minor territorial disputes between pet cats can be mistaken as playful interaction. You may have to intervene in conflicts between cats if the conflicts become severe and frequent. The more cats there are in a household, the more chances there are for conflicts over food, space and your attention.

Preventing Territorial Aggression: The best way to resolve territorial aggression between cats is to prevent opportunities for it. The factors contributing to it should be identified and controlled. Do the conflicts more often occur at certain times of day than at others? If so, it might be helpful to confine one of the cats during this period so that the same territory may be "time shared." Does one cat wait in ambush for the other to appear? Do conflicts occur in specific areas of your home? These locations should be neutralized by blocking access to them, for example. Are the confrontations chance encounters, erupting spontaneously?
It may be necessary to isolate each cat in a different area of your home so that their paths never cross. Is the severity of aggression serious and getting worse, or is it mild and constant, without casualties? If the conflicts are brief and without physical contact, it might be wise not to interfere. If the bouts seem to be escalating in intensity, several steps should be taken. As a temporary measure, it is almost always necessary to separate the antagonists, confining them to their own separate quarters. Whether the pets are kept indoors exclusively or not, all cats not intended for breeding should be neutered. If fighting occurs between intact cats that will be bred, these animals should be caged or housed separately. In some cases, it is simplest to end ongoing conflicts by relocating the antagonist in another home where it will be the only cat. If none of these measures is effective, contact your veterinarian for referral to a veterinary behavior consultant in your area. Remember that territorial conflicts in multi-cat households are virtually inevitable. Keep the number of pet cats in reasonable proportion to the size of your home.

Roaming Outdoors
Cats instinctively explore and frequently patrol their territory. The size of their territory may expand or contract according to population density, exhaustion of natural resources, availability of cycling females and interactions between aggressive rivals. Younger cats tend to patrol wider areas than do aging animals. Males tend to roam over greater areas than do females. Neutered males may patrol smaller areas, while neutered females tend to expand their territories. Many cats that have been reared indoors from birth may become increasingly interested in the outdoors and often attempt to escape even before they reach sexual maturity. Though neutering a pet cat may diminish its determination to escape, reduce the size of territory outdoors and reduce the frequency and severity of cat fights, neutering alone will not deter any cat with a strong predisposition to roam. Neutering is advised for any cat that roams outdoors, either habitually or accidentally, so as to help control the population of stray cats. Many cats born as strays and adopted as housecats adjust remarkably quickly. Indeed, many stray cats that are adopted remain indoors permanently without protest. Cats that live in temperate climates may naturally restrict their outdoor activity during cold winter months. These individuals may adapt more readily to being kept indoors permanently. Newly confined cats typically go through a phase of heightened activity. Their agitation and frustration may be redirected to undesirable indoor activities, such as destructiveness, excessive vocalization, irritability and nocturnal patterns of peak activity. These cats may seek escape routes for many weeks before resigning themselves to confinement. Should the opportunity to escape present itself, however, many of these cats may take it, even years later. A young cat increasingly interested in going outside should be denied the opportunity to escape. One successful escape virtually guarantees that other attempts will follow. Young cats usually outgrow this escapist phase when they are consistently unsuccessful. Some cats manage to escape outside despite their owner's intention to confine them. For these owners and for those that own adult cats already accustomed to roaming outdoors, efforts to restrict their pets' range can be frustrating. Be aware of your cat's position as you enter or exit a door leading outside. Secure windows and place screens as needed. Balconies even several stories high can present attractive escape exits to more daring (or foolhardy) cats. Provide a wide variety of toys that are attractive to your cat (not just to you). Frequently play with your young cat so that it is less prone to seek amusement elsewhere. Have your cat neutered at an appropriate age as recommended by your veterinarian. If you decide to keep your cat indoors, stand by your decision. Even occasional outings will increase your cat's determination to go outside. The initial transition period may be easier with a short course of sedatives in small doses. Medications prescribed by your veterinarian can help your cat become adjusted to confinement. Given enough time and positive reinforcement, most cats adapt well. While territorial roaming provides cats with exercise and mental stimulation, cats can live a happy life while remaining only indoors. The risk of injury (from motor vehicle accidents, cat fights or confrontations with other animals), disease and abuse far outweigh any possible benefit to your cat. It is not cruel to restrict cats to an exclusively indoor existence. Rather, the cruelty lies in exposing them to the dangers outside of a safe home.