With some cats in a multicat home, resource guarding behavior is very overt but in other cases it can be extremely subtle and easily missed by the owner. The cats may look as if they get along, and for the most part, they may be very comfortable with each other with the exception of certain situations such as mealtime or when near the litter box, to name just two.
An example of overt resource guarding might be the cat who bullies his companions at the feeding station. This cat may push the other cat(s) out of the way in order to eat first. He may even chase the other cat completely out of the kitchen. In many situations the cat who has been bullied will have learned to wait until the other cat has eaten or maybe he won't even enter the kitchen when the bully is in the room. The victim of resource guarding may wait until no one is around and then slink into the kitchen to nibble on what's left over. Imagine how stressful that must be.
Resource guarding can also take place at the litter box and in some cases it can be extremely subtle to the human eye. The cat may appear to be lounging in the middle of the hallway that leads to the room where the litter box is located. He may look completely relaxed but in reality he might be guarding the pathway. For the companion cat to get the litter box he would have to challenge the resource guarding cat.
To deal with resource guarding the best method is to offer choice. When a cat has a choice he is less likely to become stressed. In the case of the feeding station, set up food bowls in more than one location. If you've been feeding the cats out of one community bowl, divide up the food into several dishes and spread them out. The resource guarding cat can't be everywhere at once. If the resource guarding was triggered by the cat having to share a bowl with another cat then merely setting out more bowls in the one location may be enough. If the resource guarding is more severe and the victim cat is intimidated being in the same room then set up additional bowls in areas of the house where that cat is more comfortable. It may mean placing bowls on various vertical levels as well. The victim cat may feel more comfortable on an elevated surface as he eats so he can see if an opponent is approaching.
When it comes to a multicat home, even if you have more than one litter box, if they're in the same room you might be setting the cats up for resource guarding. A more subordinate cat may feel too intimidated to enter the higher-ranking cat's area. Place a litter box in another area of the house so one cat doesn't have to challenge another in narrow areas such as hallways.
When it comes to resource guarding, remember the best way to handle it is by offering choice. Never put a cat in a situation where he feels backed in a corner.
For step-by-step help on resource guarding, refer to the book Cat vs. Cat.
Pam Johnson-Bennett is a Certified Animal Behavior Consultant and owner of Cat Behavior Associates, LLC.
NOTE: Behavior problems are case-specific and can have underlying medical problems. If your cat is experiencing a change in behavior, contact your veterinarian. The information in this blog should not be used as a diagnosis or as a substitute for appropriate veterinary care.