Achieving Peace in a Bully Cat Household

For the past two years, I’ve been blessed with two furry little monsters named Sylvester and Shelly. Sylvester is an active (somewhat crazy), 15-month-old tuxedo male, and Shelly is a gorgeous, 2-year-old tortoiseshell female. The two of them prowl and pounce around my and my boyfriend’s Southern California condo constantly. They add a bright sweetness to our home that wouldn’t exist without their presence, and I can’t imagine the place without them.

But it wasn’t always this great.

Once upon a time, Sylvester was a vicious bully. He consistently attacked Shelly and boxed her out of the bedroom, litter box, food area, you name it. The little guy was sweet as can be with the humans of the household, but when it came to Shelly, he was relentless. Every toy had to be his. Every resource had to be controlled by him. The conflict made both my boyfriend and I feel terrible, as Sylvester was the new kitten we got as a companion for Shelly. He was supposed to make Shelly’s life happier, and he was turning it into a nightmare for her.

Sylvester as a kitten and Shelly on the right. How could this cute little kitten be such a bully?

Poor Shelly kept looking at us with a depressed glance, upset at times, and frequently hiding anywhere she could in order to avoid him. The stress of the situation was tenable, and became a source of stress for us every day when we returned home from work. So we found ourselves desperate to solve this issue. I searched online for answers, and found a wide range of possible approaches that I applied like a mad scientist. This article is a summary of all of those efforts and what worked.

So how do you stop a bullying cat from behaving negatively?

It’s not like they’re dogs. They have a much more complex (and potentially frustrating) psychological mindset; which is certainly not an insult to pooches- I many times wished for more straight-forward pet behavior with a clear alpha dominance structure that’s consistent. Cats are not consistent in the same way that dogs are; and unfortunately, each one is entirely unique.

Is Health an Issue?

The first step is to ensure that the problem isn’t medical. Cats will many times let you know that they’re sick or in pain in very strange ways. They have an almost impossible pain tolerance; can purr when they’re scared or nervous or lash out unexpectedly in response to stimuli they can’t explain to you and you can’t see. Therefore, if your cat is acting up, the first step is to take them to the vet. Get them checked out, and talk to the vet about the issues you’re experiencing at home. A second eye is a valuable thing when you’re trying to discern from animal behavior. Once that’s complete, and if the doc issued a clean bill of health, you can move on to the next stage.

Were the Cats Just Introduced?

Did they just meet, or is this new behavior? These questions are critically important, because they speak to the source of the problem. Either the environment is brand new for the bully, and he’s establishing his position in the household, or something changed in his environment that was normally peaceful and now is not.

If the bully cat just arrived, your goal is to help them feel that there is not a shortage of resources. Often times, cat comfort is defined in terms of available resources. Food, toys, outdoor or sunlight access, litter box access, human attention… heck, even the location where they sleep near humans can be considered a resource. A new bully cat, as it was in Sylvester’s case, will position himself close to resources and try to entirely dominate them, keeping other pets in the household away. You can recognize this behavior by their laying in the middle of the floor between the entrance of the room and a given resource, such as the litter box or food bowl. When the other pet attempts to pass, they harass and attack their innocent sibling. If not checked, the bullied may go without food or water for long periods of time or take on an excessive amount of physical and mental stress, so it’s really important to dedicate your attention to monitoring the situation and stopping it when it occurs.

Note that you should not physically hit the bullying cat because cats do not understand physical reprimands. They will only become more aggressive and possibly aggressive with you in turn, causing more challenges than you started with. Should your bully cat be boxing out another pet, simply pick them up and move them to another location, distracting them with a toy or change in environment. If the aggression is strong, separating the cat into another room for a timeout may be in order.

Sylvester liked to swat at Shelly, jump on her back and bite her until she ran under the bed, couch or closet to get away from him. He acted this way because he wasn’t yet secure in knowing that the food would not run out, the litter box would be cleaned regularly, and plenty of toys and attention would be consistently available to him.

In order to make these facts clear, we placed several bowls of water around the house and refilled them daily, we bought two litter boxes to be placed in separate rooms and cleaned them daily, and we free fed them dry food in multiple bowls, in several locations. Many feline experts argue against free feeding. I get it, but for the purposes of stopping a bullying cat, you are effectively taking away a major drive to bullying by making the food extremely accessible, and my argument is that the health effects to free feeding are much less severe than stress and constant discomfort from fighting.

In the case of cats that suddenly change and shift to bullying behavior, a major key is to analyze the environment. Has anything recently changed in the household? Are you doing remodeling, and a room in which they normally play has been shut off to them, requiring them to find a new space to play otherwise occupied by another cat or dog? Have you taken up a new hobby or started working late for a project, taking up time that the cat normally had with you? Remember: YOU are considered a resource as well. Contrary to popular opinion, cats are very social animals, and if they are used to human interaction, the loss of the attention resource can result in bullying behavior.

Partial Solutions on the Pathway to Peace

Shelly and Sylvester now, playing together. Being patient, making sure that resources are abundant and building positive associations will build trust.

The key here is to analyze their environment, see if anything has changed, and address anything that might be making them feel that a resource is scarce and should be fought for. While you illustrate that the resources in your household are abundant and consistently occurring, you can also build a positive association with the other animals in the household.

If the issue is with another cat, every day or night at a specific time, call the cats to a common location near other resources (like a chair near their food bowls) by shaking a bag of cat treats or whatever you typically do to reward them. Providing them with a reward each day or night near each other’s scent establishes a positive association. This can help them to get along better.

If the challenge happens between the cat and a dog, try giving the cat their treat with the dog in the room and/or in a space the dog typically resides. The same scent association can work well here.

I can’t stress the importance of Feliway as well. They sell a plug-in that emits peaceful cat pheromones that effectively tell cats that a given location in the home is safe. Sylvester relaxed and stopped a lot of his tyrant behavior after I started using it in the bedroom.

Patience is the Key

Overall, patience is the name of the game here. Different cats act differently and changes in behavior take time. Remember that they are not doing these things out of spite or malice, although it’s hard not to get angry when you see another pet taking abuse at the hands of the bully. Rather, they are acting on their instinct to secure their environment and resources, so try to think about those resources and how to change the bully mindset to security.

If one approach doesn’t seem to be working, take a moment and revisit analyzing the environment. Sometimes cats are like children. It takes a little time for them to accept new animals or situations they don’t like and they will throw a temper tantrum prior to acceptance.

Over time, and with your efforts, the bully cat will cease their reign of terror, and settle into a comfortable balance in the household. Don’t lose hope! I remember multiple discussions late night where my boyfriend worried that the house would always be a war zone. We now walk in on cuddle sessions between the cats on the bed and playful pouncing throughout the house. With a little patience and thoughtful analysis, you can create a wonderful environment for your furry friends as well.