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Cats primarily rely on scent. It's not only the main way they communicate with other cats, but it also helps them understand and navigate their environment. Everything from where food is to where predators and competitor cats may be, starts at the nose.
In a multi-cat household, cats who are familiar, affiliated, and friendly with one another share a group scent, meaning they smell like one another. Behaviors such as rubbing up against one another, grooming each other, or even curling up together to nap all help create and maintain a group scent and increase bonding between cats.
Multi-cat homes without an established group scent are breeding grounds for turmoil. Without a group scent, your chances of having a smooth running and stress-free environment for your cats is slim. In a worst case scenario, cats who lack a group scent will not feel like part of the same group, resulting in varying degrees of tension and hostility. At its best, cats who lack a group scent won't fight, but they will merely coexist in the same household, avoiding each other and keeping their distance.
In both feral colonies and multi-cat households, we often see what cat behaviorists refer to as a "social facilitator" cat. This cat routinely grooms and rubs up against other cats, carrying each cat's individual scent to the rest. By mixing the scents of all the cats, the social facilitator is creating the important group scent, and aids positive social behavior between cats. If the social facilitator is removed, dies, or becomes ill, the group scent will be lost -- and you can expect tension and fighting to erupt between your cats.
Without thinking about it, cat owners sometimes act like social facilitators by brushing all of their cats with the same brush. As long as your cats enjoy being brushed and don’t become upset when smelling a brush that contains another cat’s scent, it’s a great way to create the social glue in your multi-cat household. If you haven’t been doing this already, but would like to give it a try, it’s easy and only takes a few minutes a day.
Before brushing, be sure to let your cat sniff the brush that has the opposing cat’s scent on it and pay attention to her response. If you are met with a negative response, such as hissing or pulling away, do not brush her. Instead, pair the scented brush with cat food or treats to build positive associations with the other cats’ scents for several days or until she has no negative response. When the response is positive or neutral to the brush, proceed with brushing.
To create a group scent, brush your cats in the areas they would groom and rub up against each other, such as the head, neck, shoulders, and sides along the rib cage. For this technique, avoid the back legs and tail, as less friendly scents are located in these regions. Brush each cat twice per day, 4-10 strokes for each cat per session. Rotate the brushing order of cats each time. To help keep things positive, try brushing her while she is happily eating food or cat treats, or distracted by a toy.
This technique is a great way to help cats get along better when it is done daily and in a positive way. In hundreds of cases I’ve dealt with, I’ve seen formally un-bonded cats eventually begin to groom and rub up against each other (instead of avoiding each other or fighting) after the group scent is created. Perhaps you will eventually have a social facilitator cat or your cats will begin to create a group scent on their own. If not, have no fear. You can step in as the facilitator (the couriers and diplomats of the cat world) and create the group scent, easing your home into a happier and healthier space for cats.
Who is Mieshelle Nagelschneider?
Meet Mieshelle Nagelschneider, ACCBC, a cat behaviorist and author of the science-based cat behavior book, The Cat Whisperer (Random House Publishing). Her passion and curiosity about cats, along with her study in animal behavior, has enabled her to help thousands of cat owners solve their cats' behavior issues for over two decades.
Learn more at The Cat Behavior Clinic!