Imagine being locked in your house with a bully. And every time you try to enter the bathroom, the meanie blocks your way.

Sound stressful?

According to a recent presentation given at the North American Veterinary Conference, that’s exactly what can happen between cats in a household — and why some kitties may spurn the litterbox.

Feline Social Structure and Bathroom Behavior

While we’d like to think that our cats are all part of one big, happy family, recent research shows that they may actually form social groups, preferring the company of some cats and avoiding others entirely.

Because of these social groups, some cats may have greater access to litterboxes and food, while others are intimidated into staying within a limited territory. If that area doesn’t include a litterbox, a cat may have no choice but to deposit urine and stools there.

In some cases, aggression between cats can be obvious, evidenced by overt fighting, hissing, growling or biting. The dominant cat usually stands upright, with his tail raised and his ears up and rotated to the side. This cat will typically stare at the other feline and advance toward him, while the submissive cat will usually crouch, hold his ears down and avoid eye contact.

Some aggression can be even subtler: One cat may simply stare at the other cat or block access to food, a litterbox or an area of the house. This may cause the victimized cat to feel fear and anxiety, which can lead to hiding, loss of appetite and disinterest in grooming.

Of course, before you assume that bullying is the cause of your cat’s toilet indiscretions, it’s important that your veterinarian examine your kitty to rule out any medical causes. Your vet can also discuss ways that you can improve litterbox use, including changing the type of litter you buy, cleaning out the box more often and increasing the total number of litterboxes in your home.

How to Combat Litterbox Bullying

So what should you do if your cat has no underlying medical conditions and you suspect that there may be some bullying going on in your house?

Take the time to watch how your cats interact, identifying which felines tend to snuggle up and groom each other and which ones are happier on their own. Pay special attention to cats who have the run of the house versus those who limit themselves to a few rooms or a single floor.

Then take steps to restore some peace and harmony.

Make sure that you have at least one litterbox per cat. And add another one for good measure. If one cat tends to stay in a limited area of the house, place a litterbox within that space. Boxes should be distributed throughout the house, rather than clustered in one area.

When two cats who don’t get along are in the same room, offer catnip or other delectable treats. This will allow the cats to associate being together with a positive experience. Feed them some distance apart, and then gradually decrease the distance each time you present them with a treat.

Give cats who don’t get along a rest period. This is best accomplished by segregating them to different parts of the house and equipping each cat with his own litterbox, food and water.

If your cats have a stare-down, block their line of vision with a pillow. Do not try to separate them with your hands.

Consider calming aids. Synthetic pheromones, available in sprays or diffusers, can have a positive effect on some cats.

If one cat appears to be afraid of your other feline, he may need a safe room of his own. And make sure that space has a litterbox, food and water. Keep the door open enough for other cats to come by for a friendly sniff but not wide enough for a fight to ensue.

Take time to play with high-energy cats. This way, they may be less likely to bother older, more solitary felines.

Discourage other cats from coming into your yard. A neighborhood cat could inspire redirected aggression among your otherwise friendly felines. If an indoor cat sees an outdoor cat and becomes excited, he may take it out on an unsuspecting feline who happens to be nearby. Consider using cat deterrents, such as motion detectors linked to sprinklers, or simply block your own cats’ access to windows.

If all else fails, seek help. Ask an animal behaviorist to visit your house, or consult with your veterinarian to see if behavior medications are necessary.

With a little patience and effort on your behalf, you can help your cats become more comfortable with one another — and, let’s hope, resolve your litterbox problems once and for all.

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