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Cat Behavior Question: Why does one cat stand on top of the other?

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Question: “Why does one cat stand on top of the other?”

Joan H. writes, “I have three indoor cats, the more recent two being Siamese mixes whom I rescued. My original, Cosmo (male), will be 12, and is in great shape.  Thomas and Minx (the female) are 5. All the cats get along well. No cuddling, though, but sometimes licks that usually eventually annoy the recipient. Both Siamese have stood on Cosmo when he is resting, at least once each, and I put an immediate stop to it.  He is otherwise not targeted. Is there any explanation to this? 

"Minx had walked across him and he cried out in a pained way as we were settling down to go to sleep. Thomas, a very big boy (and a little bigger than Cosmo) had two front paws standing on him when I went to see why Cosmo was crying in the closet where he likes to sleep (as does Thomas), so that lasted probably for seven seconds.  If I thought Thomas was doing that to hurt him, I'd have clobbered him, but I gave him the benefit of the doubt. Still, I scolded him.

"Once Cosmo was asleep on bean bag pillow, and Minx snuck up on him and bit him (no punctures).  She had done that to him at bedtime.  Cosmo ran off when she did that and hid in the corner.   Both times she got an immediate and very good spanking.  I haven’t seen any of that nonsense since.

"It's especially upsetting because Cosmo accepted them both very graciously when I first took in Minx and Thomas.  Since he's older, I certainly don't want him to suffer at their behalf. Otherwise, they get along very well, and I'm glad that Cosmo has companions to play with. I would say that I give a lot of attention to all three, although whoever occupies my lap gets the lion's share. This is split between Minx and Cosmo, but mostly Minx, 20 times more than Cosmo. I love all three, and think they're especially wonderful cats!  Any suggestions aside from separating them?"  

Amy’s Answer

Joan, I can tell you love your three cats very much. Standing on top of another cat isn’t a common question, so let’s go through the H.I.S.S. Test and see what the behavior means.

H=Health

Sometimes cats target sick cats. They can smell changes in body chemicals, breath, and eliminations that tell them something’s “not right” and they react accordingly. Even when Cosmo looks and acts healthy, there might be a hidden health issue that attracts the other younger, healthier kitties to act pushy toward him.

I=Instinct

Cats reach social maturity at two-to-four years of age. Your two younger cats, in their prime, may feel within their kitty rights to call the shots and claim the prime territory such as a favored sleep spot. In a given territory, one cat rules and calls the shots. The top cat may choose to share, or not. When more than one cat claims the territory, an argument settles the dispute with the victor claiming the spoils and the loser leaving the area—and perhaps pretending he didn’t really want it anyway.

S=Stress

Pretty much any change to a cat’s preferred routine can cause stress.

S=Symptom, Signs & Solutions

From what you describe, it appears that Cosmo no longer is top cat and that Minx has taken that social position. As such, she gets first claim to the best resting spots. In households where the cats get along very well, the “top cat” position may change from room to room, with each kitty giving ground to the “owner” of the property only when s/he appears. Otherwise, the cats time-share and can all use the same favorite bed, for instance—as long as they get out if the “owner” asks.

Cats that don’t give way automatically can choose to fight it out. Cosmo appears to be a peace-loving kitty, and he simply plants his tail and refuses to move. So the other cats use a sort of passive-aggressive technique to purr-suade his cooperation. They lick-lick-lick to annoy and get him to leave. Or they walk across or stand (full weight) on top so it’s uncomfortable so he’ll move. And if none of that works, an inhibited bite does the trick.

Cats Don't Observe "Democracy"

It’s wonderful that Cosmo accepted the pair graciously. Just be aware that in the cat world, there’s no such thing as “fair” or “democracy.” There are some things you can do to ease this situation, and there are things you might do that could make them worse—however well-meaning. We simply must put ourselves in the cat’s paws, and get out of our human head.

Corporeal Punishment Can Backfire

You mention giving Minx a “good spanking.” I’m sure it wasn’t anything meant to hurt but only to discipline her, but please don’t do that again. First, corporeal punishment typically makes the aggressive behavior worse in cats—often they bite you instead! Second, since you in effect kept her from “disciplining” Cosmo in an appropriate cat way, he may have decided he doesn’t have to move—while Minx learned she had to redouble her efforts. As long as the cats do not fight each other, allow the licking, stepping on, pseudo-biting for them to establish their own rules and who gets to sleep in the best spots. Otherwise, the situation may drag on or even get worse.

Second, if the cats have a particular place or type of bed they all prefer, give them additional prime resting spots. Cats tend to prefer elevated perches. You mention a bean bag pillow—can you get more? Place them in different wonderful locations (near windows, top of the TV, etc) so that if Cosmo gets evicted from one, there’s still good places left.

You’re already giving the cats good attention in the petting department. It’s actually fine that you’re giving Minx the lion’s share, as that reinforces her position as the top cat who gets preferred treatment. Just work hard not to send mixed signals by arguing with her choices regarding Cosmo. Once all the cats understand and accept who calls the shots, peace should reign and the standing-on and biting episodes won’t be needed anymore. Good luck!

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