Preventing Basement Cat

Danneq

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I'm struggling to figure out what's going on with my cats and am hoping for some suggestions. Trying to keep things short and succinct, because if I ramble it'll just get confusing.

1) Jackie and Julie are constantly are a pair of sisters from the same litter, and they're always vying for dominance. Sometimes Jackie comes out on top for a little while, but mostly it's Julie who is top cat. They are both spayed. They are nine years old.

2) Several months ago, Jackie started spending most of her time in our basement. It's an unfinished basement, it's dark even with the lights on, it smells musty, etc. Theory: Julie is bullying her sister into staying downstairs. We've seen behavior to suggest this, such as Julie standing on the stairs with her body language clearly forbidding Jackie to come upstairs. Never violent, but Jackie never tries to pass her. Jackie has stopped hanging out on her cat tree (where Julie doesn't usually go, but I don't know why Jackie stopped using it) and she's abandoned all of her upstairs sleeping places. If we carry her upstairs, she usually stays, at least for a while.

3) Starting a few weeks ago, Jackie has been very restless. She is usually indifferent to going outside (we take them out on harnesses) and but she's started hanging out by the doors, yelling, etc. She has also become less cuddly. She's usually a cuddlebug, and she doesn't not want cuddles now, but she'll hop up on my lap and sit there for ten minutes instead of four hours. I do not know if this is connected to #2.

She just seems unhappy and I do not know why.

Thoughts:

1) We're keeping a record to discuss with her vet, but I'm not terribly hopeful. Our vet is good for physical stuff but not with behavioral stuff. But if it's a medical thing, she'll likely find it.

2) We have tried to give Jackie a confidence boost by feeding her first. This is problematic because the one area where Jackie is dominant is with food. She will wolf down her food and then go shove Julie away from hers. Julie is a finicky eater and we worry about her weight, so we try not to let Jackie steal Julie's food, but that removes Jackie's one area where she can push back.

3) We cannot try site swapping. Their litter boxes are downstairs and I do not have any control over that (it's not my house) and there's only one entrance to the basement. To isolate one of them from each other would mean that one of them wouldn't have access to a litterbox.

4) Someone suggested that Jackie might spend more time upstairs if I let her sleep in my room at night. She's very attached to me, more than anyone else in the house (it's mutual) but my bed isn't very big and I move around in my sleep. I worry that I could kick her, squish her, or shove her off the bed.

5) Despite it all, Jackie is very attached to Julie. I've thought about moving out and taking Jackie with me, but I honestly think it would hurt her to have her sister suddenly gone from her life.

And that's it. We're kind of at a loss. I do not want Jackie to feel like she's only "allowed" to be in the basement. I miss my cuddlebug and I want to help her (without hurting Julie, obviously). I just don't know how.
 

felinelover2

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Aw, I totally feel for you and Jackie (and Julie). I have two litter mates (brother and sister) and when we brought them home the rescue told us she was alpha but it would maybe change over time. A few months later, She is still mostly alpha but He definitely challenges her for dominance lately. I let them work it out unless there is blood drawn in a 'play' fight.

I would say of Jackie wanted to, she would blow past Julie, if healthy. I would consider a vet appointment, as you mention Jackie's cuddling behavior changed, and that would warrant a vet check, I think.

Otherwise, if all else is fine, I would just try to play more with Jackie to build her kitty confidence, but otherwise doesn't sound like Julie is really a bully or doing anything wrong. Jackie just need some confidence to stand up to her sister. Siblings 😀
 

ArtNJ

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What does "constantly vying for dominance" actually mean? Is there fighting? Growling or hissing?
 
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Danneq

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Mostly a lot of play fighting, occasionally with hissing. It usually starts out with them trying to groom each other's face. One will reach her paws up to hold the other one still and it devolves from there. You can separate them very easily by reaching between them, picking one up, or sometimes even just walking toward them. Usually we let this be; vet says it's best to just let them work things out.

Sometimes it's a completely silent thing. They stare each other down and try to make themselves look bigger until one of them relents and rolls over.

If Jackie is somewhere she's not "supposed" to be (eg a certain chair) Julie just sits and stares at her and Jackie leaves after a few minutes.
 

ArtNJ

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Doesn't sound much like bullying to me. Sounds like both are fairly playful for 9 year old cats, but something is going on with Jackie. It could be that at 9, she no longer has the energy for this kind of frequent playing and doesn't enjoy it like she once did, so she is looking to avoid triggering rough play by backing off. How are you set for with high spaces where she could retreat too? High spaces tend to make cats feel more secure. A really tall scratching post or a cleared off fireplace mantle might lead to her spending more time up stairs again.

I think it will be great if your vet rules out medical issues, because what is going on doesn't seem that serious to me if medical is ruled out. Many 9 year olds don't want to play at all, and it doesn't seem out of the ordinary to me that when you have a pair that is becoming mismatched on activity level, some tension and stress rears its head. But Jackie could also have something going on like some arthritis or something that is making her more reluctant to get into it with Julie. So the vet is an important step.
 
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Danneq

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True, I'm probably anthropomorphizing the "bullying" a little.

The house is dreadful for high spaces, and yeah, Jackie loves them while Julie tends to prefer lower down. I have advocated installing some cat shelves but, like I said, it's not my house. I'll try harder but I'm not hopeful on that front.

I hadn't considered age as a possibility but now that I think of it, we had another cat with arthritis diagnosed about that age. I'm really hoping the vet will have a nice, non-scary answer.

I will try playing with Jackie when she seems restless to see if that helps. If it doesn't then lower energy levels would seem likely. Either way it's a data point.
 

felinelover2

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I like ArtNJ's suggestion of building up some high places for Jackie, and also getting her checked out at the vet.
 

felinelover2

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Hm, if shelves are a no some cat trees may work? Or the top of some existing furniture (like a bookshelf). If there are windows, you can try the suction cup window perches too.
 
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Danneq

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Followup:

Vet trip went fine, no problems. Bloodwork is clean. But! Her ears were apparently really dirty! They cleaned them out and she is acting much more herself lately. The restlessness and loud meowing is gone. Conclusion is that it was affecting her hearing and that that is why she was acting strangely.

We do still have a problem with her spending too much time in the basement, which was a problem that preceded the restlessness that had concerned me so much. I'm going to focus on carrying her upstairs (to break the habit) and playing with her (to up her confidence). I am much less worried than I was before.
 
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