By Jackson Galaxy

Michael, Patty, their toddler Pandora, and most of all, their cat Tess, had a big problem*.

As Pandora was becoming more and more mobile, Tess was getting increasingly irritated. The problem culminated a few days before they called me, when Tess took a swipe at Pandora and broke the skin near her eye.

Michael was in a true panic, since Tess had already been surrendered to the local shelter for her behavior, where she promptly turned absolutely wild. When Michael learned that Tess was to be euthanized, he immediately picked her up, brought her home, and isolated her in a room until I could come over to work on the problem. We had a compounding problem; Patty was away on a business trip and had no idea that Tess was back in the house. She was understandably very upset after the incident, and had insisted that Tess be re-homed. We had to come up with an acceptable plan of action—and quick!

After observing Tess’s body language, her favored lounging places, and the changes in her when Pandora was in the room, the problem became evident. Tess was a classic dominant cat. I was amused that, as I entered the house, Tess forced me to step over her resting body to get to the living area. She would follow all the action, and promptly plop down in the very center of it. Tess patrolled her territory fiercely, and to illustrate the problem graphically, she is a big cat–a Maine Coon mix with typical Coon mass!

When Pandora toddled across the room, she headed right towards Tess, creating a wobbly line down the center of the room, half walking, and falling down every few steps. Tess’ s increasing irritation was clear in her swishing tail, her ear flicks, etc. I had Michael pull Pandora away at one point when I felt her safety was in jeopardy.

My assessment of the main problem was that Tess was treating Pandora like another cat in the social ladder—one a few rungs below her. In many cases, one of the ways an alpha cat and a struggling underling can call a truce is by how they enter a room; the alpha will occupy the middle, forcing the other cat to stick to the walls. This is a way the under-cat can acquiesce territory in a peaceful way.

Of course, Pandora doesn’t speak feline, let alone human at this point. There’s no way she will understand the hints Tess threw in her direction. If Tess swatted at another cat sitting idly in the middle of the room, it would more than likely abdicate the position, and learn a lesson that Tess is the guardian and queen of the meaty part of the room. Instead, Pandora cries, and her parents, again understandably, reprimand and isolate Tess. All this does is increase her territorial frustration and point to further escalation of tensions.

We used two tactics to resolve this situation. Frustration had to be addressed, as did territory itself. The first plan was simple enough. It was Play Therapy, as usual, to the rescue. Michael and Patty first had to become adept at reading Tess’s body language. Using the example of “cat as energetic balloon,” I explained that she was storing energy for hunting during her rest, but that without a more acceptable outlet, Pandora had become an unacceptable victim. Also, Tess had more than likely adapted her body clock to mimic Pandora’s most active times, since the family hubbub revolved around the baby now.

As inconvenient as it is to take care of a young child and simultaneously play with the cat, that is the only solution I know that helps everyone. The special toy would become the “acceptable victim,” and the cat would come to know that Pandora waking wouldn’t be a time of increasing frustration but one of pleasurable release and praise. (For more information see our article on “Play Therapy.”)

For the second part of our plan, we had to expand Tess’s notion of what her territory was—at a safe distance from Pandora so they could eventually co-exist in the same room. My solution was cat shelving. This can be used in any circumstance, in any apartment or house, to help solve territorial problems—be they between animals in the home or, as in this case, between Pandora and Tess. This home was also ideal, with cathedral ceilings and a large beam bisecting the living room. This also works well because, as anyone with a baby can attest, the whole house becomes littered with baby things—changing tables, playpens, oversized toys—that can impede a cat’s escape from a situation, and will inevitably lead to confrontation when they feel cornered.

We walked around the living room and exchanged ideas about how to create a second territorial space just for Tess. Remember, by putting up shelving, or even buying condos, stretching 2×4’s between them, or any other inventive solution you may come up with, you are literally doubling the cat’s sense of territory. In Tess’s case, being one that always has to be aware of the goings-on with the family, it gives her a regal perch to oversee everyone and everything.

The following pictures illustrate how great shelves can be—and how aesthetically unobtrusive, as well. Fortunately, Michael is one handy guy. He was in the midst of finishing his basement single-handedly. This set-up took shape in just 2 days, and was refined as Tess let them know if the jump from one shelf to another was too much. Michael said he found nice sturdy mounting braces and bought some ready-to-use 8″ shelf board to speed up the process. He also added some runner carpet for traction and comfort.

For those of us who can’t be trusted with a screwdriver, don’t be shy to hire someone. It’s not much money in material and labor to provide such a wonderfully cat-friendly environment. You can also buy pre-made shelves and wonderful corner units at, or at least get some good ideas to give your handy person.

To maximize the chances of success and reduce Tess’s overall territorial issues, we also employed our Spirit Essences remedy made especially for territorial disputes and frustration called “Safe Space for Cats.” (You can read more about Safe Space here.)

A month after my visit, Michael reports that Tess loves her shelves, and there have been no reported squabbles with Pandora. He did say, however, that if they skip even one day of play therapy, he notices an increase in Tess’ grouchiness from her body language, especially around the baby. I’m really proud of this family; they’ve shown that commitment and consistency can make for a peaceable kingdom. We’re pleased to share these wonderful illustrations, and hopefully we’ll inspire all the other cat guardians out there. Thanks, guys, for all you’re doing for your cat and your child!

* Names have been changed for privacy.