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August 28, 2013 at 4:13 PMComments: 3 Faves: 1

Multi-Cat Home: Understanding (and Keeping Peace!) in the Feline Hierarchy

By Erin Froehlich More Blogs by This AuthorFrom the Feline 101 Blog Series

Just 40 years ago, a group of scientists studying feral cat colonies concluded that the cats’ proximity to one another was just that. They told the general public that each cat acted independently and that grouping happened simply because they were all drawn by the same food and shelter source. The only trouble was that these researchers were looking for the clearer social system dogs followed. Now, scientists are finally confirming what multiple cat owners have known all along:

Cats ARE social creatures. They’ve just got their own way of doing things.

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Establishing Status

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Though “lone wolves” do exist in the feline arena, cats have the same propensity for social cooperation dogs do. Also, similar to dogs, inside every group of coexisting cats, leaders will emerge. Sometimes this process happens almost instantaneously with very little disagreement from the rest of the group – they recognize the “campaigning” cat’s superior leadership qualities and have no desire to take on the responsibility that comes along with that position. Other times, competition ensues. 

It doesn’t matter how equally you attempt to distribute favor among them. Along with a duty to protect and lead, alpha status comes with special cat-granted privileges – more territory, better territory, and first dibs on the food and clean litter boxes. If two or more cats believe they’re the cat best suited to the job, they’ll fight it out both actively through aggression and passively through intimidation until all but one bows down – or forever if it comes to it! If conflicts persist for too long, middle ranking cats may take out their frustrations and attempt to rebuild their confidence by picking on lower ranking cats who are less intimidating to fight –hardly a model of effective teamwork. (Thankfully, as we’ll discuss in a moment, there are ways of curbing these power struggles.)

Yet, despite how it may seem, establishing a social hierarchy benefits cats in a number of ways. A well organized group, where everyone understands and accepts what will and will not be tolerated from them, reduces stress for all and allows cats to move comfortably through their home. In feral cat colonies, having the strongest, most virile cat in charge is the best way to ensure the entire group will be well protected from outsiders.  And there is also the point of kittens - having the strongest genetic specimen produce the most offspring increases the chances that they too will be strong and healthy. 

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Toms and Queens

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Toms: The Muscle: As with lion hierarchy, males from feral colonies tend to be more transient – male kittens move farther from the colony, often leaving the group altogether at maturity. And as they tend to be more active and curious they are, unfortunately, more prone to fatality than female littermates. Perhaps for this reason, in addition to a general size/strength advantage, male cats – even the lowest ranking male cats - are granted a higher ranking than females.

Queens: The Foundation: This isn’t to say however, that females are without power in the colony. Far from it - the women act as the group’s foundation and domestic cat groups are considered matriarchies! Female cats, especially those reared together, form an incredibly strong bond. They’ll den together, act as midwives to each other, will nurse each other’s kittens, and will protect them equally against wandering outsider tom cats who may try to kill the kittens in order to bring the females back into fertility.

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Identifying Social Ranking - Is Your Cat An Alpha Cat?

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While the biggest tom does have an advantage, they may not necessarily be top cat. Ranking among the group is influenced by a variety of factors including personality, rearing, health, and age, as well as sexual and social maturity. Is your cat an alpha? There are a couple signs they might be:

  • Confidence: Surprisingly, it’s not necessarily the most aggressive cat who takes the alpha spot. It’s the most confident. Aggression is just as likely to come from insecure, skittish, or anxious cats that aren’t well suited to lead and protect a group. Alpha cats need to be strong, but they also need to be calm, brave, and clear-thinking.
  • Territory: Though individual territories shift throughout the day, and cats may actually have a higher ranking in certain areas of the home,alpha cats take tend to get take the primo cat spots for themselves – the windowsill by the bird feeder, the box, the spot on top of the bookshelf, the middle of your bed. To keep an eye on things, they also tend to take the highest spots in the room.
  • Personal Space: Two cats enter a room.One stays close to the wall, the other walks directly in the middle. The one in the middle looks at the one near the wall. The one near the wall avoids eye contact. The one in the middle is the alpha. Alpha cats are given more space compared with lower ranking cats.
  • Popularity: Cats rub against each other in order to mix their scents and reinforce their bond as a group. (This behavior makes it easier to identify intruders to the colony. When your cat rubs against you, they’re saying “You belong to me and mine.” And if you’ve been away awhile, say at work, they are more likely to feel it necessary to reinforce this.) The highest ranking cats are the cats that get the most rubs. The lowest ranking cats are the ones that do the most rubbing.
  • Posturing: When status conflicts ensue, alpha cats often use intimidation rather than resorting to an actual fight. For example, they’ll sit directly in the way of the food or litter box, daring the challenging cats to pass them. They’ll may also urine mark areas, stare down challengers, rub them, back away in confrontation ( haha! You smell like ME now! Whatcha gunna do about it?!), and sometimes mouth them.

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Upsets to the Hierarchy

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Feline hierarchies may be resolved, but they aren’t set in stone. Small fluctuations in status happen constantly as events transpire and large status changes can occur for a number of reasons.

  • Health: Illness, old age, or injury in a cat will result in their demotion. If they can regain their health, they may be able to regain their previous status, but the longer it takes, the more difficult that will be.
  • Sexual Maturity: Fertile, virile cats are granted higher status than immature or neutered cats.
  • Social Maturity: Cats reach social maturity or true adulthood around age 2. At this point, their ranking will likely increase.
  • Loss of a Cat: The loss of a cat may open up territory, break up alliances, and lead to the promotion of a lower ranking cat.
  • Introduction of a New Cat: Cats may gain or lose ranking depending on the how confident the new cat is.
  • Increased Confidence in a Cat: It’s entirely possible that over time, with age and experience a cat will become confident enough to move up in ranking.

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Keeping Peace in Your Pride

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Whenever you choose to keep more than one cat in your home, you risk a feline status struggle. And sometimes, especially in cases where the cat spent most of their youth as an only cat, a cat will never truly adapt to being part of a group.  Unfortunately, in large part, the tensions need to be resolved between the cats themselves. They need to come to an agreement and establish a relationship they’re both comfortable with - even if that’s just to stay out of each other’s way. Luckily though, there is plenty you can do to expedite process and improve the outcome.

  • Increase the Territory: The more territory available, the less likely you are to have an issue. The simplest way to improve the feline to territory sq. ft. ratio? Think vertical. Cat trees, window perches, and cat access stairs and shelves are all great options that can look quite stylish and add a friendly sense of whimsy to your home while making your kitties happy.
  • Provide Private Spaces: Give cats a chance to avoid confrontation by offering private hiding spaces throughout the house. Dusters on beds, tablecloths on tables, and curtains on windows are all simple, non invasive ways to create safe cat spaces. Boxes can be placed in spaces without good hiding spots nearby, and tunnels offer both privacy and entertainment for cats.
  • Get More Food Bowls and Litter Boxes: As discussed, competing cats will often block access to the food bowls or litter boxes to intimidate each other. You can make it more difficult for them to do so and ensure no cat is being denied their meal or chance to relieve themselves by placing food bowls and litter boxes in different parts of your home. There should be a litter box for every cat you own and at least two food and water bowls for every four – but more is better.
  • Go Slow with Introductions: The best treatment for dueling felines is actually prevention. Though it’s tempting to introduce cats to new family members right away, the slower and more gradually you can do it, the better for future relationships between them. Let cats have their own sanctuary where new cats are not visible, and start by introducing them to the smell of the others on a sock (which you've rubbed on the new cat) several times a day. Once they seem comfortable (no signs of fear or aggression) with that - probably in a day or so - let them exchange spaces several times a day until they seem comfortable. Next comes small periods of time in the same neutral room for a meal on opposite ends of the room while you gauge for issues and distract with toys or treats if tensions arise. If issues arise at any step in this process, go back a step. The entire process can takes days, weeks - even months in some cases - until cats are completely at ease in each other’s presence, but the effort is well worth it.
  • Engage Cats in Group Play: As feline behaviorist Pam Johnson-Bennett says “You have to give cats a reason to like each other.” You need to build positive associations with the presence of the other cats in the house. One of the best ways to do this is through group play, but once again, start slow.  Let the new cat see the established cat at ease and having fun playing with a toy or laser pointer. Give the established cat a treat before switching off to the new cat and letting them have a turn. Once they both seem comfortable with this arrangement, you can start to encourage play in closer and closer proximity to each other. As with initial introductions, if a problem arises, go back a step. If you own several cats, start by introducing the new cat to just the friendliest of the bunch, until they are both comfortable. Then just the new cat and the next friendliest cat. Give the new cat a chance to get comfortable with established cats one at a time. All at once is too intimidating to start out with.
  • Correct Inappropriate Behavior: Cats aren’t humans and they deal with things differently than we would. However, while understanding this is important, you shouldn’t allow one cat to abuse another. If you see intimidation happening, don’t shout or attempt to punish the cat doing the intimidating, but don’t allow it either. If a fight breaks out, don’t get in the middle, but don’t just let it play out either. Get a broom or pillow or other object you can safely place between them without getting too close, and use it to break them up. Once they’re safely separated, remove the offender from the room first. If you do otherwise and remove the victim first, the aggressor may lunge and end up hurting you and the victim as you intervene. (Because of the bacteria in their saliva, cat bites are very serious. Seek immediate medical attention if you are bitten!)
  • Manage Stress: Avoid unnecessary stress by sticking to a routine and easing cats into any necessary changes like new roommates, family members, pets, and homes.
  • Respect The Hierarchy: You needn’t favor one cat over any other, and you shouldn’t allow alphas to abuse lower ranking cats, but you can avoid provoking anger and aggression toward lower-ranking cats by addressing and feeding higher-ranking cats first.

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How many cats do you have at home?

Do they live harmoniously?

Can you tell which cat is the alpha?

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Sources:

Johnson-Bennett, Pam. Cat vs. Cat: Keeping Peace When You Have More than One Cat. New York: Penguin, 2004

Catster: Do Cat Families have a Hierarchical Structure? 

Perfect Paws: Cat Social Behavior

Messy Beast: The Unsociable Cat – Are Cats Really Unsociable?

More from Erin Froehlich Others Are Reading

3 Comments

  • I'd love to know what introduction of a new *dog* does to the social hierarchy of a group of cats. A friend of mine with a dog and three cats is currently fostering a second dog now, and that seems to have really switched things up.

  • It is not that clear cut always. I had 3 cats, and the undisputed leader was a small, spayed, declawed, one-eyed girl who'd lost most of her teeth to an infection. When she passed away, the other 2 cats started squabbling. They decided to co-exist now, with the odd swatting match. Obviously cats have different ideas about who is leadership material.
    Dogs will often incorporate cats into their pack, though not always in obvious ways. Heard of a family with 3 dogs and 1 elderly cat. All was peaceful - until the cat died. Then the dogs started fighting each other. The vet thought the dogs saw the cat as the alpha, and when she was gone started to argue over the leadership. The people got another cat used to dogs, and peace returned. Pets always make things interesting.

  • I have 10 indoor cats, and they all live harmoniously. I cant tell who is the alpha cat since they get along very well. However, there is a lone cat, who will squat whichever cat gets near her, and all the cats will sneak up and jump her too.

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