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[Feline 101] Multi-Cat Home: Understanding (and Keeping Peace!) in the Feline Hierarchy

By — One of many Cat Breeds blogs on SmartLivingNetwork.com

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:

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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.

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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.

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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?


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