As a self-confessed cat fanatic, it may not be surprising that I find the social structure of cats to be fascinating; but these complex and dynamic relationships are hugely important to understand. Cats are territorial, predatory and often solitary, but they can also be social and affiliative. They can live harmoniously in groups, with a social structure that is far more collaborative than a dominance hierarchy. But they also have individual relationships which can be antagonistic as well as friendly. Understanding the dynamics of a group of cats is highly relevant for our modern day living, where owners often have more than one cat.
Table of contents
In the beginning
Our domestic cats (Felis catus) belong to the Felidae family, which is composed of many different cat species. Many of these are generally solitary animals, hunting alone and not known to live harmoniously in groups. Lions are the exception – and the domestic cat may be added to this small list too. The social structure of both feral and domestic cats is fascinating – and complex – with their strange mix of solitary hunting but social living. Domestication has led to many adaptations in the cat, and navigating social groupings in multi-cat homes is particularly relevant for our modern-day pets.
Although cats can live in a solitary fashion, research shows that feral cats form small colonies (groups) where there is enough food and other resources.1 These are matrilinear groups, composed of related queens and their kittens; and their size is determined by the amount of food available.2 There are close, bonded relationships formed within the group, shown by co-operative parenting, as well as social behaviours such as grooming each other (allogrooming), rubbing against each other (allorubbing) and sleeping together (pillowing). These groups seem to work best in areas where there is plenty of food, and the colony members are familiar to each other and engage in social behaviours. Cats can recognise familiar cats, and may react aggressively to unfamiliar cats from outside the group.1
Cats can form strong bonds with other individuals. This is most common between a mother and kittens, or between littermates. In colony groups, kittens will suckle from other nursing queens apart from their mother. And play with kittens from other litters, helping to strengthen colony bonds.1 However, cats in colonies continue to be solitary hunters, and therefore do not form a ‘pack’.3 There is no linear hierarchy (a social structure with a clear ranking system from dominant to subordinate), rather, a structure of entwined social bonds, with cats showing friendly behaviour to some colony members and ignoring others.
Males do not tend to be found within these cat colonies, instead existing on the edges of numerous female colonies. They often have wide-ranging territories and can roam far for both food and mates. Adult males can display aggressive behaviour towards other males, especially when in the presence of a female cat in heat. But can also display friendly behaviours such as rubbing and grooming towards other adults.
As is common with predatory animals, cats are highly territorial. These territories are split into a ‘core’ area, where they eat, sleep and play, and a ‘peripheral’ or ‘hunting’ area where they will search for food.2 Territories are marked using a complex series of scent signals, involving pheromones from facial glands, urine, faeces and anal glands. This scent communication minimises direct contact between cats – and therefore conflict.1
Cats do not show a ‘dominance hierarchy’, in that they do not have a ranking order of individuals. However, they do form a structure of interactions between cats.3 Relationships between cats can be complex, and multiple factors come into play when establishing social boundaries. Within group living, cats will have friendly interactions with some members of the colony, and some cats that they do not socially engage with. In any group of cats, there will be a range of interactions, and some individuals will appear more ‘dominant’ than others. In wild colonies, this may be shown by a cat having preferred access to resources, or by the acquisition of territory.
The domestic setting
Understanding cat social structure is important when dealing with our domestic cats. Multi-cat households can have complex social structures. There is both the potential for multiple cats to exist in the same household without any social bonds, or for there to be a few small social groups formed.
Domestic groups are usually manufactured by humans: unknown individuals placed together in a home environment with no blood relationship or familiarity, with unrelated males and females of different ages often mixed together. This can be challenging for cats, who tend to react negatively to unfamiliar individuals due to their territorial natures.1 There is also often competition for food and resources, with perhaps a shared feeding area or only one litter tray. With the potential for friendly social groups to be formed, there is also the potential for antagonistic behaviours – both in and outside the home. Cats within a geographical neighbourhood may clash over territorial disputes, and cats within a home may have conflict over resources.
In homes with multiple cats, there may be a ‘bully’ cat, who may show antagonistic or aggressive behaviours to others. Examples include blocking access to resources such as food or litter trays, pouncing on a sleeping cat, staring or pursuing and taking over preferred resting areas. These cats are often seen as dominant, but the relationship between multiple cats is more complicated than a simple linear system. Some of these tensions can be resolved by providing extra resources in multiple areas, allowing each cat to have enough of what they need within a particular area. Some cats, however, seem to be incompatible despite every allowance.
Cats do not have ‘dominance hierarchies’, but they can live socially in groups. These colonies tend to be matrilineal, made up of groups of related females and their kittens. Cats are territorial, and hunt alone, so introducing new cats can be difficult. Cats may give off the appearance of being dominant by the level of friendly or unfriendly interactions, but their social structure is actually much more complex than a simple linear scale.
- Crowell-Davis, S., Curtis, T. & Knowles, R. (2004) ‘Social organization in the cat: a modern understanding’ Journal of Feline Medicine & Surgery 6 pp.19-28
- Macdonald, D.W., Yamaguchi, N., Kerby, G., 2000. Group-living in the domestic cat: its sociobiology and epidemiology, in: Turner, D.C., Bateson, P. (Eds.), The Domestic cat: the Biology of its Behaviour, second ed. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, pp. 95–118
- Crowell-Davis, S.L. (2002) Social behaviour, communication and development of behaviour in cats. In Horwitz, D.F., Mills, D.S. and Heath, S. (eds.). BSAVA Manual of Canine and Feline Behavioural Medicine, British Small Animal Veterinary Association, pp. 21-29