Do Cat Families Have a Pack Order?

By Julia Williams

Is there such a thing as an “Alpha Cat” in a multi-cat home? And do the cats fight for dominance, to be the pack leader? Is there “pack behavior” or a “hierarchal structure” in a group of cats who live together?

I used to believe the answer to all of those questions was a resounding no. Many people still do. There are plenty of people who are adamant that cats are not social creatures, and that there’s no such thing as an Alpha Cat or a pecking order among felines. They maintain that only dogs and wolves form packs and defer to the pack leader.

While it is true that felines are not “pack animals” per se, many cat owners (myself included) will tell you that in their own household it does seem like the resident cats actually do establish a pecking order. Perhaps not every feline family forms a hierarchy, but some do. Not in the same way that wolves and dogs do, but in a uniquely feline way.

As I said above, I always found the notion of an Alpha Cat improbable. What changed my mind was that I read what other cat-knowledgeable people said about it, and then I began to consciously observe my own cat family to see if what they said held water. Truth be told, I was surprised by what I saw when I actually studied the behaviors of my cat family.

Cats have been an integral part of my life ever since I was a young girl. It’s kind of funny to me now, that in all those years I never really saw certain behaviors. However, I’m certain it’s not because the behaviors weren’t there, but that I just wasn’t paying attention. When I began to really look at how my cats interacted with each other, I saw their relationships in an entirely different light.

I know who is the Alpha Cat, who is second in command, and who is the “low cat on the totem pole” here. It’s quite clear, actually, and it astounds me that I didn’t see this sooner. By the way, this only applies to the cats themselves and not to me. Dogs can be trained to see the human as their pack leader, but cats? Not so much. They see me as the TidNips treat dispenser and the one who keeps the bowls of FELIDAE cat food coming. They also see me as someone they can manipulate into letting them do pretty much whatever they want. But I will never be their pack leader, and I’m not even in their pecking order. I take that back – I am probably lower than the low cat on the totem pole!! LOL.

The naysayers of pack hierarchy in cats purport that “a dominant cat will not take food away from a subordinate cat.” But in my home, they do! Rocky, the Alpha Cat, gulps his food at an alarming rate and then pushes Mickey away from his bowl. Mickey defers to Rocky, and pushes Belle away from her bowl. Belle slinks away. This would happen every single day if I didn’t stand guard while they eat.

I’ve also watched various displays of dominance and submission play out in my cat family. I’ve seen Mickey challenge Rocky’s Alpha Cat status unsuccessfully and immediately go pick on Belle until she runs to her “safe spot” under the cabinet where he can’t get to her. Rocky intimidates Mickey, who then intimidates Belle.

I also know that Belle keeps to herself in the bedroom or keeps me company in my office, while the other two cats share the living room. She rarely spends any time in the living room, and when she does, it’s not long before she’s chased out by one of the boys. This isn’t to say that my cats do not all get along. In fact, 95% of the time they do, and I believe that the rest is their way of maintaining the pecking order. When they do “fight” it is more like mock sparring than a knock-down-drag-out brawl.

If you have multiple cats, do you see one as the Alpha Cat?

Top photo by Dan Powers of Chronicles of Zee & Zoey fame
Bottom photo by Karamellzucker

Read more articles by Julia Williams

The personal opinions and/or use of trade, corporate or brand names, is for information and convenience only. Such use does not constitute an endorsement by CANIDAE® All Natural Pet Foods of any product or service. Opinions are those of the individual authors and not necessarily of CANIDAE® All Natural Pet Foods.

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18 thoughts on “Do Cat Families Have a Pack Order?

  1. Katie and Waffles Too are battling it out here at the Glogirly Townhouse. Katie is definitely taking the posture of Alpha cat and often Waffles Too will back down. But so much of his “testing” is play like. It will be interesting to see what happens with Waffles grows up and becomes, quite likely, a MUCH larger cat!
    : ) GG

  2. Being a single cat household (apart from Tigger the visitor!) I can say that Austin looks upon me as his mum and I am the one he takes notice of, who feeds him and does everything for him. He won’t allow anyone else to and he follows me around! Having said that, he dominates Tigger the Tabby when he comes, so there is a pecking order of sorts there. It is complex though for sure!

  3. There is most certainly a pecking order at the Lounge, although there’s no one “top cat”–there are 3 or 4 cliques each with ranking(s) and a couple of loners and floaters, as well. It’s like high school on paws.

  4. Great that you see that and have commented on it for us. I don’t have a multi-cat family but I have seen the heirarchy with my own eyes and have noted it in my experiences with other cat owners.

  5. We definitely see this in our cats, and in some of the open cat rooms at PAWS, too!

    Oh, by the way … we FINALLY finished our old bag of treats, and opened up the TidNips we won in the Cat in a Box contest. Let’s just say that we were not aware that Moosey could dance around on his rear legs! :)

  6. I think cat hierarchies are far more complex than most people realize, and the concept of a dominant of alpha cat is often misunderstood. In some households, there may be a true “alpha cat,” but in others, things may shift depending on the situation. As you said, cat hiearchies happen in a unique feline way, and comparisons to dogs or other animals simply don’t work.

  7. We definitely see a pecking order here and always have. Sometimes, the Alpha changes and even now, who used to be the Omega (lowest) is now technically, the Alpha, but only in title. We have a lot of Betas (second in command) but can see stronger personalities coming out and carrying the lead.

  8. There are definitely some alpha cats here and think they are in charge. And some try to be in charge of someone. I think they all like to think they are the chief cat. Just like people. Great post.

  9. Ginger is clearly the cat in charge over the boys in our household. However if my older male, Pirate, wants to eat first he does. Ginger might maintain order, but Pirate stills eats first.

  10. 100%, paws down, there is a pecking order! Like you, when I was younger, I never even thought to pay attention, but now that I am an author, blogger, and cat advocate, it is second nature for me to study cat behavior. What I find most interesting with my gang of eight, is that the pecking order changes with age. Our senior cat, Mr. Jazz, no longer cares to rule the roost and has long since passed the reign on to his younger cohorts. Kizmet, while but a baby himself, is clearly in training to take over the role of Alpha Male. Zoey has the strongest influence in the house, but it is based on her nurturing and maternal instinct. Love both photos, but the one on the top really speaks to me…

  11. oh yeah – Tommy is the head mancat around here. What I find interesting is that no one really challenges him for the job (maybe no one else wants it? haha). There really isn’t much competition in the “middle” ranks, but somedays it feels like a contest to see who low man on the totem pole it…..THAT makes me nuts. But it is all name calling, so we go with it.

  12. Oh, there’s no question that my Nicki is the alpha cat. There were HUGE problems when Annie was alive, as she at first bullied him, and then was in turn bullied by him as he got older. It was pretty stressful, just about every day.

    Nicki also asserts his dominance over Derry quite often, though interestingly, sometimes (not often) Derry will do something similar with Nicki. I’d say 95% of the time it’s Nicki who’s top cat and that’s that.

    I’m just lucky the boys get along so well, and any “spats” are over and done with pretty quickly, without the serious undertones that there were with the Nicki/Annie dynamic.

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