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.
Our cat and our dog are completely bonded, with one another and with us. I’ve had dogs all my life but this is my first cat. As such, I’d never had the opportunity to observe feline behavior; the only thing I knew about cats was what I’d been told. One thing I heard over and over was how independent cats are. Sure, they are socially quite different than dogs but still, our cat loves his family time. He and his sister (the dog) play together, hang out together and even sleep together. The cat follows right along on our dog walks, which keeps the neighbors laughing. He’s an indoor/outdoor cat and enjoys his time patrolling the neighborhood, but whenever we come out for dog walks, he magically appears by our side and trots right along.
I certainly wouldn’t classify our cat as the independent type. I’ve always attributed his loving, bonding nature to the fact that we rescued him at a tender age (he wasn’t properly weaned). Moreover, we rescued our dog at the same time, so they were raised right alongside one another. We think both of our animals have a bit of species confusion; our dog digs a hole before she eliminates, but that’s a different article entirely.
Several years ago an older male cat named Jack moved into the neighborhood. It wasn’t long before the two cats were best friends. They hang out on one another’s front porch. They wait at each other’s door if the other one isn’t out yet – just like kids who go to their friend’s house to see if ‘Johnny can come out and play.’ It’s gotten to the point where Jack likes to hang out in our house and vice-versa. My cat and Jack have even shared a meal or two, especially now that I have Jack’s guardian feeding him FELIDAE cat food. Jack’s human companion is absolutely amazed, because until they moved into our neighborhood, Jack had always been a solitary cat. She says he used to get into ferocious cat fights in their old neighborhood. Not here, Jack and my cat are tight.
Where is all the aloof, standoffish behavior I’d been told of? I thought cats were not a social species, but my observations (granted, of a very small sample size) made me think otherwise. I started wondering: do cats form social bonds? Do groups of cats form a hierarchal structure?
I have been a multi-cat household for most of my adult life. Though some of my cats have not been the “best of friends,” most of the time they peacefully co-exist. There have been times, though, when I returned home to find what seemed like half a cat’s worth of fur on the carpet – telltale remnants of a feline quarrel. Thankfully it doesn’t happen often, but no matter how well two cats may seem to get along, I think there will always be minor squabbles now and then. Cats are relatively solitary creatures by nature, and turf tiffs may be an unavoidable occurrence in multiple-cat homes.
Cats who usually get along may sometimes clash out of jealousy. This happens in my household when I pay too much attention to my female cat who is, admittedly, my favorite. It seems like every time I finish brushing Belle, one or both of my two male cats will chase her until she cowers under the table, hissing and growling. I’ve no doubt that if she didn’t run and hide, this altercation would turn into a fight. I used to scold the male cats, but this only made them angry and more aggressive towards Belle. My solution is to either give the two male cats attention first, or brush Belle when they are sleeping soundly in the other room. This usually works, but if they do happen to become aggressive towards her, I simply clap my hands or give a loud, high-pitched “Hey!” or “No!” Another good way to break up a minor cat spat is with a squirt of water. It startles them but doesn’t hurt them, and their hatred of H2O trumps their desire to fight.
Cat fights are usually about dominance and asserting “top cat” status as well as defending their perceived territory. There may also be an “alpha cat” issue in a multi-cat household. Although most people think of dogs and wolves when they hear the term “alpha,” there are alpha cats too. This is readily apparent in feral colonies, where alpha cats are seen being very aggressive to the other cats, which enables them to get more food. Alpha cats are very headstrong and always want their own way. They may bite and scratch their owner or other animals as a way to control them, so that they get what they want.
Proper introductions can go a long way toward creating a peaceful multi-cat household. Don’t bring a new cat home and simply plop them together and say, “Meet your new friend!” This will never turn out well. The cats need to have separate living, eating and sleeping quarters until they become adjusted to this new change in their routine. Some say it need only be a few days, while others maintain it should be at least a week to ten days. It may also help to swap their bedding and toys so they can become accustomed to the other’s scent. The last step before putting them together (supervised of course), is to switch areas, i.e. let the newcomer explore the house for a few hours while confining your other cat(s) to the new cat’s room.
I recently read about another method of “encouraging” cats to get along. I hesitate to mention it since I’ve not tried it myself, but I find the idea intriguing, if a bit odd. Supposedly, if you smear both cats with the juice from a can of tuna and put them together in a room, they’ll engage in a mutual lick-fest which results in good feelings that carry over to their daily lives. Knowing how much cats love that stinky tuna juice, it might be worth a try, but only with cats who are not overly aggressive towards each other. Regardless, you should stay in the room with them to carefully monitor their behavior.
Other suggestions for keeping the peace in a multi-cat household include:
• Neuter male cats to help curb aggressive tendencies.
• Separate their resources by keeping each cat’s food bowls, bed and litter box in a different room.
• Provide cat trees and perches for them in different rooms so they can have some space when they want it.
• Reward your cats with praise or treats when they interact in a friendly manner.
• Pheromones and homeopathic remedies may reduce the stress levels of two cats who aren’t getting along.
• Consult a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist to evaluate the problem. You can find a list here.
• Read Cat Vs. Cat: Keeping Peace When You Have More Than One Cat, by Pam Johnson-Bennett. I just ordered this book because it sounds great and has gotten really good reviews. The book purports to show “how to plan, set up, and maintain a home environment that will help multiple cats—and their owners—live in peace.” The book also covers how to diffuse tension, prevent squabbles and ambushes, and blend two families. It sounds like a terrific resource that every responsible pet owner with cats should read.
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The personal opinions and/or use of trade, firm, corporation or brand names, in this blog is for the information and convenience of the reader. Such use does not constitute an official endorsement or approval by CANIDAE® Natural Pet Food Company of any product or service to the exclusion of others that may be suitable. All opinions in this blog are those of the individual authors and not necessarily of CANIDAE® Natural Pet Food Company.