Do Cat Families Have a Pack Order?

February 8, 2013

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® Pet Foods of any product or service. Opinions are those of the individual authors and not necessarily of CANIDAE® Pet Foods.

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Comments

  1. Justine says:

    I had cat named Mickey (spelt Mikki) and a girl cat named Belle :). Mickey was the first cat and was the “alpha” but more acted like a Dad. He has passed and now Belle is the alpha over the new male cat Jagger.

  2. Rebecca Devereaux says:

    I have nine cats. Seven males (ik ik…lol) and two females. The oldest is Smudge, followed by Wyked the Prince Flufferbutter and so on down the line. I also have a female Siamese, who silently runs the entire house… Come on, I’m not afraid to admit it lol.
    Here is my question.
    Smudge, almost 16, is on his way out. We’ve been waffling on putting him down for weeks. We’ve finally decided to stop being selfish and do it tommorow. Anyway, the next younger male, Wyked, has had a HUGE personality change in the last three weeks. He is SUPER dominant now and more agressive. Not mean agressive, just MORE than he was. He’s still a sweet baby, just a little different. Will cats DO that before the Alpha cat is gone? Like Smudge just CAN’T actively do his role anymore, but Wyked will still “bow” down to him if he gets too close lol. I was just wondering, because I was baffled and starting to get a little worried on the change. I was hoping his personality wasn’t changing. Yes, ALL of my nine cats are fixed except the two youngest. They are just 2 1/2 weeks to 3 weeks right now. Any opinions would be appreciated.

    Rebekah

  3. Karen says:

    Yes, my cats certainly have a pecking order. The king of the three recently passed but before he did the other two cats definitely treated him as such. The king (Katty) and one of the other two were both fixed and brother and sister (Cuffy) The third was a male and intact (Sid). Sid, the youngest, by about 7 years, was low man on the totem pole. When Sid was a kitten Katty allowed him to suck and knead his chest hair. Katty eventually weined him from that. Anyway Cuffy and Sid let Katty be first at everything, playing with toys, eating, getting attention and everything else. As a matter of fact, after Katty passed away, both Cuffy and Sid, after the food bowl was filled, would sit and wait for Katty to come and eat. It took them a couple of weeks to stop doing this. The three never fought, however, Katty would chase them and sit on them. He was a bit of a bully that way. Since Katty has been gone Cuffy and Sid seem to treat each other as equals. Katty is most definitely missed by all of us.

  4. Rachel says:

    From time to time, my dog, Sascha, thinks she is Alpha of the house, so she snaps at one of the cats every now and then. So sometimes I havs to growl at her to tell her not to, and she fully understands

  5. Rachel says:

    Yeah, my two cats do the same. The female, Rosie, and the male, Tiger. When they meow, I listen to the way the talk, both to each other and to us humans in the house. I’ve learnt to speak like a cat from just watching them. When I call for dinner, I call in Catanese, the language cats speak. They fully understand me as well. Sometimes when Rosie and Tiger fight, I see it as Tiger trying to be Alpha when Rosie is, so I hiss and growl at them, getting them both to listen to me. They even made me Alpha Cat for some reason that I’m still trying to find out. An Alpha Cat is usually a cat, as you said in the artical, but Rosie and Tiger treat me as their Alpha. Maybe because I feed them and I find them places to sleep every night. I don’t know. Please help.

  6. Trisha says:

    Nice article. I was looking for more information about cat hierarchy, because my cats seem pretty egalitarian, but one is the caretaker/defender of the other. I have a Maine Coon named Mika and a Siamese my son named, “White Kitty”. I found Mika alone in the bushes, terrified and screaming as a too small kitten. I found White Kitty a few months later running outside, terrified, with a crushed tail. She was also far too young. Once her tail was healed, I let White Kitty out of her cage to play in the house. Two things happened: my son claimed her, and Mika became her Momma. Mika grooms her, snuggles her, and watches over her. White Kitty blossomed under Mika’s care, and the two are inseparable from each other. In addition to their kitty bonds, each bonded to one of my kids. At night time, Mika is sprawled in the baby’s crib, and White Kitty is in my son’s arms.

    If one cat is the Alpha that would be Mika, but as far as types of leadership, she leads by love. You couldn’t find a more affectionate cat, unless you are a stranger… If it is a strange cat she will run it off. If it is a strange person, good luck, you will never find her! White Kitty has no qualms about greeting anyone and doesn’t stress about much at all… Although if White Kitty approaches a stranger calling out to them, you will see Mika in the shadows upset, finding her lack of caution ill advised…. When the puppy tried to pick on the cats to see what they would do, White Kitty cried but would not stand up for herself. Mika went on the offence, drove the dog back into her crate, and threatened to split open her nose if she tried a stunt like that again. Mika demands respect, but only if she is disrespected.

    I am definately the alpha around the house though. When I speak, kids, dogs, and cats move where I direct them. When Mika is not in the baby’s lap, she is in mine. The dogs argue about who is my “beta” since I claimed the alpha slot.

    Cat’s simply do not fit stereotypes, and that’s why I like them. It seems in my experience, cat relationships depend on the personality of the cat.

  7. Kim says:

    My daughter and I were just discussing this topic today. She has 2 brothers, 4 yrs old both have been neutered. Moe is the alpha. He eats and drinks first. They each have their own bowls. Moe even will nip at Larry if his getting too much attention.

  8. Penny Caschera says:

    Thank you. It’s nice to see that others have noticed that there is a definite order, albeit more fluid than dogs.
    In my house my 4 bottle babies are more like a pack of dogs than the norm. If one of the other 3 has an issue with 1 of the 4 then 3 will run towards the skirmish and outnumber the outsider. They work together just like a pack of wolves, surrounding and cutting off. In all of my years I’ve never seen this behavior from cats. Has anyone else?

  9. Dawn Marie says:

    I felt the need to make ONE correction. Humans CAN be the Alpha cat. My furr babies don’t just think of me ask a food dispenser. I know this because my husband is. They react differently to me… maybe because most of my friends say I’m a large cat myself. Who knows…. what I do, know is they treat me like one of their own.

    1. Jaybird says:

      My two cats accept me as alpha. They do what I tell them and come when called. Like dogs. They do not see me as the can opener because food is available self serve. If the food occasionally runs out, nagging me for a refill gets them spat at and chased. They are always rubbing up to me as they would an alpha cat, and one sleeps on my back at night while the other, less dominant, curls up near my head if the more dominant cat allows. I don’t ask that they do this, that is just where they are when I wake up. In the past I had a cat who chose to walk with me through other cat’s territories. The current two are neutered female ragdoll crosses.

  10. Jacqueline I Young says:

    I watched 10 house cats who spent their days outside and at night come inside. It was easy to observe the dominant cat. He would watch the others from afar and with one stare at another from across the garden would disrupt any behaviour from the others that he deemed unfit. Males could not approach females and kittens were off limits for the most part. At night when they came in the alfa cat ate from which ever bowl he wanted and slept in the best spots. They surely do have a pack mentality.

    1. Greg says:

      That, indeed, sums up the role of the Alpha Cat: the one who gets the best spots and other privileges but one who also ultimately keeps the peace in the colony.

      Again: just because cats aren’t pack animals does not mean that they don’t have social structures for when they need to get along with each other in tight quarters or social situations. Even feral cats tend to form clowders. They’re solitary hunters but not averse to socializing, just as is the case with their relationship with us, and many actually prefer to have some social contact. Cats have all sorts of body language protocols in dealing with each other, and some signals are quite friendly, just as they employ with us.

  11. Abi says:

    OK so I have YouTube, musically, etc. but I was like there no such thing as Alpha cat. But I thought maybe there is so I looking on this website and was surprised. But i’m happy that I know that now because I was hoping to start a cat/kitten group with fans/family/friends. On the other hand it will be hard to find a group name.

  12. William Johnson says:

    I have 6 cats total, one MaMa cat & 3 of her Siblings. I have two others that adopted this family. It’s 3boys 3girls all fixed. Mama Kat is obvious leader but I’m boss, they mind better than any dog I’ve ever had. I do believe they see me as group leader, & I can tell U folks R shocked at how well they respond to me, & I don’t use treats

  13. Marie says:

    It is important to feed them in that order to it causes less fighting I have noticed.

  14. Rondo says:

    We adopted 3 neighborhood cats that are all related, over a year ago.( 2 boys and a girl, all fixed) They all have different personalities, but one of the males is definitely the leader of the pack. He wants more attention and affection then the others from us, and seems to look out for his siblings, but also tends to bully them.

  15. Clooney says:

    Great post. Inka was the alpha cat at our house and when she passed away, Clooney took the alpha cat position with Neytiri.

  16. 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

  17. Feline hierarchies unlike dogs are more fluid and shifting. At our house everyone defers to Merlin, our old boy and boss of all of us 😉

  18. CATachresis says:

    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!

  19. 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.

  20. 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.

  21. Since *I* am an Only Cat, I am of course at the TOP of the pecking order in our little family of the Human and Me. The Feline is *always* at the top.

  22. Loving Max says:

    Totally agree! Great article!

  23. meowmeowmans says:

    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! 🙂

  24. Ingrid King says:

    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.

  25. 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.

  26. Even with only two cats, I see a pecking order. Very interesting article. 🙂

  27. Marg says:

    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.

  28. D. Matsuura says:

    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.

  29. Brian says:

    That was a great article! We have some order here too but occasionally there is a small dispute as to which of us alpha cats is really in charge!

  30. 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…

  31. 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.

  32. Fuzzy Tales says:

    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.