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. Jaye M says:

    I am the alpha. My boy cat can get a little rough with my girl cat when they wrestle and chase each other. I just have to speak his name loudly or step between them and he immediately takes a submissive stance, even rolling on his back to expose his tummy. Then order is restored and peace abounds. Until the next round of roughhousing!

  2. Dorothy says:

    I have 4 cats and there is definitely an
    alpha. He can be so mean to the others with swats and hisses. The others avoid him whenever possible as he is unpredicatable…sometimes okay and sometimes not.

  3. Carol Damato says:

    I have 2 female cats and one of them is definitely the alpha cat. She totally dominates my other cat. She stalks my other cat constantly. Alpha cat is on the heavy side. The other cat will barely appear to eat and has lost weight. They are both good cats, but the alpha is taking her toll on all of us. I try to play with her and divert her attention, but the situation remains the same. My other cat is very timid. I love them both and don’t know what to do.

  4. Wyatt says:

    My Great-grandmothers cats all seem to see their white cat, Oscar, as the chief. All of the females try to smother him and sleep next to him, and he rarely gets into fights with the other male cats. My great-grandmother is a “crazy cat lady,” so she owns about ten cats, and they all treat him with some sort of respect. We have even joked about him having a harem due to how much the females like him, and none of the cats steal food from him. I think he is the alpha of those cats.

  5. Jessica Clausen says:

    Yes I’d say there is definately a pecking order and all of my cats except one, the alpha, likes living together. I have a cat colony and they enjoy each other it seems to me. My alpha, Sith, as my husband named her, or Sithily since shes more my cat, is the oldest and mother or grandmother etc etc of all of them. Shes more of a loner than all of the others and that’s probably bc we got her as an adult. Shes by far the most street smart and the best hunter. Shes cranky with the other cats, all of them, except for the newborns, hers or others, shes an excellent mother. And shes kind to all infant kittens. This changes even to her own once they get a few months old or the time itd take her to have another litter which shes fixed now thank goodness. Cats can multiply fast!! Anyways, Ace, the second oldest is the only one who dare stand up to her and they dont get along very well and I swear its bc she wouldnt mate with ace. He used to be fearful of her but went thru puberty and realized hes bigger and stronger than her and there is no chilvarly among cats. Cats dont care if a male is mean to a female. Sith is still top cat over ace but I’d say ace is second in hierarchy. However, ace is very chillax and such a sweetie. Sith is a tortioushell which is the most temperamental of cats we have and ace is a solid black Bombay which is the easiest going cat we have. We have a mixture or gingers and we had two siamese born to our late female other beta girl callie who was a silver or lilac/blue korat. After that, I’d say maybe one of our youngest adult gingers is 3rd just bc hes actually the biggest of all. There is not much need or time I see them really have need to do packing order. Sith the alpha and ace always allow the others to eat first. I had no idea there was a reason for this. Now i know. Anybody want a kitten or cat? I’ve got plenty.

  6. Ore says:

    I have the same thing with my three cats.
    Mandee is the Alpha. She is the oldest, as she is 20 years old. She also has a different, more direct and intimidating voice, and she is also a bengal cat.
    The “Low cat on the totem pole” in my house is the only male, Ginger. He is an American shorthair mix. He is also pretty muscular, but he is a pushover and rarely stands up for himself.
    The Beta cat is Charlotte, a dilute tortoiseshell of unknown breed. She acts just like Mickey. She dominates over Ginger and tries to do it with Mandee, after a few hisses and one big growl from Mandee, Charlotte runs away with big, cowardly eyes and looks like she got roasted in cat language. After that, she will go downstairs to Ginger’s room. She then chases him into the closet/large bathroom, which is his “safe space.” She then goes to the highest point in the room, on top of a large dresser, and lays there as if she is the awesome queen who needs to be bowed down and worshipped. Yes, she inflates her already-so-large ego and is a bit if a spoiled brat. Mandee has never seen the harassment as she never goes beyond her territory, which is the entire upstairs area. She may or may not know Ginger even exists. But she does know about the dog, since she has heard barking and Charlotte hissing. Our dog’s name is Marta, and she is a whole other story. She is below Ginger also. It is probably why Mandel never goes downstairs. Anyway, Charlotte never steals food from the others, neither does Mandee, as they eat in their own desperate rooms, not having to worry about eachother, same with their litter boxes. However, one time when Charlotte was downstairs harassing Ginger, Mandel did go into my room (Charlotte’s room) and crapped right in her litter box like the huge troll she is. Charlotte never went into her litterbox before it was cleaned. My opinions on their levels depends on the cat. Mandel fits the Alpha very well. She knows how to intimidate, never does any unnecessary harassment, and she seems she still cares about Charlotte a little bit as she sometimes lets her enter her territory. She would probably do the same things to Ginger if they ever meet. Charlotte doesn’t seem to be the best Beta, but I’m not sure. Unlike Ginger and Mandee, she was originally on the streets. She was probably a “gangster” cat who stole food and sold catnip on the black cat market lul. She was also malnourished and weak when we got her. She is still pretty frail and lack of muscles. If Ginger wasn’t such a doormat, I’m pretty sure she would have been the feisty bottom cat. She is also very envious. Because she has green eyes and is jealous and insecure, I like to nickname her “The Green Eyed Monster.” Ginger, the Omega, doesn’t really deserve to harassment in my opinion. He is very timid and at least one of his previous owners was abusive. However, he will stand up for himself if the harassment goes to far, and he definitely likes to troll Marta by sitting in his cat tree (when Charlotte isn’t there) and staring at her like “you can’t get me when this gate is between us. ” (we had two gate that seperates Ginger’s room from the living room, and there was another gate separating that from upstairs. But now we only have one that seperates the living room, Marta’s room, from the rest of the house)

  7. Tony says:

    I have five cats. I have noticed a clear pecking order among them whereby it’s clear to me which two are “alpha” and “beta,” though there doesn’t seem to be any contention between those two for “alpha.” “Beta” generally holds her position — seating, food eating, etc. — unless “alpha” is adamant about moving her away, in which case he shoves his way in and she moves without much ado.

    Among the other three, there seems to be an ongoing “battle” not to be the bottom cat.

    The hierarchical dynamic among the five is what it is, and it doesn’t much go beyond hisses. Occasionally, however, “alpha” wants to play with one of the others. “Beta” actually plays with him and there’s clear “give and take” — he chases her; she chases him — between them until the play gets rougher than she cares for, at which point she hisses and he stops. The other three do not cotton to “alpha’s” entreaties to play.

    I think I’m also part of the hierarchy. There seems to be a constant contest among all five cats to see who gets to sleep on or next to me, sit in my chair, convince me to play with them, etc.

    That is what it is, but it’s not what I find most surprising. What shocked me is how my cats, despite their differences, gang up on other cats that come to my yard. I’ve seen this happen several times.

    There’s a cat that comes by, mostly to drink from the water bowls I leave outside for my cats. When that cat shows up, all my cats face off against it, surrounding it on all sides but one. If that cat runs, “alpha” hauls off after it and if he catches it, they fight. Depending on the outcome, the stray may next have to battle “beta,” but that happened only once when the stray, to escape “alpha” ran right toward “beta.” More often, “alpha” and the stray fight and that’s it; however every time, my other four cats all race off with “alpha” and stand around as he lets the stray “have it.”

    It’s probably worth noting that “alpha” is, at his last vet visit, 21 lbs of Coon cat. He doesn’t pick fights with my other four cats. In fact, it’s the bottom three, so to speak, that “get their panties in a bunch” over him, and they steer clear of him, but he moves about as he wants. For instance, when they’re in a doorway he wants to go through, if they don’t move, even though the other cat may be hissing and whatnot, he just jumps over it and proceeds to wherever he was headed to begin with.

    Curiously, when my five cats are outside, they will play with one another, all of them, but they won’t do that inside. I haven’t figured out why they don’t mind playfully interacting outdoors but only two of them will do that indoors.

  8. 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.

  9. 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

  10. 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.

  11. 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

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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?

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

  18. 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.

  19. 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

  20. Marie says:

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

  21. 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.

  22. 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.

  23. 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

  24. 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 😉

  25. 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!

  26. 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.

  27. 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.

  28. 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.

  29. Loving Max says:

    Totally agree! Great article!

  30. 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! 🙂

  31. 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.

  32. 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.

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

  34. 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.

  35. 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.

  36. 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!

  37. 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…

  38. 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.

  39. 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.