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Cat Social Behavior

Cats make great pets for so many reasons. They are small in size and don’t occupy a lot of room. They preferentially use a litter box so don’t have to be walked. They can often be left at home alone for the day without getting lonely. Sometimes, they even enjoy the occasional cuddle in bed at night. What’s not to love?

Ever since their domestication by the ancient Egyptians, feline companions have been an important element in our societies. Their peculiar behaviour, so different from dogs, has been a subject of interest for many. By observing their feral counterparts, it may be possible to deduce just why cats act the way they do.

By nature, domestic cats are considered to be asocial animals, in comparison to dogs which are social creatures. Due to unselective breeding, their behaviour has been inherited from their feral ancestors, and is still observed today in “wild” felids of all sorts. Asocial animals (not to confused with antisocial) live mostly solitary lives, but come together in groups for two reasons: breeding and raising their young. This can be contrasted with antisocial animals which are solitary, aggressive when mating, and spend a very short period of time raising their young.

Social animals, like dogs, form linear hierarchies within their groups. The purpose of this is to decrease fighting among individuals. A conflict between social animals usually involves a threat from a dominant animal and is most often met with submission from a subordinate.

Because cats are asocial, there is no hierarchy and fights are therefore common. The results of these conflicts are often not predictable. As a result, communication is important between cats to avoid interaction with each other, thereby reducing the number of fights.

The feline social system is actually quite flexible, ranging from solitary individuals to large colonies. At which end of the spectrum a cat will sit depends highly on the resources in the area, including food, shelter, and breeding females available. Cats that hunt for their food often live alone because of the small portions of their prey (for example, mice). However, those that have a constant source of food, such as those that are fed by humans, often live in groups.

In general, a solitary cat has a home range consisting of favorite spots and regularly traveled paths. Home ranges may overlap between neighbouring cats. On the other hand, an individual’s territory is usually smaller than the home range (or often the same size in the case of house cats), and this is an area that is actively defended.

Cats can also be found living in colonies, an example readily seen in barn cats. In these cases individuals adapt to living with each other and generally act indifferently towards each other. Colonies can consist of a group of related females, in which case they may form a closer social relationship. There may also be one dominant male in the area. After they are weaned, young male kittens go off on their own to settle in an area not occupied by a dominant male. Female littermates, however, stay nearby, and are more likely to form social bonds with each other than if a stranger were introduced to the colony.

In the household, domestic cats act similar to their feral counterparts. Though asocial by nature, they can adapt to living in groups. Often to resolve conflicts, a threat is made by one individual and met with a withdrawal by the other. The house is often divided into zones (“home ranges”), which is why the addition of a new cat or removal of a resident can be disruptive to the established social environment. Intact male cats are often aggressive towards each other and castration is usually necessary before two males can live with relative ease in the same household.

The big question is then, that if cats are loners, why are they social towards humans? The current theory is that while dogs view and greet humans as other dogs, cats treat humans like a kitten would its mother. It is believed that years of domestication has selected for this kitten-like behaviour in adult cats. Evidence for this is seen in the every-day antics of our own feline companions, such as wanting to be groomed, rubbing of the face against a leg, and kneading of the paws as if it was kneading its mother while nursing.

Understanding feline behaviour is of huge importance to training a cat. Behavioural issues deemed unacceptable to us are better dealt with when the purpose of the behaviour is understood. For example, cats do not interact with people as if they were a part of a social hierarchy. Therefore, punishment of a cat is useless because they will not be instinctively submissive. Instead, they will choose to either escape the situation or stay and fight.

Normal behaviours of feral cats, such as tree scratching and urine spraying, often manifest at home as undesirable behaviour problems. It is important to realize that these are forms of communication between cats, and management of such issues requires an understanding of what they mean.

Scratching vertical surfaces is a behaviour with dual purpose: it is a form of communication and also a way to remove loose claw fragments or old claws. In the wild, cats have favourite trees within their home ranges that they will scratch. The scent left from the foot glands and marks left on the trees announce their presence to others. At the same time, this behaviour allows the removal of old nails, in essence, “sharpening” their claws. This knowledge of the behaviour can be applied to modifying scratching problems in household pets. If a piece of furniture is being preferentially scratched by a cat, move the object and place a cover over it. Because cats favour materials with longitudinally-oriented threads to aid in the removal of nails, a knobby fabric would work best. In the place of the object, place a scratching post and encourage the cat to use it with rewards.

Another undesirable behaviour in some cats is urine spraying. This is especially prevalent in intact male cats. Feral cats are known to spray vertical objects with urine in order to alert other cats of their presence. The freshness of the urine allows neighbours to tract the movement of the cats in the area, and this may be used by males in the mating season to locate females. It is also used to mark home ranges, and cats will often spray if encountering familiar scents or if anxious. As a result, there are several ways to manage urine spraying in the house. Castration of an intact cat is the first step as this can reduce spraying in males by up to 90%. At the same time, look for situations that can produce anxiety, such as the presence of neighbourhood cats at the window or a household that is too crowded. Reducing the chances of anxiety will likely decrease the amount of urine spraying.

By understanding the behaviours of the domestic cat, we are able to form a closer bond with our feline friends. Their unique behaviour, although somewhat deciphered, still consists of many mysteries yet to be translated. Although cats are asocial towards each other, they are wonderful companions because of their friendly social behaviour towards humans.

By Beverly Wong – writer

2 Responses to this Article, So Far

  1. Avatar Jill Villarreal says:

    Feline Social Behavior: An Animal Behavior Society Public Symposium
    Open to the public: Free of charge, attendees do not need to register for the Animal Behavior Society Meeting to attend this symposium
    Date: June 10, 2012
    Time: 7:00 pm – 9:30 pm (immediately after the ABS 2012 Meeting Welcome Reception)
    Location: University of New Mexico – Albuquerque, Auditorium Seating 200 (building name and number TBA), Details at the Animal Behavior Society 2012 Meeting Registration Desk
    Symposium Organizer: Dr. Jill Villarreal, Issues in Applied Animal Behavior Committee Chair


    Social Behavior of Domestic Cats
    Dr. Penny L. Bernstein
    Associate Professor, Biology, Kent State University

    Social Behavior of Feral Cats
    Dr. Katherine A. Houpt
    Diplomate – American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, James Law Professor of Behavior Medicine – Emeritus, Cornell University

    Social Behavior and Its Adaptive Importance in Small Wild Felids
    Dr. Michael Tewes
    Frank D. Yturria Endowed Chair for Wild Cat Studies and Regents Professor
    Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute, Texas A&M University – Kingsville

  2. Avatar Starla says:

    I think this was really helpful with my report!

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