Understanding Social Behavior In Cats

by Jennie K. Willis, PhD as printed in the Coloradoan February 2013

Cats are widely considered by owners to be a solitary species, but this is not so, despite aggression being a common problem in household cats. Observing cats in wild or feral situations in research studies has outlined normal behavior for male and female cats which is quite a bit different than dogs, but highly social and cooperative. In non-home situations, cats tend to choose to live in groups called colonies composed of both male and female individuals. Relationships between cats are highly individual and do not constitute a pecking order of simplified behaviors in response to others. When seeking to improve relationships in the cats in your household, a sense of what resources and resting places are important and valuable to each cat is important in promoting healthy relationships. Each cat relates to each other in unique ways.

Within groups, cats do not display overt aggression directed towards each other. Groups tend to be insulated, meaning members are wary of unknown individuals. An strange cat may indeed be met with all forms of aggression, and would have to be exposed to the group many times before he or she may become incorporated as a group member. This is why cats need to be introduced very gradually into their new homes with resident cats. Introductions should occur over a period of weeks, and be sensitive to the immediate aggressive responses that may be demonstrated towards intruders. Allow both new and resident cats to become accustomed to the scents of the other cats and work to build a common scent profile by mixing bedding between rooms used to separate the cats.

The social structure of cats is flexible meaning it can be normal to fluctuate between solitary living and large groups of a dozen or more. Cats are induced ovulators, which means they can be brought into estrous by other females in estrous or the presence of males. This allows female cats in feral colonies to all give birth to kittens around the same time and communally rear young. This is another great argument for spay and neuter since it can be so easy for cats to become suddenly fertile.

Both male and female cats can behave territorially, responding to threats with aggression and spraying of urine.  Intact male cats have been observed to have the most profound territorial behaviors, which can be improved to some degree by neutering in home situations. Cats have an amazing sense of smell, so much of their communication is accomplished through olfaction. It is a normal behavior to use urine and even feces in signaling, but is usually repulsive to human owners for their cats to do so.  Helping cats alleviate the anxiety associated with territory disputes will resolve these kinds of inappropriate elimination. It is important to realize, especially as the weather gets nicer, the conflict for your cat may arise from the scent or sight of cats outside your windows.

Dr. Jennie Willis is an instructor of animal behavior at Colorado State University and owns a private consulting business, which provides counseling for problem pets and their people. For more information about consultation, seminars and classes please visit www.AnimalBehaviorInsights.com

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