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Cat Hierarchies & Social Structures: Based on Science

cat sitting on the fence
Image Credit: Andrii Salomatin, Shutterstock
Last Updated on November 16, 2023 by Emma Stenhouse

If you live in a multi-cat household, you might have noticed that some of your cats get along better with each other than with others. Do domestic cats have a social structure, and if so, how are these kinds of hierarchies figured out? If this question has been bugging you, keep reading as we tell you everything that you need to know.

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Most Wild Cat Species are Solitary Predators

Ocelot cat_COULANGES_Shutterstock
Image Credit: COULANGES, Shutterstock

Almost all wild cat species, apart from lions, are classed as solitary predators. Researchers have found that Cheetahs and Bobcats are also social and can sometimes be found living in groups.

The solitary lifestyle is only achievable for wild cats if they have enough space to form their own territories. They may meet other cats when having a dispute over their boundary or for mating, but for most of their time, they will be happy with their own company. For domestic cats, the need to adapt to group living is normally essential, unless they’re the only cat in the household. Luckily, cats are capable of forming complex social structures, and most learn to live alongside each other just fine.

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Feral Cat Colonies

cats eating_bollection, Pixabay
Image Credit: bollection, Pixabay

For a long time, researchers thought that feral cats were brought together by a food source and simply tolerated living near each other. It was thought that the pull of having regular food was stronger than the urge to have their own territory.

It’s now known that feral colonies follow a matriarchal structure, similar to that found in prides of lions. Females will bond to such an extent that their kittens are sometimes raised in a joint litter. The mother cats will cooperate to drive away threats, including tomcats looking to mate.

Researchers have also found that the sex, body size, and age of feral cats can affect the order in which they feed. Adult male cats tend to eat first, followed by females. Within these groups, the larger and older cats tend to eat first, with age being the primary factor for males and body size the primary factor for females.

Kittens ate more frequently than adults and were also given priority over both male and female adult cats.

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Domestic Cat Social Structures & Colony Behavior

cat siamese_Andreas Lischka_Pixabay
Image Credit: Andreas Lischka, Pixabay

Domestic cats have had to learn to adapt their social structures ever since they started spending time near human settlements, around 12,000 years ago. The abundance of prey led to multiple cats living within the same area, and cats learned to adapt to group-living in a similar way to feral cat colonies.

Cats in a multi-cat household will often be happy to live together in a relatively small area. This is usually easier to achieve if the cats are all neutered or spayed. Some cats will prefer the company of a particular cat and will display social behavior with them that you may not see when they’re interacting with another cat.

Even within homes, cats will establish certain small patches as “their” territory. They don’t tend to share this unless they’re a bonded pair. One cat may have claimed the top of the couch, while another prefers a chair in the hallway. Each cat will mark their territory, and once this is established, the other cats will tend to respect this zone as belonging to the other cat.

Certain cats may come across as more dominant, even if you don’t see your cats fighting to establish this. It’s more likely that each cat understands their position within the social structure of their household through the use of subtle body language and pheromone markers.

When a new cat joins the house or a younger cat reaches maturity, there is often the potential for upheaval.

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Testing Hierarchy

cats fighting III_Vshivkova_Shutterstock
Image Credit; Vshivkova, Shutterstock

As cats who live together reach maturity at 2-4 years of age, they may start to push the boundaries with other cats, to see who the more dominant personality is. You may have introduced a kitten into your household and found that they get along great with your older cat, only to run into issues once the kitten reaches maturity.

Cats will test the hierarchy of the community they live in by marking their territory, using a range of techniques, including:

  • Hoarding toys
  • Using facial pheromones rubbed on objects
  • Scratching to leave pheromones from their paws
  • Urine spraying
  • “Claiming” certain cat beds or areas of the house
  • Pushing other cats away from food
  • Hissing and growling
  • Batting other cats
  • Instigating fights

The cats within the household can test to see who is going to come out at the top of their hierarchy. This can also occur when a cat dies, and the remaining cats need to re-establish their social structure.

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Take Note of Rubbing Behavior

american shorthair cat rubbing face on the wood
Image Credit: Pixabay

Cats use facial rubbing as a way to reinforce their bonds with each other and combine their pheromones. Cats lower down in the social structure will rub against cats that rank higher up more often. If you notice your cat rubbing their face against you frequently, it’s a subtle way of them communicating that they consider you to be a higher rank in their social structure.

Observe how often your cats rub against each other and which cat is carrying out the facial rubbing. This can give you good clues as to which cats rank higher than others within your household.


Potential for Conflict

Domestic cats can live happily together as long as their owners are aware of how to reduce any potential for conflict. Cats will adapt to living in a social group as long as they don’t need to compete for resources.

It’s important to make sure there are always enough resources to go around. This includes food bowls, water bowls, litter boxes, cat beds, and other items, like scratching posts. A good rule to follow is that there should always be 1onemore resource than there are cats. So, if your household includes three cats, make sure there are always four food bowls, four litter trays, and so on. This way, your cats never have to compete for these resources because there will always be one available when they need it. Make sure the resources are spread throughout the house, rather than grouping them in a small area. A less-dominant cat will feel uncomfortable approaching this setup if a more dominant cat is there.

Some cats may claim certain items, like scratching posts and perches, as their own too. If you notice that one cat in your household doesn’t use something, like the scratching post, consider investing in more. Scratching is a natural behavior that cats need to carry out, but if a more dominant cat has claimed a scratching post as part of their territory, then a cat further down the social structure may feel uncomfortable using it.

Observing the behavior of cats in a multi-cat household can help you better understand their social structure and help solve issues if cats start to fight over resources or territory. It’s a good idea to reward positive behavior, so give your cats a treat or play with them when you see them interacting with each other in a positive way. Make sure to give each cat individual attention as well!

Our domestic cats might look cute and fluffy to us, but those wild instincts run deep! Cats still feel the need to protect their small slices of territory within your home, and while some cats may form strong pair bonds, others will prefer their own company. By paying close attention to their body language and behavior, you can do your part to ensure that your cats can live together in harmony.

Featured Image: Andrii Salomatin, Shutterstock

About the Author

Emma Stenhouse
Emma Stenhouse
Emma is a freelance writer, specializing in writing about pets, outdoor pursuits, and the environment. Originally from the UK, she has lived in Costa Rica and New Zealand before moving to a smallholding in Spain with her husband, their 4-year-old daughter, and their dogs, cats, horses, and poultry. When she's not writing, Emma can be found taking her dogs for walks in the rolling fields around their home...and usually, at least some of the cats come along, too! Emma is passionate about rescuing animals and providing them with a new life after being abandoned or abused. As well as their own four rescue dogs, she also fosters dogs for re-homing, providing them with love and training while searching for their forever homes.

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