The Ins and Outs of Feline Group Living
If you ask someone if they think cats should live alone or with another cat companion, you will get a variety of answers. The popular impression is that cats are aloof and solitary, which seems to make sense given some of their evolutionary history of lone hunters and their high degree of territorialism. Yet, when adopting a kitten, it is almost always suggested that we adopt in pairs so that the cats have a companion to keep them company. It’s even a policy for many animal rescues to not adopt out a young cat to a home that doesn’t have another playful cat.
Inter-cat conflict is a common concern in our homes and the subject of many of my client’s woes. In the United States, households with cats have an average number of 1.8. This means the majority of households are multi-cat. Aggression between family cats can be very confusing and distressing for us as guardians. Not only that, but it can manifest itself in different ways, either being very obvious with outright fighting or very subtle where a cat guardian may be entirely unaware.
We can look to the wild cats for clues on their social behavior, but we have to keep in mind that animals act differently when living in captivity. Even free-roaming feral cats aren’t necessarily living in a ‘natural’ way because they are often brought together to live in colonies by having food provided to them in a certain location by humans. What’s interesting about cats is that their socialness is flexible, and they seem to be able to live independently or in groups comfortably depending on their circumstances. Much of this is dependent on how they were introduced, how they were socialized as kittens, how their territory is managed, how any conflict is handled by people, and each cats’ individual degree of socialness.
So more specifically, what factors are we looking at in our homes that contribute to whether or not our domestic cats will live happily in solitude, merely tolerate their companions, or form close bonds? Let’s take a look.
THE IMPORTANCE OF SCENT & PHEROMONES
Ever wonder what your cat is doing when they rub against your leg or the corner of the couch? It’s not just a show of affection, they are leaving a bit of their scent on you and your home through chemicals called pheromones. The pheromones are released from glands found in urine, anal sacs, paw pads, skin, head, and cheeks and have a variety of purposes including territorial marking, sexual capacity, comfort, familiarity, fear, and stress.
Cats have nearly four times the amount of scent receptors as humans and these pheromones, along with other scents in your home, might be the most important point of comfort for your multi-cat household. It is so important that sometimes when one resident cat goes to the vet and returns smelling like the clinic, they will be unrecognizable by the other resident cats and react as if there is an intruder in their territory.
For outdoor cats and wild cats, these chemicals are an important part of survival because they provide information about other cats in their proximity without the risk of a physical confrontation. It lets them know information like how long ago another cat was there, how many cats are in the area, if the cat is familiar or not, if a female is nearby and ready to mate, or even if a cat was feeling fearful.
The scents are placed in socially important areas like near the edge of territories, near resources, and the inner territory where the cat spends a lot of time. This collection of scents makes the cat feel comfortable and secure in their environment. If you do not have an appropriate spot for them to put their scent in your home, they will sometimes make a spot by clawing the couch or carpet or, in extreme cases, spraying.
HOW A SOCIAL GROUP IS FORMED
Cats can live happily together when they recognize the other household cats as being part of the same social group. This is done by creating and maintaining a ‘group scent’ through activities such as rubbing, grooming, sharing scratchers, and sharing bedding. A shared scent means a shared territory.
For feral cats, social groups are generally kin related and matrilineal (related females and their offspring) and outsiders aren’t allowed. These kin groups would have a scent that is built up and maintained throughout their lives. At 2-4 years, male offspring would be expecting to be dispersing from the colony.
The density of feral cats and wild cats is dependent on food abundance and distribution. If the food source is prey only, they will be solitary and more spread out, if the food source is grouped (such as provided by humans in a particular location) then we get a denser population and group living situations.
The common scent building is part of a cat's survival instincts because it allows them to more easily recognize who is familiar and who is an intruder. Each time a cat rubs on another or uses the same scratching post, they are picking up the scent of the other cat while leaving some of theirs behind, just like they do when they rub on you. If you’re familiar with the process of introducing new cats to each other, one of the key components is scent swapping to familiarize each cat with the new scent and to build that ‘group scent’. In many cases, the humans also help facilitate this group scent by petting, holding, and cuddling one cat and then another.
KEEPING THE PEACE IN YOUR HOME
In the wild, cats have a home range where they will travel and hunt for food. Sometimes this area will overlap with the home range of another cat. Within that home range is their territory, an area that they will defend from intruders. Cats in your home still have these areas although they are much smaller and are essentially the same space because of the physical limitations of your home.
Since a cat will determine its territory based on available resources, it makes sense that there would be stress and competition in a household with only 1 food dish and 1 litter box for 3 cats. As cat guardians, we tend to clump resources together for ease and organization. We may have a feeding station with all of the food bowls and a litter box station with all of the litter boxes. But, in the eyes of a cat, a group of three litter boxes is essentially just one box. The reality is we need to spread out resources to give the feeling of abundance and sufficient territory.
Not only does this provide them with an appropriate layout, but it also gives them a choice on where to go. Cats find comfort in control and that means having choices. If your cat wants to avoid interaction with another animal or even a person, they should have a way to do that. This prevents stress and anxiety, which means less tension, conflict, and problem behaviors.
Make sure you are providing enough litter boxes that there is always a safe, accessible one for each cat at any time. Each cat should have its own food dish set a little bit away from the others. Put it away from the wall slightly, so they can move around and get a vantage point of the rest of the room if they desire. I always try to make sure when one cat finishes early, that they do not steal food from someone else’s dish. Food stealing can add an element of threat that their food is scarce. Since there is (ideally) no competition for food in your home, cats should have less stress over maintaining their territory and less inter-cat conflict.
WHAT ABOUT SOCIAL SYSTEMS?
While cats don’t have a structured hierarchy, some form of a socially structured group will exist in your home whether or not your cats are closely bonded or merely tolerate each other. The social hierarchy in a group of cats is not as linear as you might expect, and it can overlap and shift over time or location within the territory. Factors that determine where a cat is in the hierarchy include age, gender, sexual maturity, social maturity, upbringing, number of cats in the household, health, and individual personalities.
Vertical space is often used as a way to minimize conflict and show which cat has a higher status. A more dominant cat may go to its perch to demonstrate its status rather than directly engaging with another cat. Another cat may also choose the pathway they walk through a room as a way to minimize conflict. If they enter a room occupied by a higher-ranking cat, they can choose to walk the edges and avoid eye contact. All of these actions are done as a way to minimize conflict because a cat does not wish to engage another in a fight, they only do so if they feel they have no other option.
Some signs that your cats tolerate each other, but maybe don’t perceive each other as the same social group can also include guarding resources such as food, litter boxes, or a favorite perching spot, having separate territories within the home (i.e. one cat primarily spends their time upstairs and the other downstairs), or through time-shares.
Have you ever noticed how the neighborhood stray cat always appears around the same time every night? Outdoor cats will often make the same rounds around their territory at the same times of the day. This is when they patrol their territory and re-mark key areas. This time-share routine is so that they can minimize encounters with other cats. They have essentially divided up the territory based on the time of day. A similar thing can occur in the household. For example, a high-value perching spot may be occupied by one cat during the morning, and another in the evening.
Cat behavior can be very subtle, so it may not always be clear whether or not your cats get along. Just because they aren’t actively fighting, hissing, or growling, doesn’t mean they are best friends. Remember that a cat doesn’t desire to conflict with another cat and they never want to fight one another. They only do this when they feel threatened that something they need is in jeopardy. By limiting a cat's territory to the confines of our home, we are removing their ability to withdraw if there is a conflict or insufficient resources. It’s up to us to make sure needs are being met for all cats and when we do, there will be very little, if any conflict in the home.