Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Do Groups of Cats Form a Hierarchical Family?

By Langley Cornwell

Our cat and our dog are completely bonded, with one another and with us. I’ve had dogs all my life but this is my first cat. As such, I’d never had the opportunity to observe feline behavior; the only thing I knew about cats was what I’d been told. One thing I heard over and over was how independent cats are. Sure, they are socially quite different than dogs but still, our cat loves his family time. He and his sister (the dog) play together, hang out together and even sleep together. The cat follows right along on our dog walks, which keeps the neighbors laughing. He’s an indoor/outdoor cat and enjoys his time patrolling the neighborhood, but whenever we come out for dog walks, he magically appears by our side and trots right along.

I certainly wouldn’t classify our cat as the independent type. I’ve always attributed his loving, bonding nature to the fact that we rescued him at a tender age (he wasn’t properly weaned). Moreover, we rescued our dog at the same time, so they were raised right alongside one another. We think both of our animals have a bit of species confusion; our dog digs a hole before she eliminates, but that’s a different article entirely.

Several years ago an older male cat named Jack moved into the neighborhood. It wasn’t long before the two cats were best friends. They hang out on one another’s front porch. They wait at each other’s door if the other one isn’t out yet – just like kids who go to their friend’s house to see if ‘Johnny can come out and play.’ It’s gotten to the point where Jack likes to hang out in our house and vice-versa. My cat and Jack have even shared a meal or two, especially now that I have Jack’s guardian feeding him FELIDAE cat food. Jack’s human companion is absolutely amazed, because until they moved into our neighborhood, Jack had always been a solitary cat. She says he used to get into ferocious cat fights in their old neighborhood. Not here, Jack and my cat are tight.

Where is all the aloof, standoffish behavior I’d been told of? I thought cats were not a social species, but my observations (granted, of a very small sample size) made me think otherwise. I started wondering: do cats form social bonds? Do groups of cats form a hierarchal structure?

According to the Catster website, there was a time when scientists thought lions were the only cats that lived in a social structure, within their prides. Upon further investigation, they discovered that bobcats and cheetahs also form hierarchical groups. Then the notion that domestic cats live a solitary lifestyle was reexamined.

As it turns out, some cats have evolved into being sociable. Although there are cats that still prefer a solitary existence, recent research indicates that domestic cats are not only social but that their social structure includes intricate matriarchal hierarchies, similar to a lion’s pride.

Feral cat colonies

Feral cats know ‘it takes a village.’ Observers of feral cats report that related females living together in colonies can become so tightly bonded that they share a den when having kittens, act as midwives for one another, nurse each other's kittens, help raise one another’s kittens and join together to fight off threats.

Multi-cat households

In households with multiple cats (or neighborhoods in our case), the animals usually form a hierarchical structure. And with household cats, it’s not all matriarchal. If the males are neutered the social network is not restricted to females or to related cats. Of course, our cat and his cat-friend are both neutered so that makes sense.

The hierarchy

When our cat enters the house, he often greets me by rubbing against my legs. Sometimes he then goes to the dog and rubs against her. Catster says the rubbing action is the way a cat lets you know you rank higher than he does within your small social group; that cats rub against their companions to mingle their scents, which reinforces their bond.

We’re pretty sure Jack is the Alpha Cat, which is why the two cats get along so well. I’ve seen our cat greet Jack with a lean or a rub, and he almost always defers to Jack. So while our little buddy is full of swagger, at the end of the day he’s more interested in playing pranks and getting love than climbing the social ladder.

He’s one smart cat.

Photo by Per Ola Wiberg

Read more articles by Langley Cornwell


  1. That is so true. Cats do kind of form groups. Around here with all these cats, they definitely stay in groups and some of them stay entirely by themselves. It is all really interesting.

  2. That's so cute! I can just picture Jack waiting outside for your cat, like a couple of kids waiting to play. :)

    From just my two cats, I can tell a type of hierarchy between them.

    I didn't know when they rub on you they are letting you know you rank higher than them. My dog Brut always rubs on my legs like a cat, I wonder if he's tell me the same thing. BOL!


  3. Oh yeah, cats definitely form groups, and not all are the independent, aloof creatures many would have you believe.

  4. I often suspect their affectionate intentions, being fully aware that they can manipulate humans. ;-) Dogs are givers, cats are whatever they feel like being at any given time. I think their behaviour towards each other demonstrates their true nature better than how they interact with their humans.

  5. Cats definitely form social groups. They have friends and enemies just like us. Austin's best pal is Tigger and they are like your cat and Jack. Austin is the alpha cat though. Other neighbourhood cats do not go down so well with Austin and Tigger. Some they just tolerate, others they see off with a growl and a hiss! lol


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