June is Adopt-a-Cat Month! Missoula is very lucky to have several no-kill shelters that are wonderful at finding new homes for stray and “unwanted” cats. Adopting a new cat can be a rewarding experience for both the cat and his or her new family, especially when the new cat fits right in. However, the experience can also be a bit daunting when there is already a cat or 2 in the household, and they don’t all get along right away. But, why do some cats fit in more readily than others? This month we will take a look at how feral cats interact socially to better understand their house cat counterparts.

Cats developed as solitary hunters without the need for complex social interactions. As such, they appear to have a relatively limited ability to signal appeasement to other cats in situations of conflict, so there is a much higher probability of fighting. This is most important when a new cat comes into a household: there is no way to leave the resident cats’ territory or signal “submission”.

So, let’s take a look at normal, feral domestic cat behavior. While this may seem like an oxymoron, feral cats are still domestic cats; they just live their lives without direct interaction with humans (and prefer it that way). A genetic link has recently been found in feral females wherein a percentage of their kittens will be feral no matter how much human interaction they have, even from a very young age. Feral cats are also not stray cats. Stray cats are familiar with humans, and while they may be skittish of humans, they will interact and socialize with us–given a little time and patience. Feral cats avoid direct human contact at virtually all cost.

Now, how do cats behave together? Almost all feline species live (mostly) solitary lives. However, some feral cats will live in colonies that loosely resemble lion prides. A colony consists of a group of (usually) related females and their offspring. The size of the colony depends on the availability of food and other resources. Domestic cats do develop a social hierarchy, but it is not highly defined as it is for dogs. There will be a dominant, usually older, female who gets privileged access to resources such as food and sleeping areas. The remaining cats decide who gets the best access to resources on a case-by case basis, which can change daily. The best example in house cats is the “favorite sleeping spot” (chair, window, bed, etc.): which cat you find sleeping in it can change daily. Adult male cats do not live within a colony, but amicable behavior between females and males can occur, especially where there is considerable familiarity.

Female cats (queens) share many activities together, such as raising kittens and guarding the colony from intruders. Queens will nurse, groom, and guard each others’ kittens as well as teach them appropriate behaviors. Queens in a colony will often band together to repel other animals, including lone cats and cats from other colonies that encroach on their territory. Sometimes, strange cats may eventually be allowed into the group after a number of interactions.

Dominant males have also been observed caring for kittens within their own colonies. They may share their food and groom young cats, and have even been witnessed breaking up fights between kittens, separating them gently with one paw when a fight gets out of hand. The one activity cats don’t share is hunting. Each cat will hunt on its own in its own area. Areas may overlap, but there is no cooperation in catching prey.

Intact male cats also have a loose hierarchy and consists of the dominant (usually largest) cat followed by the subordinate cats. The dominant male will have the largest territory, while the other males in the area will have smaller overlapping territories. All of the male territories will typically overlap 1 or more female colonies. Neutered males will have much smaller territories and are less likely to aggressively defend their territories from other male cats. Overlapping territories may contain ‘neutral areas’ where male cats may greet and interact with each other. Strange cats encroaching into another cat’s territory will provoke an aggressive interaction to warn off the intruder through staring, hissing and growling. If this is not effective, there will be a violent attack.

Cats maintain close social interactions by engaging in bonding behaviors called allorubbing and allogrooming. Members of the group will groom each other and rub their bodies up against one another to reinforce their group identity by transferring scents. Two or more cats may also form subgroups that spend a lot of time grooming and maintaining physical contact. Many people will consider these cats to be “bonded.” Such friendships can occur between females, males, or a female and a male. Cats are more likely to bond with those who are related to them, but close friendships can form among non-related individuals as well.

Inter-cat aggression is not common within colonies, as the strong familiarity and relatedness among females helps keep aggression to a minimum. In-group fighting can occur but is more likely when resources are scarce. Aggression is most common when male kittens reach sexual maturity and are excluded from the group. Males are rarely aggressive towards females; however, females will often be aggressive to males that wander too close. But, as mentioned earlier, there are times when males and females will interact socially. Mature, intact males do not typically interact socially and interactions usually involve fighting, avoidance, or tolerance. Males often fight for access to females.

Now that we understand a little better how cats interact together, we can use this information to more easily transition new cats into the household! Next month, we will look at ways to minimize stress and possible fighting when a new cat is introduced into the home!

As always, new adoptions get a free examination within the first month after adoption! =^_^=