Contrary to popular belief, feral cats are quite sociable, forming close friendships with others and collectively rearing their young. The myth of the antisocial cat persists because feline social organization is quite different from that of humans or dogs.
Feral Cat Colonies
Cats tend to form groups around available food sources and go off to hunt and scavenge on their own only when food is scarce. Feline colony sizes are quite variable, ranging from 2-15 individuals.
Related females and their young form the core of a feral cat colony, and one or more older males are usually attached to the group as well, though they may also mate with females of other groups. Some tomcats stay relatively close to a single colony, whereas others have wide-ranging territories.
The overall size of the group is determined by the availability of food sources and resting and hiding places, with some areas supporting bigger colonies than others. When cats must rely solely on hunting for their food, groups tend to be smaller, whereas when there are scavenging opportunities (such as a nearby garbage dump), larger feline colonies are found.
Cooperative Rearing of Kittens
In feral cat colonies, females usually act as midwives during the birth of one another’s kittens and cooperatively raise their young, nursing, nesting, guarding, and grooming communally, as well as teaching kittens how to behave appropriately among other cats. Kittens that are taken away from their families when they are too young will usually be socially incompetent in adulthood.
Female cats in a colony will often band together to repel other animals, including lone cats and cats from other colonies that encroach on their territory. They may eventually allow a stranger to join after a number of interactions, but unknown cats can’t just walk into a territory and expect to be accepted.
In addition to helping to protect against invading tomcats, males have been observed caring for kittens in their own colonies. Some males share their food with young cats, groom them, and curl up around those that have been abandoned to keep them warm. They have even been witnessed breaking up fights between kittens, separating them gently with one paw when a fight gets out of hand.
Group Bonding and Friendships Among Cats
Cats engage in a bonding behaviour called allorubbing, which can be likened to a handshake or a hug among people. In cat colonies, members of a group will rub their bodies up against one another to reinforce their group identity by transferring scents.
Within any given group, there are often subgroups of two or more cats that spend a lot of time grooming each other and maintaining physical contact. Such friendships may occur between two females, two males, or a female and a male. Cats are more likely to become best friends with those who are related to them, but close friendships can form among nonrelated individuals as well.
Feline Hierarchy and Conflict
While there are dominant and subordinate individuals in a cat colony, unlike dogs, cats don’t maintain a clearly defined hierarchy wherein each individual is ranked above or below each other individual. There is often an alpha cat (usually the oldest female) that enjoys the highest status and privileged access to resources. Other cats usually decide who owns everything else on a case-by-case basis, and in some cases ownership of prime sleeping spots and other resources changes daily.
In-group fights are more likely when resources are scarce, both among feral and domestic cats. People who wish to introduce a new cat to a household with resident cats should keep this in mind, providing plenty of food bowls and litter boxes to reduce the likelihood of territorial conflict. When resources are plentiful, females in a group rarely fight, though males will often fight for access to females. However, the territories of tomcats tend to overlap and no single male is able to monopolize all the females in his territorial range, no matter how good his fighting skills are.
Heavier males tend to rank more highly than their lighter counterparts when it comes to female mating preference within their own colonies, but when they attempt to win females from other groups, they are sometimes defeated in fights with lighter males who belong to those groups. This reduces their rank and subsequent mating opportunities within the new groups. As such, tomcats appear to have a “home court advantage” when it comes to winning mates.
For a full list of cat articles, see the main Cats page.
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