Social Structure of Feral Cat Colonies

feral cats
Feral Cats, KUSHI, Wikimedia Commons

Contrary to popular belief, feral cats are quite sociable, forming close friendships with others and collectively rearing their young. The myth of the asocial 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, reducing their rank and subsequent mating opportunities within the new groups. In other words, 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.

References:

    • Aspinall, Victoria. (2006). Complete Textbook of Veterinary Nursing. Oxford, UK: Butterworth-Heinemann.
    • Crowell-Davis, Sharon. (1 November 2006). “CVC Highlights: Dispelling the Myth of the Asocial Cat.” VeterinaryMedicine.dvm360.com.
    • Dards, Jane L. (1976). “Feral Cat Behaviour and Ecology.” Bulletin of the Feline Advisory Bureau, 15(3). FeralCats.org.uk.
    • Jongman, Ellen C., & Werribee, Victoria. (2007). Does Confinement Improve the Welfare of Domestic Cats? RSPCA.org.au.
    • Shojai, Amy D. (2005). PETiQuette: Solving Behavior Problems in Your Multi-Pet Household. New York: M. Evans and Company, Inc.
    • Yamane, Akihiro; Doi, Teruo; & Ono, Yuiti. (1996). “Mating Behaviors, Courtship Rank and Mating Success of Male Feral Cat (Felis catus). Journal of Ethology, 14(1), pp. 35-44.

14 thoughts on “Social Structure of Feral Cat Colonies”

  1. Am managing urban residential colony. 13 yr old alpha male dad, granddad, great grandad, etc. presides over colony. His mate of 7-8 yrs died year ago. Caused cat great distress, depression, by my observations. Cat also has close human friends & socializes with many others. Cat vanished last week. He ALWAYS stays close to colony. Protects, oversees, nurtures kittens & youth. Smokey’s missing. Vanished. Word out; reward issued. Cats in colony anxious, behaviors off, seeming confused. Meanwhile wondering what adjustments cats will make. Always was under leadership of this 13-14 lb Maine Coon. What can I do to help. The cats have many bonds with each other and with me. Quite worried. The 2nd oldest is 5-6 lb tough, wirey female Calico & doesn’t like humans. Don’t think colony will defer to her. Please comment.

    1. Somebody adopted an “alpha” dad/granddad/greatdad from my colony also in May 2016. He disappeared, and I was devastated. I went door to door and walked around the woods looking for him for months. In August 2016, I discovered that a woman and her daughter took him in because he had fight wounds and they decided to keep him.

  2. I have a feral cat Colon. Four females, one big red male appr. 2-3 yes old and one yr old grey male who is sort of tamed. And a big tuxedo domestic tom that’s been coming around about three four months….the tuxedo male beats the crap out of the other two males…will my youngbgrey boy come back home….he is better house broken than most dogs…I miss him…he will go for a few days but come home. But I think he’s frightened of the big tuxedo male…

  3. There can be only one male. We feed a colony and have noticed the last three years two males were chased out by their dad, the alpha cat. They move on to different territory, however…we did feed these two at 2 or 3 in the morning a couple of times. Right now, we see a young female just gave birth 4 weeks ago, and has been very aggressive towards her mothers kitten..Whats that about

    1. It is actually different all the time, depending on the cats living in the colony I believe. I cared for a mega-colony of 70 cats for a few years. The colony was composed of several family groups, and I noticed that sometimes the adult males left the colony of their own freewill and would let their kids take over. In those cases, I witnessed the dads coming to visit their kids once a month or so. I have also seen dads and sons stay in the same territory together, but the younger boys usually do leave, though they sometimes just leave to mate and then return to live in their original colony.

  4. I have a colony with three sisters and an older and probably unrelated female. A male cat also comes by late at night to eat. Initially, I thought they were feral, but they have slowly they warmed to me. They act like my pets now.

    1. The colony I cared for was feral, but after feeding them for a year or two half of them were sitting on my lap! Yours could be feral but they just trust and love you so much that they have accepted you into their colony now, ha ha!

  5. Looking for advise. I found a feral kiten last July 2017. It took months of feeding before i could even touch him. Over the months he let me pet him mote. He onpy will let me touch him In Jan 2018 i found him in field with large open wounds and took him to vet. He is really good with vet. We treated the wounds and afyer 10 days we had him neutered and shots. I have since set him up in extra bathroom with litter box, food, water, bed and toys. He will crawl up in my lap and give me kisses. My issue is due to shaved area on his back is slowly growing in and i afraid to release him back outside due to easy to be attacked. The outside pride of 3 has 1 female that seems not to accept hom before this. I already have 2 disabled kitties and my therapy cat inside and can not keep him inside. What is best way to reintroduce him to outside pride to adjust. or should i try to rehome him( only thorough i terview)?

  6. I have been feeding a large male, non neutered male for 8 years. He lives under our deck and gets along well with our house cats. This past fall I started trapping the females, getting them neutered and then releasing 6 of them. We even got a litter of 3 kittens that I was able to foster for 6 weeks, socialize and adopt out. I have not been able to catch the big guy. In the last week, another larger black, non-neutered male has been showing up and eating from our feeding area. My sweet old guy is nowhere to be seen. Was he likely driven off by the young guy? Tonight, on the first try, I got the younger male and will take him to the Humane Society on Monday and them release in a few days. With the younger guy neutered, do you think my old guy will feel safe to come back?

  7. I have an unintentionally formed colony . Started with one gray male who showed up at my house one day looking for food. Couldn’t touch him at first, but after a month he let me. Another month after that he came with a friend. A couple of weeks later another cat showed up and it was obvious the first two cats were not happy with the third cat. The third cat was very passive and didn’t get upset if the other cats hissed at him. Eventually they accepted him into their small group. it’s been over six months now of these three TNR’d feral males come everyday like clockwork to eat and they even come into the house and relax for a couple of hours before leaving for the day.
    Not sure if they are going to give up the outside world. It’s amazing to see the adaptability of a feral cat when given time and patience.

  8. Took to relocate feral colony from closing junk yard, Guess junkyard dude cuddled them as 3 now inside and sleep with me. 4 outside on my porch, if they want to come in, will get them.

    Now 4 outside are running off 3 other ferals, not ‘mine’ but I feed. Someone besides me does TNR here (in farm county)

    What can I do to make sure ones not mine can eat? Feed at three locations but my junkyard cats stalk them, short of closing up stalkers…hate to lock up wild cats.

  9. We recently introduced a mixed breed puppy into our household of 3 cats..all of whom are rescue animals. Prior to the puppy coming into our home the three cats were friendly but independent….and the center of attention. The puppy has been a big change for everyone ..sharing space and attention has been difficult. While it seemed that we were making progress in settling everyone in slowly…the cats who now seemed to have formed a little gang lead by he older female ..and together jumped the puppy who submitted right away. The puppy wants to be friends and is not aggressive with the cats. We are trying to have areas were each has their own space and playtime with us. Any suggestions about curbing the cats aggressive behavior.

  10. I feed a large colony of ~15 cats ruled by an older (6-10 years, by vet’s estimation) alpha intact male, and he had another intact male sidekick that he occasionally had small skirmishes with, but mostly they just had a seemingly cordial relationship. (Though his BFF was a female that semi-belongs to a neighbor and stays on his porch. Not sure if she is spayed, but I think so.) The rest are female, and at least half of them have been TNRed.

    A couple of months ago, a new intact young, HUGE male showed up, and threw the whole colony (and seemingly a couple of nearby loosely related colonies, also) into disarray. The alpha was defeated, and seemingly the other existing alpha males in their respective colonies.

    The alpha was already my closest cat friend in the community. He came by several weeks ago in pretty rough shape. He already was missing an eye (old injury), chunks of ear, etc.), and then had a huge gash on his head, and scrapes/cuts/bites/scratches all over. So… I moved him into my house! (Gradually giving him more and more freedom in the house; I have two spayed older females.)

    It’s going great, and Bruce is taking really well to a cushy retirement! My cats are only slightly annoyed, and we haven’t had much conflict at all. The only real issues we have are around mealtimes. My cats think he’s a rude jerk with bad boundaries. 🙂 Otherwise, they’re like, meh, whatever, girls rule, boys drool.

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