Cat Social Behavior

Are cats social? Are cats solitary animals? Are cats independent? Will a cat accept another cat into its home? Do cats fight for dominance? The answer to these questions is both yes and no.

Cats are indeed a solitary species. But they can and do live in groups. This seems confusing to us because we are social animals and have a difficult time understanding and accepting a different social structure. Our other companion pet, the dog, is also a social or pack animal. He fits right in with our way of thinking and living. The cat does not.

We tend to look at our pets as little people with human emotions and needs. When our cat does not accept or become friends with the new cat we bring home, we automatically think something is wrong and that both cats are unhappy. That's because we're superimposing on the cat our standards for "happiness."

Cats can live in groups but they don't need to. For social/pack animals such as humans and dogs, living and functioning as a group is a necessity. The process of domestication facilitates social interaction of cats with other cats and humans. Kittens are usually quite friendly and playful with other cats and their human family. They participate in family functions. We perpetuate these kitten qualities through ongoing care and play with them. The kitten matures physically, but mentally retains kitten-like behavior. Cats that retain kitten-like behavior adjust to and probably prefer group living.

Some people describe cats as untrainable. Again that's from the human perspective. Of course. What makes a cat appear untrainable is the fact that it will perform what it was trained to do on the basis of whether or not it wants to do it. Because the cat is not a pack animal, there is no inherent need or desire for the cat to comply with anyone's wishes but its own. We humans have a difficult time accepting this because we relate as pack animals. A social group has a set of hierarchies and each individual has its place. There is an inherent need to be loyal, to belong, to show subordination/compliance to a superior member of the group. Dogs respond to peer pressure. Cats do not. Because dogs can be bullied and intimidated into obedience, we expect that the cat should too. If you try to train a cat using pain-avoidance techniques that are often used in dog training, the only "pain" the cat will avoid is you! Thus making the cat appear aloof and untrainable. As an editorial note, I strongly disapprove of punishment in dog training.

Fighting for dominance is rare. Cats are more likely to fight to defend their territory. Cats generally do not like confrontation. They go to extremes to avoid one another in order to avoid possible confrontation. Free ranging cats frequently have overlapping territories with a network of shared pathways. If one cat sees another cat on the path, he will wait until that cat is gone before going any further himself. If the two cats see each other at the same time, either they will both try to out-wait the other, or one or both will turn around and return the way they came. They will go through this ritual of avoidance even if one cat has already established itself as dominant over the other.

Cats do not use their dominant or subordinate rank to control each other. A dominant cat will allow a subordinate cat to pass first on the pathway. A dominant cat will not take food away from a subordinate cat. Cats seem to prefer non-confrontation. If a confrontation does occur, it is usually a noisy ritual of aggressive displays, rather than actual tooth and nail combat.

Why and How to Socialize a Cat

If you do not want your cat to be fearful of or aggressive towards people (including children), other cats or even dogs, it is best to socialize them as kittens. Socialization in kittenhood has a pronounced and long lasting effect on the cat's personality. If a kitten is raised in a large active home with several children, other pets and frequent visitors coming and going, then as an adult, it will readily accept strangers. If the cat grows up in a quiet home with a single owner, then as an adult, it will most likely react adversely when approached and touched by strangers.

If you want your cat to socialize freely and happily, you must give it plenty of opportunity as a kitten to socialize and play with different people, friendly cats and dogs. Most kittens are not threatened by strangers, so socializing them is easy. It is essential that these early experiences are fun and rewarding. If your cat has a terrifying experience as a kitten, then it will most likely remain fearful of these events into adulthood. Don't wait until your cat is in emergency need of veterinary attention before getting it used to a veterinary exam. Don't wait until your cat's hair is matted before getting it used to being groomed. Start socializing and getting your cat used to being touched and handled before your cat has any unpleasant experiences. To assure that your cat doesn't become permanently frightened of strangers, vet exams, grooming procedures, etc., make sure that it learns to enjoy these experiences early in life.

For adult cats that already feel threatened by the presence of strangers, the socialization process is much more time consuming. Adult cats must be given more time to familiarize themselves with strangers. If your cat is nervous around people, don't let these people approach your cat. They will just further frighten him. You should also not force your cat to meet strangers. Instead, give your cat the opportunity to approach the stranger on his own. It may take hours, it may take weeks. But until your cat approaches on his own terms, and finds that nothing bad happens, he will not develop his own confidence to trust people. You can speed up the process by starting with a hungry cat and a trail of extremely tasty treats leading up to the stranger. Each step the cat takes toward the person is rewarded with a treat. With this set up, you and the other person should sit quietly and let the cat approach. The hungrier the cat and the better the treat, the quicker the cat will approach and overcome its fear.

However, if the cat is so fearful that it is inhibited from eating in front of the stranger, then the person should be several rooms away while the cat is eating its treats. Food treats should only be available when a visitor is in the house. As the cat becomes used to eating with someone else in the house, then the cat and person can slowly be brought closer and closer together. The first week they are 3 rooms away from each other, the second week they are 2 rooms away, and so on until they can both be present in the same room. Then you can start to trail the treats up to the visitor.

Once your cat is comfortable with the presence of strangers, the next step will be to accustom your cat to being touched and held.

Cat Social Behavior

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