Understanding Your Cats Social Nature and Behavior
Are cats social? Are cats solitary animals? Are they independent? Will a cat accept another cat into its home? Do cats fight for dominance? Are cats trainable? 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 a cat is trainable. 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.
However, I mention these methods because they are historically used by dog trainers who haven’t learned that there are better, gentler and more humane methods. See my book, Manners for the Modern Dog for these gentler methods.
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.
Part 1 dealt with the importance of scent, territory and early socialization. Before introducing a new cat into your home, it is best to review these issues. If either cat has not been adequately socialized, the chances are high that they will not accept one another. If you are not sure how much socialization your cat received as a kitten, observe her behavior and temperament right now. Does she welcome strangers coming into your home? Does she hide for days after they have left? Is your cat traumatized if you bring home a new piece of furniture? If your cat seems to prefer being the only cat, then you should respect that and not try to change your cats preference.
When introducing a new cat, try to find one that has lived with cats before. It is best to introduce a cat that is different in age and sex to your resident cat. Introducing a kitten is ideal because it will be the least threatening to your cat. However, if your cat is a senior citizen, spare it the nuisance of a rambunctious kitten and get an older, mellow adult instead.
Fighting is less likely when cats are on unfamiliar territory. So bring your new cat home in a carrier and keep him confined to a single room for a few days. This will allow the new cat a chance to become familiar with his new territory. Provide him with his own food/water bowls, toys, litter box, scratching post and bedding. It is important that he feels secure in his new territory before meeting your resident cat.
Begin the introduction by letting the two cats get used to the smell of each other. Bring some of the resident cats bedding into the new cat’s room. Take some of the new cat’s bedding and put it where your resident cat can smell it. Keep exchanging or rotating their bedding. Cats are more likely to accept that which smells familiar to them. Let the cats sniff each other from under the door. Give them plenty of time to adjust to each other’s scent. If neither cat acts like it wants to break the door down to kill the other, then it is time to begin leaving the door open.
Eventually the new cat will creep out of its room and inevitably meet the resident cat. As per normal behavior described earlier, both cats will probably flee from each other to avoid confrontation. Their retreat away from each other may be preceded with a noisy bout of hissing and growling. Rarely is there an actual life threatening fight. The new cat will retreat to his room where he can rebuild his confidence to venture out again. The resident cat will not likely enter the new cats room because it bears the scent of the newcomer.
Don’t force your new cat and resident cat to meet. They will do so on their own terms when they are ready. Don’t be upset if the new cat or your resident cats remains in hiding for a few days. Most of their first encounters will appear hostile to you, but it is best not to interfere. If after a few months they do not work things out by themselves, do not intervene to try to make them get along. Your resident cat simply might not be suited to have another cat in the house. A medication called Clomipramine (Clomicalm) has been shown to have some value in alleviating inter-cat aggression in multi-cat households. However, if two cats continuously fight, it is best to separate them permanently. Cats are not pack animals and do not need to work out a social hierarchy to survive.
Part 3 will look at the cat’s predatory nature. Why does kitty bring home dead mice? Are they tokens of gratitude or does kitty think you need a change in diet? Is it possible to train your cat not to chase birds? Can your cat coexist with your pet hamster or rabbit?