CVC Highlights: Dispelling the myth of the asocial cat
Contrary to popular belief, cats are not asocial creatures.
Contrary to popular belief, cats are not asocial creatures. Historically, cats have been misclassified as asocial partly because of preconceived ideas: The same behavior interpreted as social in dogs has been seen as asocial in cats (e.g. ritualized threat behavior). However, when we refer to cats as social creatures, we don't mean they're social in the same sense that dogs or people are because every species has its own social patterns.
In general, social animals form long-term pair bonds, live in family groups, or live in larger groups with a relatively stable long-term membership. In addition, members of a social group exhibit individual recognition, cooperative behavior, and reciprocal communication. All of these characteristics apply to cats. If cats weren't social, how could they engage in dominant and subordinate relationships with each other? And cats, like other mammals, care for their young and must interact to mate.
While cats can survive in the solitary state, they form social groups with an internal structure whenever food resources are sufficient to support them. Solitary behavior is more common when food is scarce.
Understanding the normal social behavior of cats is important in order to raise and manage cats in a way that facilitates desirable, friendly behavior and minimizes the chance of aggression and other undesirable behaviors developing. Here are some normal social behaviors in cats.
When colony behavior is studied, the greatest amount of cooperative behavior occurs among queens, especially related queens. The queens cooperatively rear their young, which involves communal nesting, nursing, grooming, guarding, and midwifing behavior. Midwifing behavior is rare in nonhuman species but can occur in cats; it includes eating the placenta and cleaning both the newborn kittens and perineal area of the queen giving birth.1,2
Allorubbing is probably the feline equivalent of hugging and handshaking in people. It is more common in feral cats than in housecats.3-5 When allorubbing, cats probably exchange scent. So one function of allorubbing may be to make colony members who have returned from hunting smell like the colony again. Cats' habit of rubbing against their owners' legs, especially when the owners return home, is probably a carryover from this behavior. These cats may identify their owners as their colony.2 Reciprocation from the owner by petting (rubbing) the cat may facilitate this behavior.
Within a colony, two or more cats usually will associate more closely with one another than they will with other colony members. These preferred associates (friends) allogroom, allorub, and show increased physical contact. Resource availability doesn't cause this behavior; these cats are together because of a social bond. Preferred associates may be any gender mix, including intact males. Cats that are more familiar with each other, such as those that have lived together longer, are more likely to be close to each other than cats that are less familiar with each other. Likewise, related cats are more likely to associate with each other than with nonrelated cats; being related has a stronger effect than familiarity.1
Adult cats help socialize kittens; extensive social learning occurs from 2 to 16 weeks and beyond. Adults teach kittens such things as hunting and not playing too roughly. If a kitten is isolated from other cats at a young age (5 weeks) and another cat is introduced into its environment later, the cat that had been isolated may be socially incompetent.2
Sharon L. Crowell-Davis, DVM, PhD, DACVB
Department of Veterinary Anatomy and Radiology
College of Veterinary Medicine
University of Georgia
Athens, GA 30602
Sharon L. Crowell-Davis, DVM, PhD, DACVB
1. Curtis TM, Knowles RJ, Crowell-Davis SL. Influence of familiarity and relatedness on proximity and allogrooming in domestic cats (Felis catus). Am J Vet Res 2003;64:1151-1154.
2. Crowell-Davis SL. Cat behaviour: social organization, communication and development. In: Rochlitz I, ed. The welfare of cats. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer, 2005;1-22.
3. Barry KJ, Crowell-Davis SL. Gender differences in the social behavior of the neutered indoor-only domestic cat. Appl Anim Behav Sci 1999;64:193-211.
4. Sung W. Effect of gender on initiation of proximity in free ranging domestic cats (Felis catus) . MS thesis, University of Georgia, 1998.
5. Wolfe RC. The social organization of the free ranging domestic cat (Felis catus). MS thesis, University of Georgia, 2001.