Social organization and communication in cats (Proceedings)


A practical guide to feline social organization and communication.


  • A species in which individuals form no enduring social relationships, living most of their lives in a solitary condition, and forming no enduring pair bonds.


  • Literally, Not Social

  • A species in which individuals do not engage in social interactions with each other


  • A group of animals which gather around a common resource, such as food or water. It is the resource, and not any internal organization of the group which causes the proximity of the individuals, and cooperative behavior does not occur within the group.


  • A species is classified as social if members 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 the social group exhibit individual recognition, cooperative behavior and reciprocal communication.

"Social" does not mean

  • Social the way humans are

  • Or

  • Social the way dogs are


  • "An individual to which another consistently gives way is said to be dominant in the relationship, the other being subordinate..." — Immelman and Beer, 1989, A Dictionary of Ethology

Dominance hierarchy

  • The order of ranks within a group of animals

  • Construct by humans, using mathematics

  • Animals may or may not recognize the relationships between other individuals

  • A may know that she is dominant to B and to C, but may not know that B is dominant to C.


  • May or may not be linear

  • Linear: A-> B ->C->D

  • Non-linear: A->B->C D is subordinate to C, but dominant to B

  • Within a given species, a variety of variables, including group size and environmental conditions, will affect whether or not the hierarchy within a given group is linear.

Social organization

  • When food resources allow, free-living and feral cats form colonies with relatively stable long term membership.

  • Show individual recognition

  • Have preferred associates

  • Communicate with each other

  • Social organization-Matriarchal "Adult females associate in lineages which are the building blocks of cat society."

     o MacDonald, Yamaguchi & Kerby 2000

  • Queens cooperatively rear young

  • Communal nesting

     o Nursing

     o Grooming

     o Guarding

     o Midwifing

  • Often, but not necessarily, related

  • Preferred associates [Determined by relative frequency within 1 meter (Wolfe 2001)]

  • Can be

     o female-female pairs

     o male-male pairs

     o male-female pairs

  • Multiple sets of preferred associates may effectively form trios or tetrads of cats that form a 'clique' within the larger group.

Special note!

  • Intact males may

     o be preferred associates

     o allorub

     o allogroom

     o rest together

  • At this point, there is no direct evidence that they form alliances, as male lions do.

  • Preferred associates

  • Allogroom more

  • Allorub more

  • Are in physical contact more

     o than non preferred associate

     o (Wolfe 2001)

Preferred associates (Wolfe, 2001)

  • Preferred associates do not associate exclusively at specific sites of preferred resources, e.g. food, resting sites. Instead, they are often found together in a large number of sites. (Chi-square: Association was random with regard to location.)

  • This rules out the hypothesis that they simply tend to go to the same resources at the same time of day, or are forming aggregations.

  • They are together for another reason, i.e. a social bond.


  • As with horses, is often done in an area that is difficult for the cat being groomed to reach.

  • One advantage to colony living—you get your head cleaned


  • By ad libitum reports, occurs more when cats return to the colony after being gone for awhile, presumably hunting

  • May serve to exchange scent

     o Colony odor?

  • Significance of tactile contact and communication?

Friendly greeting: Tail Up

  • Allorubbing is usually preceded by a tail-up approach by at least one cat and is most likely to occur if both cats approach tail-up.

     o (Brown 1993; Bernstein and Strack 1996; Cameron-Beaumont 1997)

Tail-wrapping as a component of rubbing

Physical contact

  • Occurs even in hot, humid weather

  • Serves another function than thermoregulation


  • Adult cats, including free-living and feral cats which must hunt to survive, play.

Time together

  • For pairs of cats, the longer they have been together, the less overt aggression occurs. This is consistent with the formation of stable dominance relationships which rely on dominance signaling, rather than overt aggression.

     o Barry and Crowell-Davis, 1999


  • Relatives and cats that a given cat is more familiar with are more likely to be nearest neighbors than non-relatives and cats a given cat is not familiar with. Being related is more important than familiarity

     o Curtis, Knowles and Crowell-Davis 2004

     o AJVR

Socialization of kittens and juveniles

  • What roles do adults play in the social education of juveniles?

Raising kittens?

  • Extensive social learning occurs from 2-16 weeks and beyond.

  • Raising cats from 5-6 weeks onward with no contact with their own species can result in serious incompetence in social skills.

Non-group members?

  • Recognized as "strangers" and are either driven from the group or, if they are successful in persistent attempts to join the group, cause a period of conflict and disorganization within the group.

     o e.g. MacDonald et al.1987, Wolfe 2001

Polygamous species


  • Two major strategies

     o Spend most of their time with a particular group

  • Develop strong affiliative relationships with the queens in that group. Defend kittens.

     o Migrate from group to group, seeking estrous queens

  • Maximize opportunities to mate with multiple queens

Solitary activity

  • Primary diet is small rodents

  • One cat requires several small rodents a day

  • Hunting technique involves quiet, slow stalk of rodent with sudden killing pounce.

  • Most effectively done alone

Solitary life

  • Food is widely dispersed and insufficient to support a colony

  • Hunting-dispersion

  • Spray marks may assist cats which are members of the same colony in dispersing, so that they do not interfere with each others hunting

  • How did they become social?

  • Ancestor Felis libyca is presumed to be solitary and asocial

  • Reclusive, cryptic cat about which little is known

Is Felis libyca really solitary?

  • During field studies in North Africa, MacDonald (1996) observed Felis libyca joining a group of feral Felis catus.

  • Smithers (1983) observed tame F. libyca females bringing food to each other when one or the other had kittens.

  • Selection pressure on ancestral Felis libyca

  • Early human farming settlements in North Africa provided concentrated food resources which attracted large numbers of cats.

  • Selection pressure

  • Long period of maternal care as mother teaches growing kittens to hunt.

  • With population density around concentrated food resources, cat families that extended cooperation and social behavior into adulthood would have been more successful than asocial or solitary individuals.

Dominance in Cats

  • Dominance relationships do form between cats.

  • For some dyads, the asymmetrical nature of the relationship is reinforced regularly, while for other dyads, cooperation is more obvious in the relationship than is agonistic interaction.

  • Within the group, dominance hierarchies are formed (e.g.Natoli et al. 2001)


  • Ears up and rotated so aperture is more lateral

  • Hind limbs extended and stiff

  • Base of tail elevated/Remainder of tail drooped

  • Head wag

  • Approach

  • Eye stare


  • Ears down/back

  • Tail down

  • Head down

  • Crouched

  • Avoidance

  • Rolling over

     o Feldman 1994

Fear aggression

  • Arched back

  • Ears back

  • Tail arched or straight up

  • Shows teeth

  • Piloerection

  • Hisses

  • Growls

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