Monday, 25 January 2010

Making friends - how do our cats communicate?

The domestic cat has had a longstanding reputation for being solitary and as a result has been required to live alone within many of our homes. An increasing body of research work has made it clear that our cats are actually HIGHLY SOCIABLE CREATURES. Whenever there are sufficient resources, the domestic cat will form close friendships for life, they are even known to nurse each others young!

Without fully understanding what will promote either friendly or aggressive behaviour, multi-cat households can bring with them a variety of behavioural problems, including aggression and conflict over resources, such as food, resting sites and litter boxes, or even in-house urination. An understanding of the natural social organisation, relationships and communication between cats is therefore essential.

The Social Feline and Communication

In the wild, colonies are based on blood relationships, set-up in resource-filled environments. These cats have been born and raised in natural conditions, learning the essential social skills for maintaining group harmony from their peers, to ensure optimal survival (1) .

Cats recognize members of their colonies vs strange cats, and as with all territorial species, unfamiliar cats are not allowed to suddenly approach anothers’ territory, instead they may be slowly integrated ithrough a gradual process, using scent communication to ‘introduce’ one another appropriately (2) .

1. Scratching
From the tree-dwelling Cimolestes living amongst the Dinosaurs 65 million years ago, the domestic cat has evolved and adapted to use its protractile claws as an adaptable tool for climbing, hunting, killing, eating, defence as well as communication (3) .

As fragments of claw and claw sheath are often found embedded within the vertical surfaces scratched upon, it has been assumed that the purpose of scratching is to maintain healthy claws. However if this was true, we would be regularly witnessing the cat scratch with its hind feet!

Scientific evidence suggests that these highly social animals use their claws to communicate to others both through sight and scent, the passing cat will not only see the scratches imbedded within the tree-trunk or gate-post, but he would also be able to smell the chemical messengers deposited from the sebaceous glands of the feet (4) . From this he will understand the age, gender and health of that cat, but he will also know how long ago that cat passed this area, thus avoiding confrontation.

2. Spraying
Spraying behaviour as part of the cats’ normal set of behaviours is another strategy used to maintain harmonious social structures amongst colonies. When patrolling the periphery of his territory, spraying in this way enables communication to any passing cats, mapping his territory and providing vital information about him self. As well as being extremely useful for avoiding confrontation, this behaviour helps with the mating process and regulates hunting behaviour within the area (5) .

3. Allorubbing
When two cats are familiar with one another, alongside other affiliative behaviours such as resting together, grooming, playing and so on, scent communication maintains its importance.

Colony members have been consistently seen allorubbing, whereby the cats rub up and down each other's sides. The head, sides and tail are all involved in this behaviour, which may go on for several minutes. As with most feline behaviours, there are many noted motivations to this behaviour, but alongside the tactile components to this behaviour, this intense facilitates exchange of scent, suggesting that familiar cats maintain a ‘colony smell’ (6) .

Managing Multi-Cat Households

Often in the domestic setting our cats come up against a range of issues and try to adapt accordingly.

1. One factor to look into when dealing with a multi-cat problem in your own home would refer to resources. Resource Holding Potential (7) is an important factor to take into account when many cats occupy smaller households, it is an evolutionary stable strategy, devised to maintain group harmony and therefore keep the colony alive and well.

Each cat learns that for every resource, every member of the colony has a certain position, giving them first, second, third, etc. refusal over each resource available within their environment. This way every member of can keep track of each other. They are also able to avoid competition and potential injury by understanding ‘her place’.

This differs to the commonly believed notion of ‘pecking order’ only observed in birds, as Resource Holding Potential status of each colony member differs for different resources. The cat does not work on domination, but on group harmony. Injuries however can occur when cats are under pressure in terms of resource.

Resources will include:
• Good quality, natural feeds
• Comfortable sleeping sites
• Space to move, explore and investigate
• Vigilance posts
• Scratching and Bunting posts

Things that have been found to de-stabilise Resource Holding Potential, include:
• Lack of resource quantity
• Lack of good quality resources
• Diminishing space
• Sickness or ill-health
• Changes in structure, where new relationships are encountered, Resource Holding Potential’s need to be re-established.

2. The second factor would concern individual cats’ behavioural issues, say an aggressive cat causing another cat to adopt nervous urinary patterns around the home.

This relates to the effects of previous learning within our domestic environment, i.e. has he or she associated any negative incidence around other cats, perhaps a neighbouring Tom with his own behavioural issues. If this is an element to a multi-cat household problem, a behaviourist working under veterinary referral should be called upon to provide a structured Behavioural Modification Programme.

Introducing New Cats

With use of all senses, and the understanding of the territorial nature of the cat, a detailed step-by-step approach should be taken when introducing any new member to the existing colony at all times. Not only will this knowledge ensure the happiness of each household member, but it will also reduce chances of aggressive encounters within the house, building solid foundations for good positive relationships.

To conclude, there are things that can be done both in the now when dealing with multi-cat behavioural issues such as aggression and/or in-house urination. However thinking of the future, there are also many things that breeders and owners can do to set our cats up appropriately in order to cope with the domestic environment, preventing such issues in the first incidence.

Due to the complexities of this topic this is relatively brief, but provides a good starting point for all. Please feel free to contact me for further advice or reading references, I am always happy to help.

Katie B Wade


1. Bradshaw, J. (1992) The Behaviour of the Domestic Cat, CAB International, Bristol
2. Macdonald, D. et al (1987) Social dynamics, nursing coalitions and infanticide among farm cats, Felis catus. Advances in Ethology, Vol. 28, pp.1–66
3, 6. Macdonald, D. (1992) The Velvet Claw: A Natural History of Carnivores, BBC Consumer Publishing, United Kingdom. pp. 10-75
4. Turner, D. and Bateson, P. (1995) The Domestic Cat: The Biology of Its Behaviour. Cambridge University Press, United Kingdom
5. Clutton-Brock, J. (1999) A Natural History of Domesticated Mammals. Cambridge University Press, United Kingdom
7. Bradshaw, J. (1993) The True Nature of the Domestic Cat, CAB International, Bristol, pp. 89-108

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