Cats are solitary creatures, often unused to sharing. This means that cats attempt to dominate each other. Some cats are happy to be submissive, while others will fight back and assert their own dominance.
Spraying and marking objects is a classic sign of dominance in cats. The cat is claiming an object through scent, warning other cats away. A dominant cat will also hoard food or toys, and block another cat’s path to restrict movement. Eventually, dominance can lead to physical intimidation and aggression.
Cats are dominant for different reasons. Sometimes, dominant feline behavior is mistaken for playfulness. Learning why your cats are expressing dominance will help you manage the situation.
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Are Cats Dominant by Nature?
Every cat is different. Some cats will make no secret of a desire for dominance. This cat will not take kindly to sharing a home with other cats. It will do whatever it takes to be the house alpha.
Other cats are more passive by nature. If a cat is happy to be submissive, this is not a problem. Different personality types can co-exist. Just be mindful of bullying in cats.
Unfixed male cats are more dominant. Sexually active toms are driven by testosterone. This encourages the cat to fight for dominance. A dominant cat has his pick of mating partners. Neutering male cats calm this instinct.
Most cats learn to curb dominant instincts as kittens. Growing up in a litter teaches cats to share. Play between kittens also teaches acceptable behavior. Another kitten, or a mother cat, will reprimand excessive dominance or force.
If a cat is separated too soon, or is dominant by nature, this may not happen. These cats need to be carefully managed. Allowing and encouraging dominant behaviors can make a cat difficult to live with.
How Do Cats Assert Dominance?
Cats show their dominance in a variety of ways. These include:
- Marking by scent
- Hoarding objects
- Food aggression
- Body language
- Playfighting styles
To maintain a harmonious home, learn to recognize these behaviors. To avoid inter-cat conflict, it is advisable to train cats out of dominant traits.
1/ Spraying and Marking
The oldest and most famous display of dominance in cats is spraying and marking. Cats mark items considered important by scent. In marking an item, the cat is declaring it as their own.
Cats usually mark items using their sweat glands. These are found in the cheeks, above the eyes and the chin. If a cat is particularly territorial or dominant, it will spray urine on items.
Spraying is a dominant behavior that must be managed. Dominant cats will spray beds, furniture, items of clothing, and food. This is unhygienic and unfair to a submissive cat.
The best way to handle this issue is to not expect a dominant cat to share. Provide each cat with unique toys, litter boxes, and beds. If the dominant cat feels it has its own possessions, it will calm down.
Reconsider living arrangements too. The dominant cat may not be ready to share an entire home yet. Assign each cat its own territory, such as a particular room. Eventually, once the cats grow used to each other, they can mingle freely again.
2/ Stealing and Hoarding
A dominant cat may not be content to mark items. It may also steal and hoard them. This is common in cats that have never previously shared.
If you cannot find something, check the dominant cat’s bed or preferred hiding places. You will likely find a stockpile of toys, food, and other items. The cat has marked this territory as its own. The submissive cat will not look here.
This can become problematic. A submissive cat with no mental stimulation will grow stressed. This can detrimental to the cat’s health.
If a cat is hoarding, remove and wash items while your cat is away. This removes marking scents. Return the items to a communal area. If the dominant cat hoards them again, repeat the process.
3/ Food Aggression
Even the most docile cat can show signs of food aggression. This is a common form of dominance. As the American Journal of Veterinary Research explains, dominant cats invariably eat first at shared mealtimes.
If multiple cats share a bowl, watch how food is approached. Cats that share an equal hierarchy will make space for each other. More commonly, one cat will push another out of the way. Other signs of food aggression include:
- Knocking over food bowls
- Swapping food bowls
- Growling and hissing when a second cat attempts to eat
The dominant feline will eat its fill and leave the area. If the second cat is never permitted to eat, the problem has surpassed dominance. It is now bullying.
Cats can develop food aggression for a number of reasons. It’s common in formerly single cats that are expected to share. Kittens weaned from their mothers too soon are also prone to the behavior. To combat food aggression and dominance in cats:
- Provide each cat with their own food dish
- Feed the cats in separate rooms or opposite corners of the room
- Offer both cats equal servings of identical food so neither is jealous
If your dominant cat learns to share, consider it a bonus. For the safety of all cats, it’s best to keep feeding places separate. Food is sacred to many cats. It can send a dominant-but-docile cat spiraling into problem behaviors.
Blocking and body-checking is common among dominant cats. They will deliberately stand in the way of a submissive cat. The other cat then has to take a detour to a destination.
Dominant cats often block exits to rooms. They may also stand in the way of a litter tray or toy. The dominant cat sometimes attacks if another cat manages to pass. More often, it is happy with causing a minor inconvenience.
The purpose of blocking is simple. It is a reminder to the submissive cat over who is the house alpha. The dominant cat is saying, “I decide where you can and cannot go.”
Never allow a dominant cat to block access to essentials, such as litter or water. Ensure that every cat has its own litter box and water bowl. These should be located in separate rooms.
A dominant cat will also block a submissive cat’s playtime. This is usually born of jealousy. The dominant cat wants all of the one-on-one attention.
Play with both cats at once, treating them when the dominant cat accepts this. This will teach the dominant cat that mutual playtime is a rewarding experience.
Pairs and groups of cats often groom each other. This is known as allogrooming. The power dynamic of allogrooming in cats may surprise you. The dominant feline will groom a subordinate, not vice versa.
While allogrooming, a dominant cat will focus primarily on the head and neck. This is different from mutual grooming. Cats that groom through partnership check for ticks and parasites.
This is not the intention of dominant allogrooming. The dominant cat is showing its superiority. It is making it clear that it holds power over the submissive cat. By allowing the dominant cat such proximity to the face, the submissive is essentially defenseless.
The posture of both cats during allogrooming will also be telling. The dominant cat will stand. The submissive cat will sit or lie down. This ensures the dominant cat ‘looks down’ on its subordinate.
A dominant cat may groom a submissive cat to apologize for the conflict. This is rare, though. Dominant cats rarely feel remorse for expressing their dominance. They consider it the natural order of the hierarchy.
The Journal of Ethology posits that allogrooming is a way for dominant cats to redirect frustration and aggression. The cat understands that physical confrontation is potentially unwise. One or both cats could be hurt.
6/ Staring Competitions
Staring is a popular way for cats to declare dominance. This is especially common in cats that do not recognize each other. A cat will stare into the eyes of another to intimidate it.
Cats have an innate understanding of what staring means. The ideal scenario is that one cat breaks the gaze and walks away. This prevents physical conflict.
This must be managed in the home. If one cat can banish another just through staring, the submissive cat will be miserable. It will wonder if it will ever be allowed to go about its business in peace.
A second cat may not tolerate submission. Such a cat will proceed to stare back. This will invariably escalate the conflict between the cats. Neither will want to back down, as this will concede dominance to the other.
Cats can engage in staring contest for hours. As born hunters, cats are accustomed to watching prey and rarely blinking. If you spot two cats staring, it’s advisable to break their gaze. Hold a piece of paper or card between them.
If the two cats are left to stare, one will eventually make a move. This could be a pounce or swipe with claws. Alternatively, one cat may assert its dominant body language.
7/ Body Language
Cats rarely communicate verbally with each other. A cat’s meow is reserved for humans. This means that cats display their moods through body language. A dominant cat will have a particular posture:
- Head held high
- Back held straight
- Ears pointed directly upward
- Tail held upward and arched at the base
This posture, coupled with unblinking staring, is a classic dominant body language from a cat. Other cats will recognize this on sight and react accordingly.
If body language proves unsuccessful, the cats may become verbal. Hissing and growling are warning sounds of aggression born of dominance. These sounds may be followed by violence.
8/ Unprovoked Aggression
Some dominant cats are prone to acts of unprovoked aggression. The dominant cat will swipe at another cat with its paws. It may also hide and pounce on the cat as it passes.
This will create a troubling dynamic. The victim will become anxious, always anticipating an attack. Eventually, the cat will likely fight back. This leads to a situation where both cats fight for dominance.
The Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery explains that not all cat aggression is related to dominance. Sometimes, the cats have spent too much time together and need space. On other occasions, they could even be playing.
Cats often play rough. This is because the cats are embracing their hunting instincts. Pouncing and play fighting are popular games among pairs and groups of cats.
|Cat Playing Signs||Cat Fighting Signs|
|The cats will be mostly silent||The cats will growl, hiss and howl|
|Claws will remain sheathed||Claws will be clearly visible|
|Ears are pointed forward||Ears are pinned back or flat against the head|
|The cats alternate gentle biting||Hard biting, designed to break the skin|
|Both cats are happy to engage||One cat tries to escape but is dragged back|
|Both cats have relaxed body language||One or both cats have raised hackles|
Even in a playfight, cats display dominance. Cats of equal standing will take it in turns to be the dominant and submissive partner. An indisputably dominant cat will always be the ‘aggressor’ during play.
If the submissive cat permits this, do not break up the play. It’s a safe way for the dominant cat to assert itself. If you do not allow the cats to play, aggression becomes more likely.