Territoriality, Sociality: Updating Cat's Behavior
World Small Animal Veterinary Association World Congress Proceedings, 2005
Claude Beata, DVM, Behaviorist GFNVS, DECBVM-CA

When human beings look at the Nature, he wants to understand, to analyze and to classify. His first way is to compare the different species about their skills and their living organization.

Dogs, for example, exhibit social relationships that we can easily understand. Hierarchy, communication, attachment, solidarity, territory defense are the roots of his behavior. There are numerous analogies between our two species and this helps quite an instinctive insight..

Cats have always been more difficult to understand. This comes from common platitudes (about "independence" or about theses cats "who have no master") to the huge confusion and the lack of consensus among different scientific authors. (O'Farrell and Neville 1994; Overall 1997; Horwitz and Landsberg 1998; Houpt 1998.)

It has been a long-lasting discussion for many years between those who think that cats are only territorial animals against the ones who think in cats as social animals. Many times, when a consensus is not reachable, it is because we ask the wrong question! Reading the scientific literature helps us to precise our goal: what cat are we speaking about? Feral cat or domestic cat? What words are we going to use and in what meaning?

It's always interesting to compare wild animals when they are close toour domestic species. Anyway we have to be very careful when we transpose the pieces on the fundamental ethological repertory, because a behavior pattern is bonded with the environment. New environmental conditions can trigger new behaviors and erase old ones.

Let's set up as a starting point that we are mostly interested in the cat we are living with, in our professional or personal area. The veterinary surgeon, as a behaviorist or not, is a partner for public administration and humane societies. He has mainly to deal with three subjects:

 To analyze the behavior, to treat and possibly cure behavior disorders of cats living in a household within the family.

 To manage groups in controlled environments (shelters, breeders).

 To evaluate public management of feral groups and to help in controlling the nuisances.

Answers can't be the same according to the different level of intervention: behavior repertory will be different and the right solutions must be adapted to this variability. First, we'll try to understand and to solve the classical opposition between territorial or social animal. Then we'll be able to go further and to focus on specific elements that have a diagnostic or a prognostic value and how we can use them to answer to our demands.

Territorial by essence, social by experience

The cat is known as a possible solitary hunter (Macdonald 1983). So cats are able to live without, and without looking for any social relationship. Even for reproduction, there is a wide range of very different behaviors, going from a strict minimum of synchronization up to very complex mating displays. Complicity, deep bonds, have been observed evocating specific preferences for an individual among others (Crowell-Davis, Curtis et al. 2004). So cats, if we keep only the common basis, are territorial animals. To agree on that, we must before agree on what is the territory for a cat and obviously this is not the case.

In our way of thinking, and contrary to recent literature (Crowell-Davis, Curtis et al. 2004), territoriality of the cat doesn't mean that cats defend the whole area. On the contrary, in some well defined parts of their living areas, cats can look for contacts with conspecifics or not.

The power of the balance--or the unbalance--of the environment is what allows us to say that cats, unlike dogs, are mainly territorial animals. New furniture, new wall papers, moving are classical staring points of behavior disorders in cats and not in dogs. On the other hand, if the territory is correctly shaped, the cat resists very well to group modifications or fails in communication. Territory is the base of Maslow's pyramid for cats. (Maslow 1943)

In balance in a correct territory, cats can exhibit other skills such as affectionate relationships with conspecifics or not. There is no contradiction between the ability to build social (or almost social) relationships and the fact to be a mainly territorial animals. Scientific publications go in that way: in most of all, you can find the classical precaution about the huge individual variability in that specie, preventing from relating a behavior to the age or the gender. Neutral observations of large groups have shown surprising things for the observers. Affiliative behaviors were weighted among female-female pairs but for example, allormarking behaviors (rubbing each other) are seen mostly between males. (Curtis, Knowles et al. 2003)

When they build large groups (called most often colonies) cats are also very difficult to classify. Some authors would like to apply the dominance concept to cats and they point out a stronger or a more violent cat. But the same authors recognize that there is no evidence for the so-called dominant to have priority for all resources. So we are far from hierarchy based social relationships such as in dogs. There is also a huge amount of naive observations giving proofs (or at least testimony) of sympathy, affectionate bonds, even friendship or love between cats or between a cat and another living being. Despite a lack of scientific data, personality of cats is also a huge field to explore. With same development conditions, littermates, some will be friendly other scared by any contact. Some will be "lazy", other "clever and playful". (Voith and Borchelt 1996)

Sociability is not so easy to describe because of the individual variations. The "social" relationships set of a cat is more a juxtaposition of dyadic interactions. Even according to the history and the genetics of a cat, it is difficult to preview the outcome of an encounter.

Our working representation of the cat

Beyond the arguments, we need a working and effective tool to approach behavior disorders of the cats. Without trying to say who exactly is the cat, we are going to underline the four axis that allow us to understand clinical cases and to build therapies.


In a colony, or alone in a flat, a cat is going to set up a territory. When we take the history, we must focus on how the territory is built to find out whether or not the conditions of balance are present.

The existence of protected isolation and elimination fields is crucial. Some cats can choose to share the isolation field, where they rest, with another animal or human being but it is important to verify that it is a choice and not an obligation. Some times, the only therapeutic move will be to help the owners to set up a new territory.

Cats mark out their territory by rubbing their face and letting facial pheromones. There is no agreement on that point between different authors despite a lot of publications showing and proving the function and the efficacy of facial pheromones. (Frank, Erb et al. 1998; Hunthausen 2000; Mills and White 2000)

At any time a practitioner can suspect the loss of balance in the territory, pheromone analogs are useful. It's of major importance to use it in a right way. The use of diffusers is much easier to explain to owners: there is no risk to see in that case (as we could see with spray) repellent-like wrong utilizations with shots only on the soiled places.


Cats are companion animals. This does mean that he is able to bind to his owner in true affectionate relationships. Seen as less slavish than dogs and autonomous in his decision to set up friendly relationships, clinical reality is sometimes far from the phantasm. We have all been witnesses of intense stories between people and cats but it is not always true. All cats are not able to provide this emotional exchange.

Early manipulations, long-lasting contact with a well balanced mother, personality of the father are different points that are pointed out to optimize the chances to get satisfaction with a new adopted cat. (McCune 1995) Sometimes, the behaviorist veterinary surgeon can wonder whether owners do not prefer anxious cats! Obviously, some anxious and poorly socialized cats find their balance in developing an over attachment to their owner. On the other hand, the best balanced cat (for us with a positive suspension reflex) sometimes brings some deception as far as he does not need a constant physical contact and he is not always looking for a human interaction. (Hofmans 2001) When we can describe such hyperattachments, even if we are not going to say at a first glance that it is pathological, it is useful to watch the evolution of the kitten because of the risk of arising anxious disorders (elimination disorders, psychogenic extensive alopecia).


For us, this is an important point. Underestimated, this quality is the main one of the cat and the one that prevents from any relevant classification of cat behavior. When between specialists, we define the cat nature, trying to agree on the lowest common denominators, we must accept that it is quite impossible because variations are greater than constants.

Alone in the woods, cats can be solitary hunters, avoiding any social contacts. Living with one person in a flat, all the cat activity can be centered on this human being in an endless social activity. For us, (Beata 2001) and for many others authors, (Neville 2004) this adaptability is linked to the double status of the cat, at the same time a prey and a predator. Seldom if ever, we are in front of animals with such different patterns in a wide behavioral repertory. So, when developmental conditions have been optimal, if the kitten has been able to train his hunting skills but also his defense or protection abilities, he will adapt in very different conditions. That does not mean that people can do what they want in terms of living conditions with cats! But that could mean what we see every day. With some minor environmental modifications, providing toys or places to hides, using the third dimension, driving contacts with conspecifics or not in a secure way, we can count on the natural plasticity pf the cat to find out solutions.

The practitioner must focus all along the consultation time on the elements of the integrity of the behavioral repertory. It is often the best prognostic indicator.

The answer to the primary question (social or territorial animal?) should also be found in this adaptability allowing the cat to invent all different kinds of relationships from the strict minimum with avoidance reactions to friendship and affectionate bonds. Simple companionship can be seen but also agonistic interactions with violence, aggressiveness, use of the strength and this can evoke dominance without being, because there is no hierarchy related structure of the group and no appeasement by the so-called "dominant".

Adaptability is enhanced by intermingling of feral and domestic populations. (Bradshaw, Horsfield et al. 1999) So many domestic cats are neutered that there is not enough births of domestic cats. Early interactions, sociability of the mother, soft frequent contacts are known to be of high importance in getting a very familiar kitten. Maybe we have to think over about this habit to sterilize our most friendly population.

Continuum anxiety--aggressiveness

Finally, and this is daily crucial, we have to understand what triggers aggressiveness in cats. We know that there is not a true hierarchy and thus we won't find hierarchy related aggression (dominance aggression) as we can see in dogs.

Lack of early socialization is a main cause of aggressiveness by intolerance of contact. All different studies show that kittens need frequent, soft and early manipulations to stand by--or better to appreciate--physical contacts.

One another important point is to keep in mind that there is a tight bond between anxiety and aggressiveness. So any cause of anxiety can trigger aggressiveness and the role of the practitioner is to find out and to fight again them. It is of high importance to do this also with breeders and shelters where environmental conditions are often inadequate.


High level of individual variations in this specie does not allow to draw a very strict frame in which we would put all possible behaviors. But we have tools and we can have effective treatments on main behavior disorders in cats because the four axis are relevant to check the balance of an animal in its environment.


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Speaker Information
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Claude Beata, DVM, Behaviorist GNFVS, ECVBM-CA Charter Diplomate

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