How do cats show dominance?

In group living there may be competition for food and in the case of domestic cats using a litter, there may be competition for the litter. The formation of a hierarchy with dominant and subordinate cats helps to "mediate access to resources" and to control aggressive encounters (1).

Managing the use of resources - Photo by MelvinSchlubman

A subordinate cats will defer (give way) to a dominant cat. Large colonies of cats have complex hierarchies that are partially linear. In a linear hierarchy there is more than one dominant cat. He is dominant to cats below him but not above him.

A cat will defer to another cat by, for example:
  • walking around the dominant cat;
  • waiting for the cat to pass before entering an area;
  • retreating in the face of the dominant cat;
  • avoiding eye contact.
As to body language and posture, the subordinate cat might display
  • hunching;
  • crouching;
  • rolling over onto the back;
  • tucking the tail to either side;
  • turning the ears down or back.
Dominant cats might block subordinate cats from doing something. The dominant cat might "bat at the subordinate" or chase the cat.

Dominant cats will signal dominance with body posture such as:
  • keeping ears up and rotating them to the side;
  • arching base of tail and staring at the subordinate cat;
  • raising the base of the tail with the rest of the tail hanging;
  • wag his head from side to side;
  • simply stare at the subordinate cat and at the same time rotate stiff erect ears to the side;
Dominant cats might control access to food or litter. These are important resources. Harmony is achieved when the subordinate cat defers to the dominant with respect to access to resources. Sometimes the dominant cat might threaten the lower ranking cat even though the subordinate is not seeking to use a resource. Alternatively, the dominant cat might willfully monopolize a resource even though he has no use of it.

Ritualized dominance and submission avoids aggression. Where two cats are in balance as to dominance they might fight.

Note: (1) The Welfare of Cats by Irene Rochlitz

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