Categories: cooperation

Are cats altruistic?

I discuss community cats and lions. Let’s define altruism first. It is an act of selflessness when concerned about the welfare and well-being of others. In other words for cats it is giving to another in terms of actions without demanding anything back. It is unconditional. I don’t think domestic cats can be purely altruistic but they can be involved in “reciprocal altruism”. This is an exchange of favours. I’m not sure that you can describe it as altruism because if a cat does something for another in response to something that they did for them it is an informal agreement to enhance survival.

Kittens and queen. Photo in public domain.

Reciprocal altrusim in community cats

I briefly discuss reciprocal altruism in cats. You will see it when female cats give birth to kittens in the same colony. It doesn’t matter whether they’re related. The classic situation is when a female cat who has given birth or who is about to give birth (a “queen”) in the next few weeks helps another female cat to care for her kittens. Her efforts are rewarded when the other female helps her care for her kittens. The assistance is reciprocated. Often the female cats are related. They might be mother and daughter or sisters.

In doing this they are improving the chances of survival of the wider family. The experts call this “benefiting their own genetics fitness”.

Queens are important in maintaining the social group in a colony. In a study of a colony of neutered, adult cats the highest rates of mutual grooming (allogrooming) happened in family groups were the mother was present. This happened when the family members were adults and they had all been neutered.

At the heart of large feral cat colonies or community cat colonies are several queens who are often related and to help each other in a range of ways to better ensure the survival of their offspring. For example, they help during the process of parturition (giving birth). The helping female cat will clean the perineum (the area between the anus and the scrotum or vulva) of the female giving birth. They will also consume the fetal membranes and clean the newborn kitten.

There are also records of female cats bringing food to nursing queens. This applies both to domestic and feral cats and their wild cat ancestor. There are sometimes communal nests which means that the kittens are more likely to be in the presence of one of the mothers compared to nests where one female is raising her litter alone.

Lions

We know that lions live in prides i.e. a group of lions live together. For example, in the Serengeti a pride of lions consist of 2 to 18 adult females, their cubs, and 1 to 7 males. The females are related and the lionesses do most of the hunting and killing. The pride males displace the females and their cubs at kills. In other words they kick them off and eat first. I don’t see this as acts of altruism. This is teamwork as the males defend the pride’s territory. Each member benefits in various ways. Altruism, as mentioned, is an act of giving to the potential detriment of the animal doing the giving.

Self-awareness

I’m not sure, but I think that a barrier to true altruism is the domestic cat’s inability to be self-conscious. I don’t think that they are self-aware. This is a controversial subject but it is my personal opinion having thought about it quite a lot. That is not to denigrate the domestic cat in any way by the way.

References: Trivers et al 1971, Curtis et al 2003, Macdonald et al 2000, Smithers 1983, Macdonald et al 1987, Feldman 1993, Liberg and Sandel 1988.

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Michael Broad

Hi, I'm a 71-year-old retired solicitor (attorney in the US). Before qualifying I worked in many jobs including professional photography. I have a girlfriend, Michelle. I love nature, cats and all animals. I am concerned about their welfare.

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