The same question, but on the flip side of the coin, would be “Are feral cats solitary?”. People often think of domestic and feral cats as being essentially solitary because of their inherited behaviour from the wild cat but the truth is that feral cats should be considered as having the character to be a social species. A species is considered to be social “if their members live as enduring pairs, as families, or in larger groups in consequence of which social behaviour makes up a major proportion of the total activity”.
The quote comes from a study by a Immelman & Beer in 1989. Regrettably, I can’t find that study on the Internet but it’s a good definition which describes in large part the way feral cats live in colonies when the resources are there such as food and shelter. Feral cat colonies are commonplace particularly when TNR volunteers are involved because part of TNR is feeding the cats.
Over the past 25 years there have been many studies on feral cats in many countries. And it’s been found that they maintain “relatively consistent membership over long periods of time, exhibit individual recognition, engage in a variety of social interactions, and have a complex social organisation”. The quote is from S.L. Crowell-Davis in their section on cat behaviour in the book The Welfare of Cats edited by Irene Rochlitz. A highly recommended resource incidentally.
Members of a feral cat colony recognise each other. Females support each other in the raising of kittens. They tend to reject strangers and the integration of strangers is likely to be resisted. They may cause disruption in the social order of a colony. This disruption in social order can also occur in multi-cat homes. It’s one of the great challenges when introducing a new cat to resident cats. How to integrate them without fuss?
Multi-cat homes are an example of domestic cats living socially, in a group. Feral cats are domestic cats which have gone wild either because they’ve have been born in the wild or because for some reason they no longer live in a home. If domestic cats can act sociably then so can feral cats which answers the question in the title.
Historically, however, there is a belief that cats are considered to be asocial, a solitary species with no need for companionship and preferring to be alone. But free-living cats choose to live in groups, enter into close relationships with other individuals and interact with other individuals in a colony as if they are friends.
In the scientific world they refer to cats who are friends with other cats as “preferred associates”. I think this is because they don’t want to anthropomorphise cats. They want to avoid the word “friendship”. This may be incorrect because it is clear that cats form friendships in a way which is very reminiscent of humans. And they can dislike other individuals.
Unfortunately the popular press, and the fifth estate tend stick to the idea that domestic and feral cats are solitary creatures. This is unfortunate because it tends to miseducate the general public and in doing so it can undermine cat welfare. Education is a major factor in the standard of animal welfare in a country.
A misunderstanding of the social needs and social relationships of cats can lead to problems such as aggression and for domestic cats it can cause stress leading to inappropriate elimination. Arguably the mental health of some cats might be compromised if they are isolated from others.
The conclusion is that feral cats are fairly social creatures and individual characteristics play a role.