Do wild cats fight for their territory? In general, the short answer is yes but the social system of lions is different. Also fights are avoided by scent marking and visual marks laid down by the resident cat which sends a clear signal to strangers by transmitting information such as residential status and the sex of the individual. These signals avoid encounters.
The social organisation of the typical big cat consists of a single male occupying his home range or territory which overlaps with the ranges of several females. The male cat defends his territory for as long as possible because the longer he holds territory the more offspring he can produce.
Let’s look at the tiger, puma and leopard as three examples.
Young adult tigers, at 18-28 months of age, disperse from their mother’s home range (the natal range). It is difficult and dangerous time as they search for their own home range. Males disperse further than females. In a study in India males dispersed an average of 33 kilometres while females travelled 9.7 kilometres. Male home ranges overlap those of females.
Dispersing males looking for their home range can get into serious fights with male tigers who are resident in their own established territories. They can be killed.
In one observed event a young male looking for a home range killed a buffalo on the territory of another tiger and dragged it into cover. The next day the resident male encountered the kill and followed the drag marks into the bushes where he met the young visitor. They fought and the young tiger was badly wounded.
Males are less successful than females in establishing a territory of their own. In one study only 40% of the males managed to establish a home range and breed. Two died in fights with other tigers. Two were poisoned and one disappeared. The remaining tiger ended up captive after being injured in a fight with another tiger and almost fatally wounded. He was treated and made captive.
Females sometimes take over part of their mother’s territory and the process of establishing a home range is less violent. They can travel long distances. One female travelled 600 kilometres.
Refs: Tiger: pages 360-361 Wild Cats of the World. If you want pure references please leave a comment and I will oblige.
Female pumas are more fixed to a home territory than males. Male home ranges normally overlap the ranges of one or more females and they overlap other male ranges slightly or extensively.
Resident pumas hold their territory until they die. Males replace males and females replace females. It seems that the mountain lion fights less over territory than tigers. As for all cat species pumas mark territory which sends clear signals as to land tenure. Marking territory means depositing urine for scent and scratches for visual marks.
A well-know hunter of a bygone era, Jim Corbett wrote in 1947:
“Male leopards are very resentful of intrusion of others of their kind in the area they consider to be their own”.
This indicates fights in defence of home ranges.
Male leopard home ranges overlap female home ranges and are larger than those of females. I can’t find specific references to male leopards fighting over territory. I suspect that most times they avoid fights through leaving markers using scent deposits, ground scrapings and raking trees with their claws.
P.S. Domestic cats we know fight over territory but avoid fights in the same way as the wild cats. However both domestic cats in multi-cat households and feral cats tend to live in social groups (feral cat colonies) because the food source dictates this arrangement.
“Food seems to be the key factor favoring group living”. (ref: page 106 Wild Cats of the World).