This article is about understanding feral cat behaviour in colonies. Perhaps the first important point to note about feral cat colony behaviour is that historically the popular press still tends to describe the domestic and feral cat as an asocial, solitary species with no need for companionship and a preference for living alone. This is untrue.
What happened is that domestic and feral cats developed social skills. They cannot be described as asocial and this is due to the fact that food resources for both feral and domestic cats is sufficient to allow cats to live in groups and develop a social structure.
If food resources are insufficient then independent offspring disperse but feral cat colonies are commonplace and they are centred around a food source of some sort often provided by volunteers engaged in TNR, ad hoc feeding or rubbish areas.
Building a colony – females
Colonies can develop by mothers giving birth to kittens who become adults who stay together creating a group of related and familiar adults. Established, larger colonies are composed of several female cats who are often related and who help each other in a variety of ways to ensure the development of their offspring.
Female cats assist each other during the process of parturition. Kittens in nests in colonies spend less time alone when moved from nest to nest. This is because at least one mother is likely to be with them.
Within feral cat colonies there is “reciprocal altruism”. This is an exchange of favours and help between members of the colony. The queen (intact female) maintains the social group and in one study mutual grooming occurred more often in family groups where the mother was present.
Cats are good observational learners. Adults teach kittens and juveniles appropriate social skills and hunting techniques. These are important for the development of harmonious colonies in which individual members of the colony are friendly, sociable and unaggressive.
Male cats in feral cat colonies don’t necessarily fight but there can be conflicts between males especially when a female is in heat. Within colonies you can get one cat liking another and the friendship is reciprocated. These are described as “preferred associates” within the colony. Male-to-male pairs are less common than other pairings in the context of their gender.
That said, there are many intact males who pair up with other males and the two interact in a way which indicates friendship such as touching noses, mutual grooming, playing and resting together.
There appear to be two types of males within colonies. There are those that spend most of their time with a particular group of females. They develop strong bonds with them. These are family orientated males.
Colony females are more willing to meet with their familiar males than unfamiliar ones. A study found that even smaller males that were within a colony had greater success in mating than larger males who were outside the colony.
Male cats who are both fathers to kittens and members of the colony have been seen to assist the mother in driving away invading and aggressive males who present a danger to the offspring.
Male cats can be friendly to kittens. As females mate with multiple males and males mate with multiple females, there is uncertainty about who the father and mother is, which means that males are unlikely to attack kittens of any female with whom they have mated.
The second sort of male cat does not form strong friendships with a particular group or individual female breeding cats. They have large territorial home ranges which overlap with the home ranges of several female groups. This is less a family orientated strategy to mating and more a “philandering strategy”. Bigger male cats are more successful in this strategy than smaller ones.
I think is worth touching briefly on multi-cat households. The domestic cat is not asocial as mentioned but in the colonies described the cats are often related and there is a certain amount of harmony because the colony is built organically. What some people don’t realise is that when they want a multi-cat household it is probably unwise to simply adopt cats willy-nilly without considering how they will get along because there are many instances of cats not getting along and one such example is on the Internet as I dictate this.
A lady writes in to an agony aunt to ask for advice. She says that she lives in a small house with six cats. She keeps her cat separate to stop them fighting. Two of her cats live in what used to be their guest room. This is a lifelong arrangement and it is a poor arrangement but necessary.
This particular lady had guests around and the guests barred the two cats from the guest room which created more friction and problems for both the cats and their owner. There is a dysfunctionality about this setup and is important if a person is to enjoy the company of their cat and to ensure that cats and humans live in harmony that best efforts should be made to ensure that resident cats get on with new cats introduced to the home.