Understanding the natural social organisation within cat colonies

With more multi-cat, full-time indoor cat arrangements, it’s important that people understand the natural social organisation of cats. And perhaps the greatest problem for a cat caregiver when looking after cats in a multi-cat home is adding a cat to the “colony”. In effect a multi-cat home is a managed colony of cats. They behave as if they are grouped around a food source. When there are feral cat colonies it will be because there is a food source. Food resources determines the colony size. The greater the food source the more cats there’ll be in the colony.

“We can learn how to manage multi-cat homes and understand what to expect by understanding feral cat colonies including dominance and submissiveness.” – MikeB

A subordinate cat waits while a higher ranking cat eats
A subordinate cat waits while a higher ranking cat eats. Image: MikeB
Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles: Toxic to cats | Dangers to cats

Females are the glue

The relationships in terms of social bonding and communication within the colony are perhaps of particular interest to multi-cat caregivers. At its core, a colony of cats is essentially “matrilineal” meaning it is the cooperation between the females which provides the glue to the colony.

Recognition and acceptance

Cats within a group recognise other cats within the group but they don’t recognise “non-colony members”. Cats within a colony are aggressive towards unfamiliar cats who are not members of the colony. This is to be expected but I think it is worth stating again. The basic M.O. is that cats within the group either tolerate or are friendly with each other while cats outside the group are seen as hostile and aggression is displayed towards them.

And with respect to feral cat groups, non-group members are not allowed to casually approach and enter the group. But clearly, some cats do enter the group and join it otherwise there wouldn’t be a group at all.

And these cats manage eventually to become members of the colony through persistent attempts to join it. They may then be integrated into the group but according to one study it “involves many interactions (MacDonald et al. 1987; Wolfe 2001).

This is an important point to note. It mirrors what caregivers of multi-cat homes understand when they try and introduce a new cat into the resident cat group. The natural default position is to reject the incomer. It might not happen every time. But it is the starting point. But through persistence there will be an acceptance.

But it doesn’t mean that once accepted they will become friends with one or more of the resident cats. They might but they may not become a “preferred associate” with another individual cat in the group.

The behaviour of feral cats within a group in rejecting outsiders is typical of most social species. Effectively, the feral cat in the feral cat colony has become a social animal despite the fact that we often read that domestic/feral cats are essentially solitary. They are at heart solitary but through 10,000 years of domestication they’ve become quite sociable. And that applies to individual cats in a feral cat colony.

Affiliative behaviors

And within a colony you will see what is described as “affiliative behaviours”. This is friendly behaviour between individuals. These friendly behaviours include two cats being found close together e.g., less than 1 m apart, more often than is seen with other cats in the colony.

And they’ll do things together like going to a food source together because of the bond between them.

Not gender based

And whether an individual cat approaches another individual cat is not dependent upon their gender or whether they are neutered or intact. If the cats in the colony are unsterilised male-to-male friendships occur less often probably because of sexual competition.

Nose touching

You probably know that the nose-touch is a friendly greeting behaviour which you’ll see between “preferred associates” meaning friends in human terms.

This friendly greeting will be seen equally between females and between males. Males are equally likely to touch noses with females and males.


And you’ve probably heard the word “allogrooming”. This is when one cat grooms another as part of their friendly activities. The recipient is very cooperative in tilting their head and presenting parts of their body to make it easier for the allogrooming cat. They often purr indicating that they are enjoying it. Sometimes a cat might invite allogrooming by approaching another cat and flexing their neck to expose the underside or side of the head. Sometimes allogrooming is reciprocated i.e. the recipient then delivers the same process to the deliverer.


Also, as part of friendly behaviours, colony members rub against each other. It’ll be the head, the flanks and the tail which make contact. This is essentially about “scent exchange”. The scent of one cat is deposited on the other and vice versa. It’s a merging of the two cats which reinforces the friendship. And there is also the contact which helps to bind the friendship.

Colony odour

It is believed that in this way a “colony odour” is created and maintained by the exchanges of scent that occur.


Another friendly greeting is the tail-up. When one cat wants to approach another in a friendly manner, they will hold their tail vertically. Sometimes both cats will do this in a mutual declaration of friendship. And they might rub their tails against each other’s bodies and you might have seen tails intertwined.

Cats profoundly affectionate towards each other
Cats profoundly affectionate towards each other. Screenshot


Play between colony members will happen even when the cats are chronically undernourished.


Sometimes one cat will place their head on the other cat’s body to use it as a pillow and this may occur even when the conditions are hot because it’s about social bonding rather than keeping warm.

Some recommendations for multi-cat homes

The scientists of one study provides us with some recommendations for introducing new cats to resident cats in a multi-cat home. Cats don’t welcome the abrupt addition of a stranger any more than a human would to a stranger knocking on their front door. They don’t take them in and accommodate them. Sometimes people adopt a new cat in the belief that she’ll be fully accepted in an instant in their new home within which there are several cats. It often doesn’t work out very well.

A suggestion is that instead of periodically adopting one cat, they adopt two or three related cats with big intervals between the adoptions e.g. a mother and two of the kittens. My interpretation of this is that the owner should adopt a female cat and then later on adopt two of her kittens. In this way there is a higher likelihood that they will all get along. That’s the argument. Is it practical?

And common-sense dictates that when introducing a strange cat to an existing group they should to a certain extent be familiar with each other before allowing a direct encounter. Cats can become familiar with new cats through what they see, smell and hear. And of course, you can employ techniques such as keeping the cat separated by screen doors. Exchanging bedding will facilitate the process of integration. This, as I understand it, is a form of scent exchange. You’re making the bedding one cat familiar to the other cat and therefore there is less of a hurdle to overcome.

Hierarchy – dominance

Although there is no classic hierarchy within a colony, there might well be a dominant cat and a submissive cat or cats. It’s important to recognise and to manage the cats that are dominant so that their status is acknowledged by, for example, feeding them first while at the same time providing appropriate dispersed resources for lower-ranking cats. This means providing multiple litter boxes distanced from each other so that the dominant cat cannot control the resources (resource guarding). The same would apply to food resources.

Jackson Galaxy makes it clear that there should be one litter box per cat and one extra. But as mentioned they should be spaced out and well-sited to encourage their use. There is a massive problem here with respect to ensuring that the indoor environment smells healthy and is healthy and not saturated with the smell of ammonia from urine in soggy litter trays. It is possible to achieve a satisfactory outcome.

But in managing the dominant cat you also avoid agonistic behaviours and bullying from dominant cats towards submissive and more timid cats. It has been said many times before, there should be hiding places for submission cats.

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Useful tag. Click to see the articles: Cat behavior

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