Which cat species are social?

The social cat species are: the lion, the cheetah and the domestic cat including free-living cats. Scientists had thought that lions and cheetahs were the only social cat species but you have to add domestic cats to that select group.

Everybody knows about the lion pride. The cheetah is considered a social animal to some extent because males form groups called coalitions. The other groups are females and their cubs and then solitary males.

Mom cat raises 4 red squirrels
Mom cat raises 4 red squirrels
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Perhaps the more interesting feline species in terms of the social behaviour is domestic and feral cats. They are both the same species, of course. Whenever there is a food source a group of feral cats tends to spring up. At one time the experts thought that this was just a loose group of cats who happen to be there because the food was there, in the same way that we see animals in Africa drinking from a waterhole.

It was believed that the feral cats simply tolerated each other. And the experts thought that when queens at a cat breeder’s home suckle another queen’s litter of kittens it occurred because of the artificial condition under which they lived. However, it was later discovered in the 1970s, in a documentary by David McDonald about cats and a farm in Devon, that it was natural behaviour for free-living females to cooperate with each other to raise their kittens together.

Cat queens mutual support and cooperation
Cat queens mutual support and cooperation. Pic in public domain.

The film was about a study which started off as 4 cats: a mother with her two daughters and their father. The three females regarded the farmyard, the location of the study, as their domain as they would drive away other cats that lived nearby. In the month of May, one of the daughters produced three kittens. For the first couple of weeks she looked after them on her own as a typical mother would.

But after this time her sister appeared in the kitten’s nest and gave birth to 5 more kittens and she was assisted by her sister who help with their delivery and cleaned them. All eight kittens lived in the same group and were nursed and cared for indiscriminately by both their mothers.

The kittens sadly died of cat flu but the daughters’ mother produced a single male kitten some weeks later and both daughters helped care for him including playing with him and bring him mice that they had caught. Thus demonstrating the cooperative nature of raising kittens between mothers. It is the rule rather than the exception for female domestic and feral cats to behave like this.

Cat society is therefore based on females from the same family. In free-living cats it normally involves no more than two generations i.e. mothers and daughters but it can include three generations when the grandmother becomes involved.

Perhaps a key element of this behaviour is that there appears to be little indication that the mothers distinguish between their own kittens and those of other cats. They know the kittens of related cats and they are friendly with them. And we see lots of videos on the Internet of mothers who have just given birth accepting any kitten they are presented with and often times it can be another species of animal who has been abandoned by their mother such as a squirrel or a puppy. Shelter organisation sometimes use this behaviour to raise orphaned animals of another species.

The question that I have is, “Are the mothers deliberately and consciously raising the offspring of another species or cat or are they simply acting instinctively without regard to that higher altrusistic purpose of helping another?” Either way they are behaving in a social manner.

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