Domestic Cat Territories, Part 1

…out here I had been putting what little money I had in Ocean Frontage, for the sole reason that there was only so much of it and no more, and that they wasent making any more…
Will Rogers, US comedian, April 13, 1930

Like Will Rogers, domestic cats know that land is precious. Throughout their adult lives they invest a lot of time in getting and holding on to a territory big enough for both hunting and reproduction.

This is even true of indoor cats–the need for food and sex is hardwired in after millions of years of evolution.

If you live with more than one cat, you may already know this, but according to one research study, two cats in a household spend much of their time out of each other’s sight, even though sometimes they are only a few feet apart.

Multiple kitties living indoors have the house divided up into territories that we can’t perceive. These go/no-go zones may overlap to some extent, and the cats may even play and groom each other in a “kitty commons” area.

Core sleeping areas must be respected, though, and there may be trouble if the cats are fed at the same place or have only one litter box. If they are allowed outdoors, the two (or more) cats may share hunting grounds, but they never will hunt at the same time.

Since they’re cats, not dogs or people, the best-case scenario in any shared-living environment is mutual toleration rather than friendship. If worse comes to worst, one of the animals may leave to find new territory, no matter how well off it is at home in human terms.

Insecurity about territory is one of the biggest stressors for any domestic cat. (Bradshaw)

When left to themselves outdoors, domestic cats divvy up the land in two basic ways:

  • Females, who must bear and raise the young, look at the food supply: how big the local prey is and where it’s located, the presence of cover for stalking, and so forth.
  • Males base their territory on the distribution of females.

They do it instinctively, but this behavior makes evolutionary sense–the sooner you can get territory and the longer you can hold onto it, the more offspring you will produce. For cats, natural selection is all about having kittens.

There usually isn’t any range overlap for cats of the same gender, but there is some flexibility. In hard times, a female has to travel farther for prey, and her territory may overlap with others. Similarly, in a region where female cats are few and far between, males roam hither and yon.

Exact details of the local scene vary according to personalities and pecking order, too.

From this perspective, it’s hard to think of domestic cats as solitary. They live

…embedded in a social system that is maintained by scent marks, vocalizations, and occasional encounters.
— Sunquist and Sunquist

Young cats have to break into this close-knit hierarchy somehow and establish themselves in life.

The females are philopatric, that is, they usually stick close to home when enough resources are available. This results in clusters of related female territories.

But when a male cat matures, he must go out into the world and get his own territory by either finding some unoccupied real estate or successfully challenging a resident male somewhere.


Not a safe refuge, but he might be too young to know that. (rihaij at Pixabay. Public domain.)

These inexperienced cats pay a heavy price in terms of accidents and predators, but enough survive to maintain a population of “floaters,” all of whom know that territory does not confer an advantage to whoever occupies it.

The occupant knows it, too. So, in addition to hunting and reproducing, he must continually defend his territory passively (usually by scratching things and leaving a variety of scent marks) or actively, with confrontations and, when all else fails, fighting.

That’s tough, too, and it gets harder with age. Conditions may also change, setting up an environmental situation that one or more of the floaters may be a little better suited for.

It’s a harsh, unforgiving system, but the end result is that the most “fit” genes always get passed along.

Believe it or not, the domestic cat’s territoriality outdoors isn’t affected much by the presence of people. We don’t realize that, but our house pets certainly do.

When you and your cat move to a new place, your pet must manage somehow to fit into the local social scene. Just because you claim the property as your own doesn’t mean that the feline neighbors are going to let your cat get away with it.

To be continued . . .

Featured image: StockSnap, at Pixabay. Public domain.


BBC Horizon. June 12, 2013. Secret Life of the Cat. Last accessed March 10, 2018.

Bradshaw, J. 2013. Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You A Better Friend to Your Pet. New York: Basic Books.

Brown, S. L., and Bradshaw, J. W. 2014. Communication in the domestic cat: within- and between-species, in The Domestic Cat: The Biology of its Behaviour, eds D. C. Turner and P. Bateson, 37-59. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hart, B. L., and Hart, L. A. 2014a. Normal and problematic reproductive behaviour in the domestic cat, in The Domestic Cat: The Biology of its Behaviour, eds D. C. Turner and P. Bateson, 27-36. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hart, B. L. and Hart, L. A. 2014b. Feline behavioural problems and solutions, in The Domestic Cat: The Biology of its Behaviour, eds D. C. Turner and P. Bateson, 201-221. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Liberg, O.; Sandell, M.; Pontier, D.; and Natoli, E. 2000. Density, spatial organisation and reproductive tactics in the domestic cat and other felids, in The Domestic Cat: The Biology of its Behaviour, eds D. C. Turner and P. Bateson, 119-147. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Stella, J. L., and Buffington, C. A. T. 2014. Individual and environmental effects on health and welfare, in The Domestic Cat: The Biology of its Behaviour, eds D. C. Turner and P. Bateson, 185-200. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sunquist, M. and Sunquist, F. 2002. Wild Cats of the World. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Turner, D. C. 2014. Social organisation and behavioural ecology of free-ranging domestic cats, in The Domestic Cat: The Biology of its Behaviour, eds D. C. Turner and P. Bateson, 63-70. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


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