Getting territory and holding onto it stresses any cat. They may seem laid back and care-free, but millions of years of evolution have hardwired into all cats the need for their own space.
This even shows up indoors. In multiple-cat households, for instance, the best of feline buddies still spend as much time as possible out of each other’s line of sight, even when just a few feet apart. They also respect one another’s favorite sleeping spots or other core areas (or else!).
What is a domestic cat’s territory like outside?
Short answer: It’s very similar to any cat territory, but it doesn’t correspond to the owner’s property.
Details: Congratulations! You’ve just moved into a quiet suburban neighborhood with lots of fenced-in back yards that contain sheds, trees, and other artificial and natural structures that add three dimensions (and more potential territory) to a cat’s world.
As you and your kitty relax by the window, you note three other cats out there: a white one two yards down, sitting high up on a shed roof; a ginger cat walking along the fence across the alley; and a furry melange of calico spots that just ducked under the laurel bush in your new back yard–ah! there it goes up a tree. What a large, healthy-looking cat!
Good! you say to yourself. With all these neighbors, Fluffy won’t be lonely while I’m at work.
Meanwhile, Fluffy is seriously considering switching over to 100% indoor living. Enormous Spots out there obviously owns the back yard; all the other cats must be faced, too.
These include not only Whitey and Ginger but also three animals you are unaware of–two males (both neutered) and a nursing female–who left scent marks near the house recently.
This protective house serves as a territorial core for free-roaming pets like Fluffy. But cats don’t understand human ownership of property. They just see a newcomer who has insolently plopped down in their midst.
The neighborhood cats might ignore a neutered pet, but they will gather soon and call out Fluffy (who knows that you would simply say, “Oh, isn’t that cute? They’re talking to each other through the window!”).
So turning into a totally indoors cat isn’t really an option.
The good news is that Fluffy only has to go through this “blooding” once to earn a place in the local pecking order.
News from the front: When it finally went down, no blood was shed, but Fluffy couldn’t take down Spots. He dominates the whole neighborhood.
However, Fluffy did earn enough respect from Spots to claim time-sharing rights in both the yard and that big tree. (Time sharing reduces stress and the likelihood of a fight in areas where people have brought many pet cats together. Researchers aren’t sure if other cat species do this; it’s difficult to study in the wild.)
Our plucky newcomer has also intimidated those two neutered males, each time using an impressive combination of vocals and threatening moves, but Fluffy did blink first in a staring contest with Ginger.
Never mind Whitey – he’s kind of a wuss and everybody picks on him. Three yards down, there’s a yellow she-cat with a big litter of kittens. She’s new to town, like Fluffy, but she also is not taking any cat’s sass, not even Spots’. The current catitude on this mostly indoor cat is “wait and see.”
Everybody knows their place and knows what to expect from other cats, even Whitey, who owns his shed roof and will not be bothered there (the rest of his owner’s yard belongs partly to Ginger and partly to the yellow she-cat).
Spots, of course, ranges all over the place. Other cats, including strangers passing through, need to move around, too. They use the network of fences–neutral ground–and there are also a couple of common pathways that any cat may use without provoking a confrontation (as long as it doesn’t linger or otherwise tick off some local cat).
Most scratch marking is done along the neutral routes, while cats spray everywhere except around their sleeping area.
There is one exception to this orderly feline world: the brotherhood.
Sometimes Spots and other neighborhood he-cats, including Whitey, gather together on neutral ground and pull an all-nighter. They forget the hierarchy and just relax, chatting, purring, and grooming each other sociably until dawn. Then each goes back to his own territory and resumes business as usual.
Felinologists have no idea why domestic cats do this. The brotherhood is a behavior, like feral cat colonies, that hasn’t been observed in the wild.
How do young cats get their first territory?
Short answer: Mom usually drives her male offspring away when they are sexually mature; the toms then wander until they either find empty territory or take over somebody else’s. Adult females often settle near their mother.
Details: By adopting older kittens and young cats, we basically give them their first territory. The focus here, then, is on unowned cats (feral and strays):
Females consider the food supply: how big the local prey is and where it’s located, the presence of cover for stalking, and so forth. These factors matter a lot when a cat must bear young on her own as well as hunt.
Males arrange their territory to include the highest possible number of females.
When female kittens are old enough to take care of themselves, Mom lets them stick close to home, if there are enough resources in the area. This results in clusters of related female territories. It’s also why most residents of a feral cat colony are female.
Mom usually drives mature males out into the world, where they wander for a while and eventually establish themselves on unoccupied real estate or successfully challenge a resident male.
Inexperienced tomcats pay a heavy price in terms of accidents and predators, but enough survive to maintain a floating population of potential challengers that keep territory owners busy. Most defense is passive (scratching and spraying), but there are confrontations and occasionally fights.
That’s tough on territory owners, and it gets harder with age. Making things worse, environmental conditions sometimes change in ways that may favor one or more of the floaters.
Unlike with us, ownership rights do not confer security to cats. Quite the opposite! But this brutal system does ensure that the most fit genes get passed down to a new generation.
Still, whether they’re strays or pets, it’s no wonder that domestic cats are so territory conscious.
Featured image: StockSnap, at Pixabay. Public domain. https://pixabay.com/en/cat-animal-flag-garden-grass-2593104/
BBC Horizon. June 12, 2013. Secret Life of the Cat. http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-22567526 Last accessed March 10, 2018.
Bowen, J. 2015. Feline social behaviour. WikiVet. https://en.wikivet.net/Feline_Social_Behaviour Last accessed March 11, 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, ___. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Wright, M., and Walters, S. 1980. The Book of the Cat. New York: Summit Books.