A fluffy gray cat and a snowshoe Siamese take turns grooming and play-wrestling with each other. Later, the fluffy gray cat will check on another female’s kittens. A red tabby and a black cat curl up together because it’s a tad chilly.
Each cat has carved out their own territory, but nobody seems to really mind the proximity of the others. In fact, they seem downright comfortable with it. It is, for the most part, a peaceable kingdom.
You would think this was a feral cat colony, but no—it’s a multi-cat household. In fact, only one of the cats has ever lived outside, but much of the behavior is the same, as a closer look shows us.
Playing It Both Ways
Cats can live both in groups — a “clowder” or a “glaring” — and on their own. “The feline social system is therefore one of variability and flexibility,” observe Lauren Finka, Sarah Ellis, and Jenny Stavinsky of BioMed Central (BMC) Veterinary Research. “In cat colonies, social structuring, relationships and potential conflicts may be the result of complex interactions between age, gender, sex ratio, relatedness and individuality.”
It’s also subject to change. The population shifts frequently; some cats don’t make it through the winter, while others wander off and sometimes return. Sid, a flame point Siamese I’ve worked with, started off in a feral cat colony with his sister, Birdie. Both kittens were rescued by a local woman, Sue, who then fostered them.
Sid escaped the house and rejoined the feral cat colony in Sue’s backyard. Either he was looking for his litter mate or he craved the company of other felines.
Eventually, Sue recaptured Sid, who has become something of a long-term foster. Birdie is no longer there (she was adopted out before his return), but he seems comfortable with the other cats in the household. To his way of thinking, it’s probably just another — and safer — cat colony.
When Cats Get Along With Each Other
Sid’s story goes along with the idea that cats really do enjoy the company of their own kind — a theory that nobody gave much credence to until Paul Leyhausen began studying the subject in the 1960s and 1970s. He discovered that “mammals that normally live solitary lives seem to have a faculty for changing to some form of group life.”
Members of multi-cat households often display some of the same fluidity. Iris had grown up in a cattery before living with my mother; when Mom could no longer take care of her, she came here.
I worried that she’d find living with other cats difficult after so many years on her own, but she thrived. It was a return to her beginnings, to a familiar and comfortable lifestyle.
Back in 1977, Dr. David Macdonald and Peter J. Apps began studying a community of farm cats in Devon, England. (Unless they’ve been socialized, farm cats are usually just a paw-step or two away from ferals.)
The researchers noticed that 4 of the barn cats — Tom, Smudge and their daughters, Pickle and Domino — spent a lot of time together. Pickle even acted as a midwife to Domino, severing the umbilical cord for her. And later, when both sisters lost their kittens, they bonded even more closely together, as though comforting each other.
“Cats in feral colonies will often form little groups of 2 or more,” explains Dr. Karen Becker, DVM. In fact, “they will associate more closely with these ‘best friends’ than with other colony members. Cats are most likely to become best friends with those related to them, but close friendships often form among non-related individuals as well.”
This is true in multi-cat households as well. Years ago, 4 kittens found their way into our house in a relatively short period of time. They weren’t related, but they soon formed their own posse.
Watch this feisty old feral develop an instant soft spot for these kittens:
Females in Charge
Both feral cat colonies and multi-cat households adhere to matriarchal rule. The males play their part, but it’s the females who call the shots. Feral queens like Pickle and Domino not only help with birthing and raising kittens: they also band together and protect the kittens against all threats.
Domesticated females often show similar maternal urges. And being spayed doesn’t dampen those urges, either. I’ve seen spayed females adopt kittens. Some of them had had kittens before being spayed, but quite a few hadn’t.
Yes, there are cats who prefer to be the one and only. But looking at these 2 different groups shows us that they can be infinitely more social than we’ve given them credit for. As Becker says, they’re simply social in different ways.