Friday, 2 October 2015

Behaviour focus: social groups

In this week’s behaviour focus post, Cats Protection Behaviour Manager Nicky Trevorrow explains how to recognise feline social groups.

My cats are very close – they’re good friends but every now and then one attacks the other. Why is this? 

Firstly it is worth ascertaining whether the cats are fighting or play fighting and whether they were in the same social group to start with. It can be very hard to tell with cats as they have not evolved the complex facial muscles to show a wide variety of facial expressions. Cats struggle with each other too as they don’t have much in the way of appeasement signals to smooth things over.

Signs of cats being the same social group
  • Mutual grooming (known as allogrooming)
  • Mutual rubbing (known as allorubbing)
  • Sleeping together touching, often with interlocking paws
  • Choosing to spend a lot of time in close proximity
  • Greeting one another with a tail up, touching noses
  • Play fighting with each other
  • Communal nursing of young (more commonly seen in related female cats in feral colonies)
You may not necessarily see all of these signs in your cats. Generally if you see the top three signs, your cats are likely to be in the same social group. The absence of social behaviours could mean that your cats are just tolerating each other.

Intertwined kittens
Kittens having a play fight! Photo by Martin Dewhurst
Signs of cats NOT being in the same social group
  • Time sharing resources such as a favourite sofa. One cat may use it in the morning and the other cat may use it in the afternoon
  • Emotionally blocking access to resources. One cat may look too anxious to approach unless the other cat is not around. Cat flaps and litter trays commonly get blocked by cats
  • Living in separate areas of the house. One cat may live predominantly upstairs, while the other mostly lives downstairs
  • Recurrent stress related illnesses, such as cystitis, over-grooming and skin conditions
  • Behaviour problems like inappropriate toileting, spraying and aggressive behaviour
Many owners feel that their cats are friends if they do not see any fighting or hissing. However, fighting is a last resort for cats. They would much rather avoid conflict by avoiding one another. If you are regularly seeing any of the negative behaviours, then your cats are likely to be foes.

It can be hard to identify play fighting, especially in adult cats. Many people think cats are play fighting when in fact they are actually fighting and vice versa. Play fighting is often silent, the claws are sheathed, the cats generally take it in turns and it looks like a bit of a rough and tumble. Compare this now with real fighting whereby the fur is really flying, cats are more likely to vocalise such as hissing, spitting and growling, the claws are out, there may be a lot of posturing beforehand (to try and avoid overt aggressive behaviour) and it may occur in particular ‘hot spots’ of the house where the space is narrow so it is difficult for the cats to avoid each other.

This video shows a cat and kitten play fighting:

If you feel that your cats are fighting one another, then it could be that one or both of the cats have a medical problem. While it is tempting to think that a cat looks fine and doesn't seem in pain, remember that cats are the masters of disguise! Talk about the change in the behaviour of your cats to your vet.

If your vet feels that it is behavioural, then there are a wide variety of possible causes. The key to resolving it is to identify the underlying cause for your specific cats. Getting a referral to a qualified behaviourist, such as the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors is the best way and do get it sorted out sooner rather than later. Just wishing the cats would get along, or leaving them to ‘sort it out themselves’ is not going to resolve the problem and it could even get worse if behaviour measures are not put in place. Equally, do not be tempted to tell off the cat that appears to be starting the fights. Things may not be as they seem and again it is likely to make things worse.

Allorubbing cats
These cats are allorubbing or mutual rubbing; photo by Gemma Lovegrove
Cats are territorial and therefore are not great at sharing. Reduce conflict by providing plenty of resources in different areas of the home. Ideally, the golden rule is one resource per cat plus one extra as a spare.

In each space, provide each cat with the following essential resources:

  • food and water (cats like to drink away from where they eat, so place the food and water bowls in separate areas)
  • somewhere to hide, such as a cardboard box on its side or under the bed
  • somewhere to get up high to view surrounds in safety (on top of a wardrobe, shelves, window sills, stools) and this creates extra territory
  • somewhere to sleep (igloo beds, cardboard box, blankets in elevated places)
  • toys
  • a scratch post (try placing near to where the cat sleeps as cats often like to stretch and scratch after they wake up)
  • litter tray (place this away from food and water)
  • multiple entry and exit points so cats can’t block the only cat flap in the house

To learn more about cat social groups, check out our Friends or foes animation video and the Cats Protection leaflet – Cats living together.


  1. This makes a very interesting blog. It is something I can relate to as we had the same problem with one of our 4 cats seemingly being bullied by another. I can certainly see problem areas as discussed above. A very insightful blog. Thank You :)

  2. My cats are mother and daughter and were very close. When kitten was about 9 months old they spent a week in a cattery sharing a large pen ( this was the second occasion). Since then Mum has been very aggressive towards her daughter. We have a large house. Cats have access to garden via cat flap. Aggression seems to take place when they are with my husband and I, especially in our bedroom and during the evenings in the lounge. The aggression involves fisticuffs and lots of noise....fortunately no physical damage. Is there anything we can do or are doing wrong?

    1. Hello, sorry to hear about this. If they were sharing a large pen together the aggression could have been caused by stress through lack of resources. Ideally we recommend that there are plenty of resources (water bowls, litter trays etc) and that cats have spaces to hide up high, where they feel safe – presumably all these resources were not provided in a confined space, and they wouldn’t have been able to get away from each other.
      If they continue to be aggressive towards each other you should gradually introduce them to one another again. Our behaviourist wrote a blog post on this topic recently -
      Also ensure there are plenty of feline resources such as food bowls and litter trays around the home, to avoid competition.

  3. Do you have any suggestions to help cats that have drifted into separate social groups? Our cats are not hostile towards each other but we do have some recurring cystitis and over grooming which cause a lot of distress to 2 of our 4 cats.

    1. Sorry to hear about this. If there is recurrent cystitis and overgrooming, it sounds like your cats are very stressed. Long term stress or depression can lead to other health and/or behaviour problems so you really need to get them health checked by your vet. Also ask them to refer you to a qualified behaviourist ( Make sure there is one resource (food, water, litter tray) per cat, plus an extra for choice to avoid conflict.

  4. This makes for interesting reading as my cats are in the same social group the groom each other and sleep together all the time in fact do all of the things that say they are in the same social group, but when they fight fur really does fly. One is 3 and the other is 1 I put it down to the younger one who is now bigger than older one trying to assert his dominance and the older one putting him back in this place . Could this be true? Or are they really not as close as I thought.

    1. Cats don't actually have dominance hierarchies, as new research has shown. Given that cats have evolved from a solitary species, they haven't evolved complex social interactions such as hierarchies that tend to be associated with group living.
      Could the fighting you’re describing be boisterous play fighting or play fighting that gets a bit out of hand at times? If you’re seeing the positive body postures we’ve listed, they sound like they are the same social group but we couldn't say for sure without meeting them.
      It’d be worth asking your vet for a referral to a qualified behaviourist who is member of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors (APBC). They will be able to investigate the situation and outline practical treatment.

  5. A couple of ideas for me to try but mostly things I do already. I got a new kitten in July as company for my 7 year old boy (we lost his brother last year).
    It's been a very hard couple of months. The kitten wants to be with the cat all the time but cat hates him and growls and snarls. Cat NEVER attacks kitten. However kitten is starting to attack cat - biting his hindquarters, ears, going for him while he's eating and in his tray!! The kitten will go wherever cat is and force his way into his bed etc. Kitten is a bully and my cat is really miserable. I keep kitten in kitchen at night so cat (and myself) gets some respite. Kitten was neutered last month which helped a tiny bit...not enough though. Is it just that he's a kitten and will grow out of it or is this it forever! I fear for my cat's health as he has a heart condition and is very nervous now where he wasnt before.
    Any suggestions?

    1. Sorry to hear about the problems you’re having. When adding a new cat to a household that has other cats, it’s worth bearing in mind that they are naturally solitary creatures and do not require the companionship of other cats. They can also be very territorial which means that careful considerations need to be made when introducing a new cat.
      It’s really important to introduce cats to each other very gradually – keep the cats separate for the time being and begin swapping their scents (see our blog post about introducing cats). Ensure there are also plenty of resources around the house (food and water bowls, litter trays, places to hide etc).
      We’d also recommend you get a referral to a qualified behaviourist who is member of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors (APBC) as soon as possible.
      Despite careful introductions, some cats never become friends or part of the same social group. Differences in characteristics play a great part in all social interactions and cats are certainly no exception to this rule. In these cases you may have to consider rehoming one of the animals.

  6. Hi, this is kind of related. My house mate has 4 cats (never had one before where I have) and hes constantly letting them in on demand as they now associate that with being fed. They will even ask to go outside and be back within 5 minutes to get more food. As a result they have no routine, are becoming increasingly overweight and basically ruling the house. I could rant on for ever but he wont listen to me. Apart from one the other 3 are night cats yet he lets them in as soon as they appear on the window sil. Can you please advise on this and the benefits of routine. He wont believe me. Or am I in the wrong? - Thanks

    1. If he’s letting them in on demand, without realising it he is reinforcing the cats’ behaviour. As it’s a successful tactic, we have trained the cat that this works so they will try it again the next night! It’s very hard but the trick is to ignore their behaviour and feign sleep with the aid of ear plugs. Nicky’s recent post about night time waking discusses this topic in more detail:

  7. I'm hoping that you can help me please?
    We adopted two sister when they were 6 months old. They had been hand reared from very young and were very close when we got them. They use to sleep together, groom each other and would even eat out of the same bowl.
    Now 4 years later, they have changed. Its been happening over the last few years gradually but is quite bad at times now.
    They will when out of the house play together, and even hunt together. However in the house they fight quite regular, and not play fighting. Their claws will be out, they hiss and there tails are fluffed up. They quite often blood as well. Also whoever gets the bed or sofa will not allow the other nearby. They are both incredibly affectionate cats, very cuddly and like to sleep very close to us and cuddled up but will not share us and seem to get jealous if one of pays attention to one cat. One cat will pay me more attention and give me cuddles but won't let my husband cuddle her. The other cat flits between us and will let either of us cuddle her. We also have a 5 year old son, but both will very gladly let him cuddle them and love sleeping with him.
    However it concerns me that they have gone from being very close sisters in the house to disliking each other.
    Any ideas why this change may have occurred?
    Any help you can give would be greatly received.

    Thank you

    1. Hello, cats are more likely to get along if they are related, such as litter mates, although this is not a guarantee. However between 18 months and four years of age, cats go through a period known as ‘social maturity’. This differs to sexual maturity (which is from four months of age) and is when they naturally get more independent and can drift apart from one another. Sometimes even well-bonded cats can fall out during this time.
      If your cats are no longer in the same social group, they may tolerate each other providing there are enough resources in different parts of the home (ideally one per cat plus one extra) such as litter trays, food bowls, places to hide etc, around the house to reduce any competition for these items. Check out our leaflets called Welcome Home and Cats living together as it may be that you need to go back to the beginning with scent swapping and keeping the cats separate. You may wish to contact a qualified behaviourist to help ease the transition. You can search for one using

  8. I have a question about our two cats. They are siblings, born together, we adopted them from there appr. 2 years ago. They were less than 6 months old and for a year (as I can also see it on photos taken of them) they were relatively close, the boy was licking the girl, they slept close to each other, ate together and sat on the windowsill next to each other, often touching, However, they seem to have grown apart, they seem to be doing what the article calls "time sharing" for example on the cat tree, eat separately,staying in different parts of the house and though they fight sometimes, mainly they don't care about teh other, It's OK I guess, but a little sad, they have always been together, the only cat they will know is their siblings and we hoped they would be good company to each other, and in the beginning it seemed that way. What might have happened, and is there anything we can do about it?

  9. Hello, please read our reply to the comment above about social maturity.

  10. Hi I have a mother and seven kitten but in the last month the mother cat has been hissing and spitting and swatting the kitten and he seems fritend is this normal as I love and want to keep both and what can I do

    1. Hello, firstly we’d recommend getting the cats checked over by a vet to rule out any medical reason for the change in behaviour. Then you could try using a Feliway Friends pheromone diffuser (following the instructions on the packet) and make sure each cat has their own resources (food bowl, water bowl, litter tray, scratch post) plus one extra spread out around the house so they can have their own territories and don’t have to share. It’s probably a good idea to separate the cats at night too. You can find lots more information about cats living together in our leaflet here: If the problems continue it might be worth getting a suitably qualified cat behaviourist to come and asses the cats in the home. I hope this helps!

  11. We adopted an 8 year old male , very timid, traumatised, cat who had been an indoor cat. He was neutered when he was given in to cats protection. We were told he came from a 'loving family' but we have our doubts, some of the reactions to simple gestures or just walking past are not logical! We already have a 15 year old female neutered cat. We have had Barty for 12 weeks now and he is in some ways making vast improvements. When we first had him he was in one room for 4 weeks. When we let him venture out he was timid but did explore but had many 'accidents'. In fact we now shut a lot of doors most of the time to stop recurring wees and poos. However puddles are still appearing in two places, the entrance coir mat well and in the kitchen near to the downstairs litter tray. We were despairing of him when we caught our female cat making the puddles in the kitchen! We realise that although she seems to tolerate him she is obviously seriously distressed to do that. She has always gone outside, never had accidents and never used a litter tray. Can we do anything to help her?