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Find information on animal health topics, written for the veterinary professional.

* This is the Veterinary Version. *

Normal Social Behavior in Cats

By Karen L. Overall, MA, VMD, PhD, DACVB, ABS Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, Research Associate, Psychiatry Department, Center for Neurobiology & Behavior, University of Pennsylvania

Although many people think of cats as solitary animals, they are very sociable in the right circumstances. Some indoor cats may prefer living alone, but many get along well in groups. Outdoor cats will form stable groups as long as they can find enough food.

Unlike dogs, cats have not been artificially bred to perform specific tasks. Instead of selecting them based on behavior, different breeds have been created based on factors like hair color or length.

The basic feline social unit is the queen, or mother cat, and her kittens. Weaning occurs between 5 and 8 weeks, although given the chance, some kittens will occasionally suckle much later. This is probably related more to social behavior than to nutrition. In stable groups of outdoor cats, kittens will remain either with their mother or as part of her extended social group for the first 12 to 13 months of life. Male kittens more commonly leave the group before social maturity (2 to 4 years) than do females. Multiple generations of related females can be found in such groups and they may all provide care for the young.

The size of cat groups, also known as colonies, often depends on the amount of food available. Most domestic cats hunt alone. Prey species include those considered by humans to be vermin, like rats and mice, which may explain why cats are found worldwide. Kittens learn to prefer and to hunt the same type of prey that their mother hunted. Pet cats learn to prefer a certain texture of food. If you want your cat to accept a wide range of food as an adult, then it should be given a variety of foods as a kitten.

While sexual maturity is early (6 months of age), breeding may be inhibited in larger social groups, either directly (by male cats interrupting other males that are trying to breed) or indirectly by the group as a whole.

Factors such as being unfriendly, timid, or shy are hereditary and are often inherited from the father. However, kittens between 2 to 7 weeks of age that are handled by people are friendlier towards people, are more outgoing, and may be less aggressive. The effect of early human handling can add to the paternal effect on the willingness to explore. At about 12 to 14 weeks of age, kittens switch from social play to social fighting and a more predatory type of play. Early weaning will hasten this change.

The wild ancestors of cats used open, well-drained, ground (sand, for example) for elimination. This may reflect their North African origins. Cats may scratch before, after, or not at all when eliminating, and they may or may not dig to cover their urine or feces. All of these elimination behaviors are normal. Spraying (-directing a thin stream of urine on a vertical surface like a wall, curtains, or a piece of furniture) can be a part of normal elimination, but is usually a way of marking or claiming territory.

Behaviors such as urine marking, roaming, and fighting with other cats are all affected by hormones. Neutering male cats will reduce or prevent their occurrence in most cases. Cats are markedly influenced by the role of scent in their environment, and they mark with urine, feces, and special scent glands under the chin and on the paws.

* This is the Veterinary Version. *