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Do Cat Families Have a Pack Order?

By Julia Williams

Is there such a thing as an “Alpha Cat” in a multi-cat home? And do the cats fight for dominance, to be the pack leader? Is there “pack behavior” or a “hierarchal structure” in a group of cats who live together?

I used to believe the answer to all of those questions was a resounding no. Many people still do. There are plenty of people who are adamant that cats are not social creatures, and that there’s no such thing as an Alpha Cat or a pecking order among felines. They maintain that only dogs and wolves form packs and defer to the pack leader.

While it is true that felines are not “pack animals” per se, many cat owners (myself included) will tell you that in their own household it does seem like the resident cats actually do establish a pecking order. Perhaps not every feline family forms a hierarchy, but some do. Not in the same way that wolves and dogs do, but in a uniquely feline way.

As I said above, I always found the notion of an Alpha Cat improbable. What changed my mind was that I read what other cat-knowledgeable people said about it, and then I began to consciously observe my own cat family to see if what they said held water. Truth be told, I was surprised by what I saw when I actually studied the behaviors of my cat family.

Cats have been an integral part of my life ever since I was a young girl. It’s kind of funny to me now, that in all those years I never really saw certain behaviors. However, I’m certain it’s not because the behaviors weren’t there, but that I just wasn’t paying attention. When I began to really look at how my cats interacted with each other, I saw their relationships in an entirely different light.

I know who is the Alpha Cat, who is second in command, and who is the “low cat on the totem pole” here. It’s quite clear, actually, and it astounds me that I didn’t see this sooner. By the way, this only applies to the cats themselves and not to me. Dogs can be trained to see the human as their pack leader, but cats? Not so much. They see me as the TidNips treat dispenser and the one who keeps the bowls of FELIDAE cat food coming. They also see me as someone they can manipulate into letting them do pretty much whatever they want. But I will never be their pack leader, and I’m not even in their pecking order. I take that back – I am probably lower than the low cat on the totem pole!! LOL.

The naysayers of pack hierarchy in cats purport that “a dominant cat will not take food away from a subordinate cat.” But in my home, they do! Rocky, the Alpha Cat, gulps his food at an alarming rate and then pushes Mickey away from his bowl. Mickey defers to Rocky, and pushes Belle away from her bowl. Belle slinks away. This would happen every single day if I didn’t stand guard while they eat.

I’ve also watched various displays of dominance and submission play out in my cat family. I’ve seen Mickey challenge Rocky’s Alpha Cat status unsuccessfully and immediately go pick on Belle until she runs to her “safe spot” under the cabinet where he can’t get to her. Rocky intimidates Mickey, who then intimidates Belle.

I also know that Belle keeps to herself in the bedroom or keeps me company in my office, while the other two cats share the living room. She rarely spends any time in the living room, and when she does, it’s not long before she’s chased out by one of the boys. This isn’t to say that my cats do not all get along. In fact, 95% of the time they do, and I believe that the rest is their way of maintaining the pecking order. When they do “fight” it is more like mock sparring than a knock-down-drag-out brawl.

If you have multiple cats, do you see one as the Alpha Cat?

Top photo by Dan Powers of Chronicles of Zee & Zoey fame
Bottom photo by Karamellzucker

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