Congratulations! You have just moved into a quiet, shady suburban neighborhood with lots of fenced-in back yards filled with sheds, trees, and other structures that add three dimensions to a roaming cat’s world.
As you and your kitty relax by the window, you note a few other cats out there: a black one two yards down, sitting high up on a shed roof; a ginger cat walking along the fence, across the alley; and something that just ducked under the laurel bush in your new back yard–ah! there it goes up a tree: brown and white spots, and quite a large cat it is.
Good! you say to yourself. With so many feline neighbors, Fluffy won’t be lonely while I’m at work.
Fluffy, on the other hand, is seriously considering switching over to 100% indoor living. Spots out there is huge and obviously owns the yard, while the other cats – including three more whose scent marks Fluffy can smell although you are oblivious to them – will all have to be faced, too.
New cat on the block
When we move, we plunk our pets down in the middle of a complex and foreign terrain. And it contains serious challenges.
Neighborhood cats may ignore a neutered cat, but they will gather and call out Fluffy to see what he’s made of.
The good news is that Fluffy only has to go through this “blooding” once to earn a place in the local pecking order.
All cats need an organized space around them, just like people do. Walls work very well for indoor cats, even in a multi-cat household (as long as each animal respects the others’ core area, which is usually a favorite sleeping spot).
The house itself is a free-roaming pet’s central core. (In Fluffy’s case, though, the back yard isn’t–when push came to shove, he couldn’t take down Spots, who dominates the block. Fluffy did earn enough respect to claim time-sharing rights in both the yard and the tree. He also intimidated Ginger and one of the scent-mark cats with an impressive combination of vocals and threatening moves – no battles – but he blinked first in staring contests with each of the other two scent-marking cats. Never mind Blackie – he’s kind of a wuss and everybody picks on him. Oh, and there is a yellow she-cat with kittens, three yards down, who will not take harassment from anybody, not even Spots, at any time of the day or night.)
Each of these cats has its own territory–even Blackie, who can claim the shed roof, although the rest of his owner’s yard belongs partly to Ginger and partly to one of the scent-marking cats. Spots, of course, has the largest range of any of them.
The fences are neutral pathways, and there are also a couple of safe routes on the ground.
Most scratching is done along these paths rather than around the territorial borders. Urine spraying, however, is done throughout a cat’s range, except in its sleeping area.
These marks all let other felines know who is where at any given moment. Time sharing reduces stress and keeps down the number of fights in an area where people have brought so many pet cats together.
Domestic cat brotherhoods
Feral she-cats in a colony will share nursing duties, like lionesses do in a pride, but only domestic cats seem to have a “boys only” hangout.
Spots, Fluffy, Ginger, and the other neighborhood he-cats–even Blackie!–sometimes 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 it’s time for the sun to come up. Then each goes back to his own territory and resumes business as usual.
Felinologists call this a brotherhood.
Have humans enabled this unusual behavior by building enough excess infrastructure for cats to expand their neutral ground into a commons?
Who knows. Maybe it’s just a side effect of domestication. African wildcats – Fluffy’s closest ancestor – are never seen socializing this way. But then, they don’t gather in groups, either, the way feral cats will around a food source (a dumpster, say, or a dockyard).
No human being understands the he-cat’s social club. But whatever is going on, it seems to be working.
Domestic cats are very adaptable, even when we force them into closer contact with each other than they would normally tolerate in the wild.
They adapt their territories to the limits we set for them, whether that is an interior wall or a fenced-in yard. When it all feels right, the domestic cat then does its thing, just as it has been doing for many hundreds of centuries while sharing its life with us.
Featured image: Nico Nelson CC BY 2.0.
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