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How to Tell Which Cat is Dominant

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In a multi-cat household, conflict can be common. In fact, one study of 2,492 cat owners of multi-cat households reported cats showed signs of conflict early after introducing a new cat in 79.9% of households. Conflict is common because it’s the way cats create their social hierarchy and decide who is the “boss” in the house.

This likely happens because cats are generally considered solitary animals. While they can form friendships with humans and other animals (like dogs), they don’t always get along with other cats.

You can clearly tell which the dominant cat is after watching this video. Even though it’s obvious here, however, sometimes cats are a little bit more subtle about the way that they assert dominance.

So, how can you tell which cat is more dominant?

There are many signs a cat is exhibiting dominance, from chasing the other cat away from common areas to hissing, growling, or swatting. Since some of these can be playful behaviors, it’s important to watch the interaction between your cats closely to be sure both cats are still getting things like food and affection. 

Below, we’ll take a look at the signs that one cat is dominating another, as well as the difference between male and female cats and their dominating behaviors and signs of a cat submitting. We’ll also take a look at why cats act dominant and what you can do if it becomes a problem in your multi-cat household.

What Exactly Is Dominance?

Dominance is one of the most misunderstood ideas in the animal world and while cats do have a loose dominance structure, there’s no “alpha feline” or “boss cat” that’s in charge of everything- at least that’s not what happens in the wild. Of course, that may be different in your household with only two cats but even then, the relationship is fluid and dynamic with one cat taking charge some days or in some areas and another in other scenarios.

We’ll continue to use the word dominance to describe assertive cats but just remember that this doesn’t mean there’s any such thing as an alpha cat or any need to assert your dominance towards your cat. Instead, many of these behaviors have more to do with controlling territory, protecting turf, and staying defensive rather than “being the boss”.

How to Tell Which Cat is Dominant

1. A Dominant Cat Might Challenge Another Cat

A cat that hasn’t been well-socialized around other cats is likely to challenge them. The physical signs of one cat challenging another may be subtle at first. They may stare at one another for a long period of time and stand straight up, trying to make themselves appear larger and more intimidating.

When one cat does this physical challenge, the other cat will either show submission or try to assert their own dominance. When the second cat tries to be dominant, the situation might escalate and the cats may even fight.

When cats are fighting over dominance or territory, the one that is more dominant generally bites the back or scruff of the other cat’s neck. The cat that is less dominant will roll over on their back, usually exposing their stomach and kicking the other cat with its rear legs.

2. A Dominant Cat Might Be Physically Aggressive

If one cat challenges the other after meeting, the other cat will either show submission or try to remain the more dominant cat. This might result in physical aggression or fighting, including biting, scratching, and swatting. Cats also might hiss or growl at another cat to show their displeasure.

3. A Dominant Cat Might Sit on or Mount Another Cat

Cats also show dominance by climbing on top of another cat. In some cases, they might mount the other cat on its back like they would during mating.

If one cat sits on or mounts another, they also may aggressively lick the other cat. While cats do groom each other as a way to show affection, it’s also sends a territorial message. The more dominant cat is claiming the other cat as his or her own. As long as the second cat isn’t acting in a dominant way, this can even mean they are accepting of them being part of the family.

4. A Dominant Cat Might Hoard Food or Toys

Cats who have not been properly socialized also might worry about the amount of resources at home. It’s important to remember that this is a new, unfamiliar situation for your cat. If you keep cats separate and introduce them slowly, however, it might be a little easier for both your existing cat and the new cat to adapt.

Even if there is plenty of food, toys, and love in the house, cats still might worry. They might hide toys so the other cat  can’t play with them or chase them away from food areas. Cats also might show dominance by chasing the other cat away from their favorite spots to sleep or wherever you are at the time.

5. A Dominant Cat May Spray or Bunt

Cats are territorial creatures, which is another reason they might not be excited about another cat living in the home. For cats, scent marking is a behavior that they use to claim territory and make their presence known. Cats communicate with this scent, especially since it is unique to each animal.

Two indirect ways that cats show dominance is by bunting or spraying. Bunting is the technical term for what your cat is doing when they press their forehead against things, or headbutting them. Cats have scent glands all over body, including the head, face, chin, ears, mouth, and nose. As your cat rubs up against different things, they are marking their territory. They may even rub against other pets, whether it’s another cat or the family dog.

Cats trying to assert their dominance also might spray with urine, though this is a more common behavior in male cats than female cats. A cat that is spraying for dominance is also more likely to spray a vertical surface like a wall or a piece of furniture than a flat surface like a floor.

How Does a Cat Show Submission to Another Cat?

A cat shows submission to another cat by the way they position their body, including their ears and tail. When two cats see each other and one makes a challenge, a submissive cat might flatten their ears to appear smaller. They also may crouch low and lower their tail, even tucking it between their legs in some cases.

Submissive cats will often avoid eye contact, sense staring is one of the ways that two cats size each other up. In some cases, when the first interaction between two cats is friendly, the submissive cat also might pat the other cat on a cheek or headbutt it as a means to say hello.

Another way cats show submission is by positioning their body in a non-threatening way. A submissive cat may roll on their sides or even put their belly up in the air, indicating that they aren’t a threat to the more dominant cat.

The final sign of submission you might notice is the offering of a paw. This usually happens from a position of submission, like while your cat is laying on the ground.

What Makes a Cat Act Dominant?

Cats typically display dominance for one of three reasons; territory, male-on-male aggression, or fear-based aggression.

Before you try any techniques on how to stop dominance in a multi-cat household, it helps to know why your cat is acting the way they are. For example, male tom cats might be more likely to fight with each other during mating season. As you identify the reason your cat is acting out, it becomes easier to find a method that will help him or her learn to get along with other cats.

Of course, spaying and neutering are always the first things you should do if you’re dealing with any kind of feline aggression or dominance issues. PetSmart makes this super easy to do with hundreds of spay and neuter clinics available at zero or very low cost.

Territorial Reasons

If you bring a new cat into the home, sometimes the existing cat acts territorial. They may feel jealous over the attention the other cat is getting and chase them away from you when your home. Cats might also feel territorial over a specific area like a recliner or the food area.

In some cases, your cat might become territorial because they are worried about the availability of food, love, or something else in the home. This cause becomes apparent when your cat shows hoarding behaviors.

Fear-Based Aggression

Finally, a cat might exhibit dominance out of fear. This is most likely to happen when one of the cats backs the other into a corner or tries to intimidate it. When challenged, cats are more likely to fight than they are to bow down to another creature.

Lack of Feline Socialization Also Causes Dominance Or Aggression Problems

In many cases, the above reactions to a new cat in the home cause dominance problems because the cat was not properly socialized with other cats. They also may be naturally inclined to be more dominant or submissive because of their personality. Cats with social problems may not have interacted with other felines aside from their litter mates, or they may have had bad reactions with other cats if they’ve lived outdoors. When cats are properly socialized from a young age, it decreases the risk that they will act out in a dominant way when meeting another cat for the first time.

Cats Do Not Act Dominant Because of a Feline Social Hierarchy

Much of what researchers know about cat behavior comes from studying feral cats in the wilderness or surveying cat owners. Even though it’s estimated that around 76 million cats are kept as domesticated pets in the United States, there hasn’t been much research that involves observing house cats in a formal manner.

From what researchers have learned, however, cats generally do not follow a social hierarchy. With the exception of lions living in prides and feral cats that live in groups, cats are generally independent creatures. Even in these cases, the female members of the pack often work together while there may still be challenges for dominance among males.

Since cats do not generally live in groups (outside of urban areas), there isn’t a strict social hierarchy. This means that a cat is much more likely to act dominant when they are unsure of how to interact with other cats, rather than because they believe they should be the “alpha” cat in the house. Plus, the whole idea of “alpha” and “beta” animals when wolves and other animals live in groups has recently been debunked.

Do I Need to Stop My Cat’s Dominant Behavior?

Being dominant doesn’t always mean that your cat is acting aggressively. Before you decide if you need to intervene between your cats, it’s important to consider if either of them is being harmed by the interaction. Pets will play with each other as they get used to each other’s presence and even when they get a little rough, it doesn’t necessarily mean that one is trying to hurt the other or assert dominance.

While the occasional scratch or injury while playing might happen, you should intervene if one of your cats is being physically aggressive toward the other. You also might need to work on a cat’s dominant behavior if it is affecting the other cat’s ability to access food, affection, and different areas of the house.

Some people also may want to address their cat’s dominant behavior if they are spraying around the house. Cat spray has a very strong odor because cats use it to mark their territory. Neutering a male cat (if they are not) might also help curb dominant behavior, especially if it happens more frequently as the warmer months approach.

How Can I Correct Dominant Behavior if it’s Necessary?

If your cat acts aggressively as they show dominance, it is very important that you correct dominant cat behavior early on, rather than letting it continue. As dominant cat behavior continues, it’ll be harder to break your kitty’s bad habits. Here are some methods on how to stop dominant cat behavior, as well as some strategies you can use to introduce cats slowly to reduce the chance of dominant behavior before it starts.

Use the Two-Room Method to Introduce Cats Slowly

The best way to prevent aggression before it starts is to slowly introduce cats over time. You can even do this before the cats meet each other by feeding them at the same time, with one of the cats on one side of a closed door and the other cat on the opposite side.

Even though the two cats aren’t together in the sense that they can touch each other, they still will be able to smell each other and get familiarized with the other’s scent. This will make them curious about each other and make them feel like they know each other a little more.

Be Sure Your Cat isn’t Sick or In Pain

Sometimes, cats act aggressively because they are in pain or dealing with an illness. Before deciding that your cat is just being mean, take him or her to the vet for a check-up and make sure everything is okay. If there is nothing physically wrong and your cat’s behavior is still aggressive, then intervention may be necessary.

Give Cats Equal (But Separate) Food and Love

Something else that’s important when dealing with a dominance situation between your cats is being sure you treat them equally. When you feed them, give them separate bowls of food with the same amount in it. Keeping water bowls separate may also be a good idea, especially if you find the more dominant cat tries to chase the other away from the eating area.

You should also be fair with giving love and play time. Be sure both cats are getting the affection they need to flourish. When possible, you should give them this affection at the same time because it reinforces the idea that there’s plenty to go around.

Encourage Safe Play Time

In addition to discouraging your feline from acting dominantly, you should encourage the right kind of play time. It isn’t enough just to separate the cats and hope they don’t interact with each other. Instead, you’ll need to train the proper way for them to interact.

The best way to do this is to play with your cats together. Family play time gives them a chance to interact in a positive way. It also reinforces the concept of family and that the new cat is part of the pack now. Playing together shows that you have time for both of the cats, too!

Reward Your Cat for Good Behavior

Positive reinforcement is much more effective for cats than punishment. To do this, give your cat extra affection or treats when he or she is playing nicely instead of dominating your other cat. Eventually, your cat should understand the connection between performing that good, positive behavior and feeling rewarded.

Positive reinforcement works best for cats when you use a secondary reward too, since it strengthens the connection. Therefore, offering up affection and praise in addition to a treat might work faster at stopping dominant behavior.

Never Physically Punish Your Cat

You should never punish a cat physically. Hitting your cat, yelling at them, or otherwise punishing them is likely to make your cat more aggressive than it is to discourage the behavior. This happens because cats get afraid when they are punished. A fear-based response is more likely to make your cat more aggressive. Plus, if only one cat is being punished, it may add more fuel to the fire when it comes to their attitude toward another cat.

Get Outside Help if Necessary

In most cases, human intervention and doing things like keeping things equal between the cats and rewarding them for positive behavior is enough to stop a lot of their dominant behavior. At the very least, employing these methods should help your cats tolerate each other (or even like each other). In extreme cases, however, it might be necessary to get outside help.

Veterinary behaviorists specialize in animal behavior and might be able to provide some extra guidance. Dominant behavior is usually something that can be managed at home, but in extreme cases outside help might be helpful or even necessary.

How Do I Separate Two Fighting Cats?

You should never physically get between two cats that are fighting to break up their fight. Putting your arm or leg in the middle of them is less likely to help and more likely to put you at risk of getting a nasty scratch or bite.

Instead, throw a towel or blanket over the two cats. This takes away their ability to see each other, plus the cloth might settle between them so it’s easier to stop the fight and get them apart.

Some people also recommend loud noises or spraying water or throwing it on cats that are fighting. However, we strongly recommend avoiding these methods unless they are absolutely necessary to break up the fight. Punishing your cat physically or with sound could make them more aggressive. It also doesn’t do much to deter the behavior from happening again.

Final Thoughts

Cats do not live according to a social hierarchy, so it’s not uncommon for them to challenge each other to see who is the more dominant cat when meeting. In some cases, this doesn’t result in fighting because one cat is naturally more submissive. When cats challenge each other, however, it may result in physical aggression, fighting, and behavioral problems like spraying.

You can help reduce the chance of problems with dominance by introducing cats to each other slowly over time. It’s also important to be sure that cats are treated equally, even if you keep them separate for the time being. Remember that cats are not naturally pack creatures, so be patient as they take the time to adjust to living with another feline.

Unless cats are physically hurting each other, shows of dominance can be normal and they do not always get aggressive. Your cat might just need a little time to adjust to the new situation. There are several strategies you can use to help reduce dominant behavior, if it does become an issue.

Have any thoughts? Feel free to drop a comment below!

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