How Social Are Cats?

Key takeaway

While cats may seem more independent than dogs, they’re actually social animals. They typically prefer to socialize with other cats depending on their age, gender, and whether or not they’re related. Luckily, cats are socially flexible, allowing them to live happily and harmoniously with other pets and humans.

When leaving home for an extended period of time, you may return to your cat less than excited to see you. You may think they’re giving you the cold shoulder and acting like they don’t care that you were gone, but you will notice them cuddling up to you again after a few days. Some people have cuddly cats, while others have cats that prefer to spend time alone. Cats can exhibit confusing and contradictory behavior that can make you wonder, “How social are cats?” The truth is, every cat is different. However, in general, cats are stereotyped as aloof and unsociable. This simply isn’t true, whether they’re living in the wild or at home. Instead, cats are what we might call socially flexible. 

Again, every cat is different. Some might like to spend time alone but enjoy having a cat sibling, while outdoor cats live in stable groups to help them find enough food.1 If you’re wondering, “Are cats social?” you’ve come to the right place. Let’s learn a little more about whether or not cats are social animals. 

How Do Cats Live Together In The Wild?

Cats are socially flexible and able to thrive in both solitary and group settings

Feral cats are unsocialized outdoor cats that don’t typically have physical contact with humans. They can display anxiety or fearfulness of people and likely wouldn’t enjoy living indoors. However, feral cats can give us some insight into domestic cats. In general, cats have socialization issues and an inability to introduce new animals to a group. While you might see them live in groups of cats, that doesn’t mean they let anyone into their club. Instead, their relationships are more about dominance than friendship.2 What does this mean for domestic cats? Since cats can be territorial, it’s important to learn how to introduce cats and how to help your cats get along better in the home. 

In feral conditions, groups of cats live together. These groups typically consist of queens and their litters, with the size of the group depending on food resources. Ultimately, these groups of cats are all family, and multiple generations of related females can live together to communally rear kittens that may stay with the social group until they’re about 1 to 1 ½ years old.1

Since the size of the group of cats depends on food resources, the group size and prey size are directly correlated. The larger the prey or, the more prey to be found, the larger the group can be. The group works together to not only hunt and find food but fend off scavengers, and the more threats they are, the larger a group is necessary for their survival. For example, cats living off rodents can be more solitary. However, if they live in barns or landfills, they’re more likely to live in groups.2 Cats have flexibility in grouping behavior, so they can be social or solitary. 

Additionally, cats favor the company of some cats over others, possibly even avoiding other cats. They typically form long-term relationships with others based on age, sex, social status, and whether they’re related. 

It’s also important to note that groups of cats are typically formed by adult females and successive generations, with large cat colonies having several lineages. Adult males are not particularly tied to any group, and these groups are tight social structures in which a stranger cat can’t walk up to them and enter their group. These groups do not demonstrate linear hierarchies and may use subtle signals to communicate, such as staring to be dominant or rolling over to demonstrate that they’re subordinate.2

Cats also use sounds to communicate, which pet parents often notice. They purr and trill to greet or let out a typical meow during amicable interactions. A cat may become aggressive if their mouth is held open while making sounds. Additionally, hissing indicates aggression or territorialism in cats. 

Cats use smell to communicate as well. Their glands that secrete scents and pheromones, urine, and feces are ways they can communicate with other cats. For example, they may rub against objects to claim them, or use urine to mark territory or convey readiness to mate.2

A colony of feral cats eating kibble off the pavement

How Do Cats Live Together At Home?

Of course, domestic cats are slightly different from feral cats in that they’ve been living with humans for years. Pet cats living in a home are similar to feral cats in many ways. However, unlike feral cats, they have:

  • Shelter, food, and relief from predators and disease
  • Appropriate areas to eliminate (litter boxes)
  • Removal of reproductive capability
  • A limited number of interactions with people and other animals
  • Limited space to roam

That being said, while dogs have been domesticated for more than 30,000 years, cats only started their relationship with humans around 12,000 years ago, giving them less time to form different habits and behaviors. Cats retain many of the same instincts and ways of communication as wild and feral cats, but they can adjust their behavior to handle the constraints of living in a home. Many even thrive in homes.2

In a multi-cat household, cats display their social flexibility by using space management, favored spots, and tail signaling to communicate.2 They’re not worried about food or resources, with a food dish for each one of them, water, and a separate litter box for everyone. In addition, there’s usually no discernable hierarchy in a multi-cat household.2

Domestic cat behavior mimics some aspects of feral cat behavior, including cohesiveness and recognition of group members versus strangers, along with patterns of interaction based on relatedness, age, and gender. However, with a pet parent in the mix, they are often seen as part of the group by their cats, with their cats rubbing their scent on them. Unfortunately, since cats in multi-cat homes can still form groups, introducing a new cat into the home can be difficult for them to cope with, adding cat anxiety and stress to the group and the new cat. When meeting strange cats and humans, many cats may also experience anxiety attacks, fearfulness, and aggression. 

Cats that come into a home together typically stay close whether they’re related or not, so bringing a new cat in many years later can be problematic. Luckily, there are ways to mitigate any potential stress and anxiety. To limit social issues among cats, you can either adopt small groups of young or related cats or unrelated kittens at different intervals. Of course, many pet parents don’t do either of these things and bring adult cats into a multi-cat home. Still, you can introduce cats in a way that prevents issues among them by building familiarity before cats are physically introduced. For example, you can keep stranger cats behind screen doors so they can’t touch, but they can exchange odors to get to know each other. You can also exchange bedding to help them get used to each other’s scents.3

When cats no longer react to each other’s scents, you can start to introduce them slowly by starting in a large room where they can keep their distance from one another and supervise their interactions to prevent them from becoming aggressive. You should also only allow them with each other for short intervals, which you can slowly increase as they become more tolerant of one another.3 

How Are Cats Socialized?

Socialization is how cats develop relationships with others in their environment. In dogs, socialization is when dogs learn how to interact with other dogs outside and inside the home. Since domestic cats should always be kept inside, their socialization occurs inside the home with other pets and humans living in the home. 

In the wild, cats are typically socialized by the mother. Kittens ultimately learn by watching the queen and seeing how she interacts with others. The kittens learn everything from where they should urinate and defecate to how to hunt. In the home, kittens learn how to use the litter box from their mother, who is also responsible for weaning them. Kittens are typically taken away from their mother at about 8-10 weeks of age, but during that time, they’ve learned important communication skills with their siblings. While they may no longer be with their siblings when they enter your home, they may use those social behaviors with unrelated cats. 

By the time kittens are weaned, they should have had exposure to cats, other pets, and people to reduce the potential for anxiety and fear. Social cats that are introduced to people and other pets early in life have less fear and may be friendlier and less prone to aggression.1 However, less social cats brought up by humans without meeting other cats may lack social skills. Of course, other factors play a role in a kitten’s personality, including genetics.1 

What Affects A Cat’s Sociability?

A cat’s sociability is influenced by early life experiences, genetics, and their social and physical environments

Sociability is the ability to reside in social groups with other species. In cats, this means the ability of cats to live among other cats, dogs, and humans.3 A cat’s sociability can be taught at a young age through socialization. Domestic cats have proven to cohabitate successfully with humans and other cats. However, not all cats do. A cat’s sociability is affected by a range of factors, including early life experiences, genetics, individual cat and human characteristics, and factors associated with their living environment.4

How Do Cats Interact With Humans?

Cats interact with humans in various ways with vocal and physical cues, including:

  • Purring
  • Meowing
  • Blinking
  • Tail posture
  • Rubbing against you
  • Exposing the belly 
  • Raised hair5 

Of course, individual cats are all different. However, well-socialized cats are typically considered more friendly, while cats with negative experiences with humans may appear more aloof or aggressive.5 That said, you can change how your cat feels about humans to make them friendlier. For example, a poorly socialized cat can become better socialized through positive interactions and experiences with other cats and people.5

Well-socialized cats require few positive experiences with a new person to be friendly and trusting

How Social Are Cats?: FAQs

Do cats have a favorite person?

Sometimes cats can have a favorite person, and in most cases, they do. The pet parent who feeds the cat, cleans their litter box, and plays with them is often the favorite. 

How do cats show affection?

Cats show affection in several ways, including: 

  • Mixing their scent with yours
  • Rubbing up against you
  • Kneading you
  • Purring
  • Grooming you

Do cats get lonely?

Yes, cats can get lonely even if they seem more solitary and independent. When cats are left alone for long periods of time, they’ll miss you and likely get bored, which can contribute to unwanted destructive behavior. 

What is single-cat syndrome?

Single-cat syndrome occurs when cats are used to living in groups of cats and are adopted into a single-cat household. Cats that enjoy spending time with other cats may experience a change in behavior and even become aggressive or develop other behavioral issues. 

Are cats more social than dogs?

Individual cats can be more affectionate and social than dogs. However, dogs are generally more social animals than cats because their wolf ancestors lived and hunted in packs. As a result, dogs are more likely to view their pet parent as a part of their pack or even their pack leader than cats. However, cats are still social and care about their pet parents, even when they don’t show it. 

Two kittens cuddling swaddled in a blanket

Final Notes

So, how social are cats? Believe it or not, cats are socially flexible animals, allowing them to live solitary lives or in groups. However, it’s important to introduce new cats into the home slowly since cats are used to living among their relatives and don’t let others join their groups easily. 

Thinking about getting a new kitten and aren’t sure how to introduce them to your cats? Talk to a Dutch vet. We can help you introduce cats and reduce cat anxiety through behavioral exercises and medication to make the transition smoother for everyone. Try Dutch today. 

References

  1. Landsberg, Gary M. “Normal Social Behavior in Cats - Cat Owners.” Merck Veterinary Manual, 18 Oct. 2022, https://www.merckvetmanual.com/cat-owners/behavior-of-cats/normal-social-behavior-in-cats.

  2. Bernstein, Penny L. “Behavior of Single Cats and Groups in the Home.” Consultations in Feline Internal Medicine, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2006, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7149619/.

  3. Cats Living Together - Cats Protection. https://www.cats.org.uk/media/1022/eg11_cats_living_together.pdf.

  4. Finka, Lauren R. “Conspecific and Human Sociality in the Domestic Cat: Consideration of Proximate Mechanisms, Human Selection and Implications for Cat Welfare.” Animals: an Open Access Journal from MDPI, MDPI, 25 Jan. 2022, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8833732/.

  5. Turner, Dennis C. “The Mechanics of Social Interactions between Cats and Their Owners.” Frontiers, 1 Jan. 1AD, https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fvets.2021.650143/full#h4.