Dealing With Dominant and Anxious Cat Behavior

Pushy cat guarding toys from other cat

The Spruce / Meg MacDonald

Cats will wrestle and play with each other and sometimes even get a little rough, but that can be normal cat behavior. Cats who live together and that normally get along will exhibit non-painful ear biting, grabbing, and chasing as a part of their playful activities. These behaviors develop when a cat is a very young kitten and are understood by other well-socialized cats. Cats who were not well socialized may not know how to communicate with other cats, or sometimes dynamics arise within a multi-cat household that alter how even the most well-socialized cats interact with each other. Cats who start to show signs of dominance or anxiety can be challenging to work with, especially in multi-cat households.

Dominant Cat Behavior

Cats who are more dominant than other cats will display some specific behaviors depending on the situation they are in. Dominance in a cat can appear at a young age but it will become especially apparent once mature or when it's about two to four years of age. This is the age cats typically will test their boundaries with other cats to establish a hierarchy.

Simple dominance will be exhibited by a cat by marking or spraying urine on territory, stealing and hoarding toys, rubbing its face on items it wants to claim as its own, claiming specific areas to sleep, pushing other cats away from the food bowl, and/or starting at or physically intimidating other cats. Cats who live alone may exhibit some of these behaviors too. A dominant cat that lives with other cats will have more obvious behaviors. 

Dominant cats may attempt to establish their dominance in a multiple cat household by hissing, hitting, and growling. They may also urinate outside of the litter box in areas that the other cats frequent, push other cats out of the food bowl until they are done eating, and make the other cats feel threatened. Dominant cats may also target sick cats in the house. Cats can sense and smell changes in other cats, often before the owner even knows about it. Therefore, they may be more aggressive and act out for no apparent reason towards a cat that isn't feeling well.

Stress can also trigger a cat to act out. For example, displaced aggression is often observed in multiple cat households when an indoor cat sees an outdoor cat through a window and takes out its anxiety on a cat in the home. Other major household changes may also cause this type of behavior including introductions of new pets or people, moving to a new home, construction in the home, and other stressful events.

Hierarchy can change with the introduction of a new cat or if you have several cats living together. Some cats will act dominantly in one room with one cat and suddenly switch roles in another room with another cat. Mannerisms from the dominant cat, such as excessive licking, standing on, or sitting on the other cat may be displayed, and swatting and even biting may occur.

Why Are Some Cats More Dominant Than Others?

While cats can be solitary animals, social hierarchies are also normal when many cats live in the same small area. Some cats are considered more dominant or more submissive and this can be within the normal spectrum of cat behaviors. Additionally, socialization for kittens is an important part of learning how to navigate these interactions with other cats. Kittens who don't have an opportunity to play and interact with litter mates or other cats may exhibit more extreme behaviors because they didn't learn from other cats. Feral kittens, kittens who needed to fight for their food, kittens who were bottle-fed and raised without other cats may also be more at risk for having undesirable behaviors. Finally, some cats can experience a behavior change related to stress or a medical problem which can cause them to exhibit behaviors that are out of character for them.

Preventing Dominant Behaviors in Cats

Most people aren't able to oversee every life stage of their cats so it's hard to make sure the first eight weeks of a kitten's life don't contribute to or enforce these behaviors. But there are things a cat owner can do to decrease excessively dominant behaviors in their kitten or adult cat. Be sure to discourage overly aggressive play and don't allow your cat to bite or grab you. Redirect them to a toy they can bite or grab in place of using you or another cat for this purpose. If you have multiple cats, be careful that you don't give one cat more attention than another, as this could lead to competition and/or jealousy. Feeding multiple cats in separate locations with separate bowls is also encouraged to decrease dominant behavior caused by competition for food. Additionally, it is important to make sure you have enough litter boxes for all of your cats to prevent them from competing or stalking each other in the litter box. This can lead to cats urinating outside of the litter box and/or marking. The general rule is to have at least 1 more litter box than you have cats and to ensure they are in private, quiet locations.

You should consult your veterinarian if you notice a sudden behavior change in one of your cats, or escalating aggression toward cats or people. There are some underlying medical conditions that could lead to these changes and your veterinarian can help determine if there is a health problem. And if the problem is strictly behavioral, working with your veterinarian as well as a trainer can be the best way to help your cat and reestablish harmony in your home.

Sitting cat being petted with other cat looking from under table

The Spruce / Meg MacDonald

Reinforcing Positive Behavior in Cats

Positively reinforcing good behaviors is better than trying to punish a cat. When your cats are spending time together, be sure to give them treats and pet them. Play with them together while giving them treats and verbally praise them if they are getting along well. This will reinforce the type of behaviors you want to see in your cats, even if one of them is more dominant or pushy than the other.

Cat given treat to reinforce good behavior

The Spruce / Meg MacDonald