Cat behavior can be subtle. Fighting for food is rare -- cats fight over territory more than anything else. Changes in diet or the addition of a new feline family member might result in reshaping the social order, but for the most part, your cat will avoid confrontation over food.
For a long time, it was believed that domestic cats did not have a social order. This is probably because cats do not display dominance in the same way that dogs -- or people -- do. From observation of free-roaming cat colonies since the mid-1990s, however, it is obvious that cats do have social structure. For instance, feral cats form a matriachal society, with adult females forming lineages with related females. The largest lineages secure the best resources, and communal kitten care is common.
You might notice that two of your indoor kitties prefer the company of each other over other cats, or that one has “alpha” status and goes where she pleases. Indoor cats are also territorial, even if it’s just one end of the sofa over another, or one gets the window seat in the sun.
A Study in Chivalry
A large study of feral cat colonies in Rome produced the surprising finding that the biggest and fiercest male cats eat after women and children. When it came to meal time, the females became dominant over the males, and kittens were often allowed to eat first. And if the tomcat forgot his manners, the females reminded him with a hiss and a swat. The author of the study theorizes that feral females are almost always pregnant or feeding kittens and so they need more food. Indoor kitties sometimes show this tendency, as well. The dominant cat will often sit calmly, observing through slit eyes while the other cats eat first.
If your kitty tries to keep other animals away from his food bowl, he is engaging in food or resource guarding. More common in dogs than cats, this behavior is typically seen in predator animals. While a dog might growl and a lion might roar and lunge, your domestic feline is likely to simply sit between the food bowl and the interloper. To inhibit food guarding, make sure each of your cats has enough food and his own food bowl.
Fighting for dominance or food is rare -- cats generally avoid confrontation. You can determine which of your cats is alpha by the way your other cats treat him. If other cats approach him and rub him while he stands still, or if another cat jumps down from your lap when he approaches to allow him the coveted territory of your lap, then he’s probably dominant. Your indoor kitties have shared pathways to their territories, and a dominant cat will allow a subordinate cat to pass first.
Leslie Darling has been a writer since 2003, writing regularly for "Mississippi Magazine" and "South Mississippi Living," specializing in food and wine, animals and pets, and all things Southern. She is a graduate of the University of New Orleans.