Cats and Dominance: The Alpha Syndrome (How to deal with a dominant cat)

Dominance is a behavioral pattern that is present in most animal hierarchies. It is in our nature to form a pecking order, as the rules of survival state that the most dominant animals in the group get access to the most resources.

If you own(ed) multiple cats at the same time, you’ve likely seen them form a hierarchy too. The most confident cats will always attempt to secure more resources for themselves by establishing dominance over more submissive ones, which can lead to all sorts of unpleasant behaviors. How do you deal with that?

Alpha Behavior (The warning signs)

While dominance is a very primal instinct that’s present from birth (think of kittens fighting for mommy’s milk), it doesn’t become apparent as a character trait until a cat reaches physical and mental adulthood. Depending on the breed, this can take anywhere between 2 and 5 years. The largest breeds, like Maine Coons, can take up to 5 years to fully mature.

During this transition into adulthood, a cat will start to push boundaries in an effort to see what they can get away with. This is a primal urge, and a way for animals to discover their place in the family hierarchy.

While testing boundaries is not necessarily problematic, nor cause for immediate concern, it is during this time that a cat with a dominant personality will start to become extremely bossy. You would do well to keep a close eye on bossy behavior, as overly dominant cat behavior will invariably have a negative effect on both the physical and mental state of other family members.

If left unchecked, a dominant cat will provoke fear and anxiety among more submissive members of the family

The sooner you spot a cat that’s trying to dominate other pets or family members, the easier it will be to correct such behavior. So what are the most important warning signs of a cat that’s becoming overly dominant? Be on the lookout for the following:

  • Spraying urine to cover territory that doesn’t belong to them
  • Stealing toys from other pets
  • Rubbing their scent on items that don’t belong to them (which is a form of claiming)
  • Taking over places to sleep in
  • Ignore other pets and/or become jealous when they get more attention
  • Nudging other cats away from the bowl while eating
  • Hissing, growling, threatening or outright attacking other cats without provocation
  • Demanding food, attention, or games on their own schedule
  • May even show increased aggression towards cats that are sick or showing signs of weakness
Tip: Certain breeds are more likely to be dominated than others. Ragdolls, for example, have very soft and complacent personalities. This usually means they will have trouble sticking up for themselves.

What to do about it?

Ah, the million-dollar question! Changing dominant behavior will definitely require some conscious effort on your part. The name of the game is positive reinforcement, a mechanism also used in behavior training which essentially means you have to shape the desired behavior by only rewarding positive actions and ignoring everything else.

This sounds easy enough in theory, but can actually be quite challenging in reality. You may be inclined to punish bad behavior instead, but this will likely not lead to the results you’re seeking. A more effective approach is to show a cat with a dominant streak in a polite manner that boundaries are not to be crossed. For this, you’ll need a healthy dose of patience.

Boundaries

So how should one go about setting boundaries? Here are a few examples:

  • When you catch Mr. or Ms. bossy cat displaying signs of aggression towards other animals in the family, immediately intervene by pulling them apart. Do not become mad, simply show the cat that such things are not allowed.
  • If a dominant cat is pestering you for food at night, do not reward such behavior by giving in. Treats are only given out to compliment good behavior, such as sharing with other pets (and leaving you to get a good nights’ sleep!).

By doing these things frequently and consistently, you will send a clear signal to a bossy cat that they have to respect you in order to get their needs met. This is often enough to promote a positive change. If problems still persist despite your best efforts, you may be dealing with the bossiest of all: an alpha cat.

The Alpha Syndrome

At the most extreme level of dominance is are alpha males and alpha females. Whereas most cats are reasonably warm and friendly towards fellow pets and humans, the alpha is one with its own agenda. If you happen to own one (or perhaps more accurately, are owned by one!), you’ll quickly discover that they rarely take no for an answer.

An alpha cat will bully, scratch, and bite to get what they want. They are overprotective of resources. Toys, litter and food sources are rarely shared. In essence, this cat thinks it can dictate the rules in the family.

An alpha may occasionally sit on your lap and allow you to pet him, but this short moment of bliss will quickly pass once they grow tired of it and turn on you.

Alphas are natural-born leaders that can be found among many other animal species. The reason for such selfish behaviour lies in elevated levels of testosterone, the male sex hormone, which in effect makes the animal want to take control of every situation and refuse to take cues from anyone but themselves.

Dominant behaviors towards humans

If you want to change an Alpha cat’s behavior, you will have to show him that he’s not at the top of the pecking order. You will find that the gentle approach is far less effective in this situation. Show this cat that he is not the one who controls resources in the family.. you are! This can certainly be done without having to resort to violence, but you WILL need to be firm and very consequent.

How to dominate an Alpha

If you can successfully show a male or female alpha that it doesn’t get access to good things unless you allow it, all the drama and bossiness will eventually turn into respect. Here are a few ways to start asserting your dominance:

  • Make a list of situations that always result in trouble, and start avoiding them. For example, if a cat is biting your feet in the morning to force you out of bed, then lock them out of your room at night.
  • Be sure to feed an alpha at set times and do not deviate. Especially not when they demand it!
  • Do not respond to aggressive behavior towards other cats with more violence, but simply put the alpha alone in another room for an hour.
  • Make it a hard rule to only give this cat treats and toys when they are on their best behavior (or if they have done something to earn it)

Changes in the hierarchy

Whenever a new cat is introduced into a family, everyone has to reassess its place in the hierarchy. This leads to stress, and conflicts may arise as a result. This is a natural social behavior that you find among humans too. You may witness the most dominant cat seeking out conflicts in an effort to establish dominance over the newcomer.

Tip: Siamese cats have a reputation for being one of the most aggressive breeds. They will easily become jealous towards other pets, and have particular trouble accepting newcomers.

While these conflicts may not be fun to watch, they are a part of normal animal behavior. The advice is to intervene only when conflicts become violent.

FAQ

How to tell which cat is dominant?

Observe how your cats interact when they’re together. The one who gets the most respect and privileges from others is likely the most dominant cat of your family.

Why does my cat bite me during petting?

Most cats love being stroked by their owners because the sensation feels similar to what they felt when they were being groomed by their mother as kittens. But cats also have a built-in survival mechanism that kicks in to prevent them from getting too comfortable.

This duality can easily be observed as stress starts to build up during petting: sudden silence, stiffening, and sweeping of the tail are all signs that the stress is becoming too much. If you ignore these warnings, at some point your cat will feel too vulnerable and lash out as a result.

Why does my cat keep grooming my other cats?

Confident cats are known to frequently groom peers who are less certain of themselves, a phenomenon referred to as allogrooming. Since allogrooming is associated with lower rates of violent conflicts in wild cat colonies, It is believed that it is a more positive way of asserting dominance.

3 comments

  1. Me and my girlfriend moved in together she has a non nuetered Russian blue who is about a year old he constantly sprays or pees on my clothes, stalks or attacks me when I turn my back or ignore him, scratches every closed door in the house, the most we’ve been able to progress is him smelling my hand or nose absolutely no petting or affection without hissing or claws coming out IDK what to do to either est. dominance or be able to coincide without alway having to stay alert with him. Any help would be greatly appreciated.

  2. What are your recommendations on helping a really shy cat… he has been shy ever since I got him as a kitten and now that I am trying to rehabilitate a stray he has become a target for that cats aggression or attempt to dominate the household
    Your article on the aggressive male/alpha cat is right on the button to what is occurring and I want to help both cats… do you have articles on helping shy cats… now the only time my shy cat comes out of hiding is when he knows I am there to protect him

    1. Hi Kerry,

      We have an article with tips on how to handle a shy cat: https://www.catpointers.com/shy-cat-trust/. The dominant and aggressive behavior of the stray is obviously not going to help your shy cat feel welcome in the family. I think you will have to tackle both problems at once and be very consistent in your treatment of both.

      The shy cat needs a soft and gentle approach to come out of its shell. Encourage it to take risks and make sure there’s always a safe place to retreat when things get a little too intimidating. It might also be smart to keep these cats separate when you are away from home, at least for now. Try to minimize hostile interactions as much as possible unless you are there to supervise.

      The dominant stray has likely learned to survive on the streets by assertively taking and defending territory & resources. You will have to somehow redirect this behavior by showing it that bossiness does not get them anywhere in this household. The article has a few good tips for that.

      Do let us know how you get along!

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