Do Cats Compete for Dominance?

Cats often behave in ways that can be hard for us humans to understand.  Pat H. writes in to ask about one such behavior.

Cinnamon is a large cat and he straddles on the back of one of the other large cats that I have named Char. They are brothers. They are both fixed so is it for domination? He does not do this to any of the other cats that are also males. Thank you.

Pat, conventional wisdom would have you believe that this is an exercise in dominance because we see that sort of behavior in dogs as well as in people.  However, both dogs and people are pack animals with a clear need to establish a pecking order.  Cats, while more social than most people think, don't have as clear a need to know where they stand within their social group.  This is due to the fact that they don't hunt in groups.  In effect, dogs' lives depend on the coordination of their group's hunting abilities by a leader.  Cats' lives don't.

That's not to say that cats don't have conflicts among themselves.  They do.  But most cats will work very hard to avoid confrontation.  Dominance isn't used to control other cats the way it is by people and dogs.  Most cat conflicts stem from one cat being more assertive than another.  This is more of a personality problem than it is an attempt to dominate.

Cat conflicts usually happen when one cat wants something that the other doesn't want.  Maybe Cinnamon wants to play with Char like they did when they were kittens and Char would rather not.  In a case like that, Cinnamon would probably push Char harder and harder to get what he wants - fun playtime with his brother.  The more Char refuses, the harder Cinnamon will push.  This is all hypothetical, of course.  It's up to you, Pat, to spend some time observing their behavior and trying to see things from their point of view.  Figure out what it is they each want and you're well on your way.

If no one is getting hurt, you may choose not to intervene, but if Char is clearly annoyed, you may want to lend him a helping hand.  When Cinnamon acts this way, try distracting him with a toy that he particularly likes.  If he responds to your play intervention, you'll know that all he wanted all along was a playmate and Char is his go-to choice.  He just has a higher play drive than Char. 

If one of your other cats is also high energy, you may want to encourage them to play together.  Be sure to comfort Char during all of this too.  He's probably very patient with Cinnamon's high-energy but being tolerant can also be tiring.  Whatever you choose to do, don't punish Cinnamon.  If you do, the only lesson he'll learn is to avoid you!

This is all conjecture, of course, since we can't see and interact with Cinnamon and Char.  It will really be up to you, Pat, to spend some quality time observing your feline friends and acting as arbiter.  Remember, cats don't act out of dominance, but rather out of unfulfilled needs.  If you can find a way to meet everyone's needs, your cat family will be much happier in the long run.