“Taming your Alpha Cat”The internet is full of articles meant to help you deal with your “alpha” cat. Unfortunately, much of this advice misses an important point: actually identifying the root of the problem. What is an “alpha” cat and is there a solution to all of them? Or is this another case of bad internet advice?
What Do We Mean By “Alpha”?
When a cat gets described as an “alpha” (or sometimes just as “dominant”) what someone often means is that it’s showing one or more of these behaviors:
In short, these terms often get applied to cats that aren’t behaving the way we want them to or who are causing problems in their home. Unfortunately, once this label is applied, it can be difficult to know what to do next. You may find yourself locked in a battle for “control” of your home, punishing your cat for more and more things, and getting nowhere. Let’s take a step back to look at where the ideas of “alpha” and “dominant” cats come from, and what a cat that’s described this way is actually thinking.
Do Cats Have Alphas?
Not really. The concept of an “alpha” comes from now-outdated research on wolves. In more recent years, researchers have come to understand that wolf packs are actually family groups and the adults that are “in charge” or “alpha” are the parents. Much like human families, the relationship dynamics of these groups vary and change over time. There is no closely-guarded position of alpha that must be maintained by force. Instead there is a large range of body language that lets the wolves communicate and cooperate.
Cats do not live in the close pack structure that wolves do. They have no evolutionary history of pack or family structures like this. In areas where resources are close together and abundant (like a garbage dump… or your home), cats display varying levels of social behavior based on prior experiences. They are “facultatively social” which means they have the choice to be social if they want but don’t have to cooperate and live with other cats to survive (like wolves do).
All of this means that cats don’t form the same types of relationships between themselves that animals in a close-living family structure have to. If there’s a conflict, they can just walk away. In fact, fighting is so dangerous (if a cat is injured and can’t take care of itself, it will die) that cats will do their best to avoid it. As long as they can meet their needs elsewhere, they’ll just do that. Conflict only occurs when a cat doesn’t have other options.
In our homes, behavior problems often come down to two things: a cat has no other options to get what they need or we are misunderstanding their motivation. Rather than labeling a cat and their behavior as “dominant,” focusing on meeting your cat’s needs and understanding the basic motivation for the behavior will bring about positive changes.
Another Way of Looking at the Problem
So maybe “alpha” isn’t such a helpful way to think about your cat. What now?
First, break down the problem behavior to determine your cat’s basic motivation, beyond personality labels. Often this is food, access (to a favorite spot or litter box), attention, play, or a need to feel safe. You can find more about motivation in this post.
The behaviors that get labeled as “dominant” can often be reidentified as one of these:
Most of these can be addressed by proper home setup, plenty of play opportunities, and an understanding of your cat’s basic needs for attention and stimulation. Training will also help manage problem behavior directly.
By focusing on the behavior you want to work on and your cat’s specific motivation, you can get past the unproductive label of “alpha.” Better behavior, a better relationship, and a happier home will be in your future!
If your cat has a behavior problem that you need help solving, consider scheduling a private behavior consultation.