How Do Cats Show Dominance – 3 Types Of Signals!

calico cat rubbing face on garden pot

Cats are territorial creatures and have to show dominance to other cats on occasion to maintain their position in the local pecking order. How do cats show dominance? They use verbal, physical, and territorial signals. 

Cats looking to exert their dominance will use signals individually or in unison depending on the weight of the signal they are looking to send to the other cat and whether they are actually facing. These shows of dominance can include scent messages or be controlled levels of aggression and, will escalate to a full-on catfight if dominance can not be settled purely by a stand-off.

Let’s look at these signals in greater depth.

How Do Cats Show Dominance


Many cats live in a hierarchy. This can be based on size, age, and experience with larger cats often ruling the roost. Feral cat colonies often have a matriarchal hierarchy with larger sons having first dibs on food after the mothers and younger, smaller cats following. House cats live in similar hierarchies which are often matriarchal and buddy-based.

Without an established hierarchy or where the position in the hierarchy is threatened, cats will use verbal signals and then escalate to physical signals when they confront a competing cat and try to get their way via a show of dominance. This often happens when a new cat comes into the home. Eventually, you will find that cats settle into territorial areas within the home and conflict reduces.

three stray cats hanging out together

Verbal Signals


The main verbal signals that a cat will use start with a low growl, then escalate to hissing followed by moaning and then howling. 

A low growl will often be an early warning of a potentially explosive situation occurring. As the competing cat comes closer hissing (with an exposure of teeth) usually follows. If hissing does not achieve the desired results rolling moans in a low tone indicate severe aggravation. 

Howling tends to occur once physical signals have been swapped and on the verge and in the middle of a full confrontation.

Physical Signals


Generally, bigger cats don’t have to demonstrate their physical prowess in order to assert dominance – but when two similar size cats decide to test each other they use various physical cues to identify their potential dominance over the opposing cat.

The first physical cue deployed tends to be the look as big as possible tactic. Fur will fluff to exaggerate the size of the cat.

If that doesn’t do the trick along with any concurrent verbal signals, like a low growl, then the cat will escalate to the stiffening body look. It is a kind of “my loins are girded” display as opposed to a relaxed and cool look. 

The stiffened up for battle, rippling muscle look will usually be concurrent with the odd hiss and another physical clue – the rotated ears positioning. This is almost a ready-for-a-battle look.

a pair of grey street tabby cats in a stand off about to fight ear flat big postures

With all these physical cues going on the cat will also hold the tail high and straight allowing the tip to droop slightly and will be engaged in prolonged staring looking to break the will of the other cat.

The final act may be approaching the competing cat and swatting or a full-blown chase or catfight – however most of the time the situation resolves earlier in the escalation.

Territorially


Cats are thought to have a sense of smell that is sixteen times greater than ours. Some believe their sense of smell may actually be as important to cats as their vision. They use spraying and bunting to convey dominance.

Spraying


Both male and female cats spray urine. These urine markings can signal their presence, identify areas and objects that they view as belonging to them, identify when they were last in the area, how often they were in the area and when they intend to be back. They can indicate a willingness to mate and general health. 

The spray markings identify territory, but cats will often timeshare territory where they have to. The secondary purpose of these signals is to allow the cats to avoid each other and avoid confrontation. It is basically like saying “in this area, you are dominant in the afternoon and I will stay away – but in the morning I am the boss cat of this area”.

ginger tabby cat spraying and marking territory

Bunting


Bunting is the cat headbutt or the sharing of bodily aromas. It is not strictly about territory but about familial ties and societal position. In a sense, it is the confirmation and reinforcement of the family group saying “you are in my group”.

The dominant cat in the group is thought to usually initiate bunting and the group follows on. It is basically the dominant cat saying you are my group and I am top cat – but I Love you!  The dominant cat is responsible for scenting the territory and the objects under their dominance and their family is included!

How Do Cats Show Dominance To Humans


So now we have seen how cats show dominance to other cats, how do they show dominance to humans? Well, they use all the same signs as they do with other cats. If your cat is peeing on your laundry, spraying around your house, headbutting you, or having aggressive or demanding moments then they are showing dominance to you – they are dominating you!

Peeing on your laundry or spraying around your house is not always about dominance, it can be health-related. But if this is happening at the same time as some of the other classic signs then it is probably a display of dominance. They are scent marking your stuff as theirs. They are trying to dominate your aroma and take over, basically.

Cats that are higher in the hierarchy will instigate bunting. If your cat approaches you and head butts you, they see themselves as more dominant than you. Cats also rub their bodies on each other to swap and mingle scents. The dominant cat never body rubs first. When your cat rubs around your legs they are saying you are higher in the hierarchy than them. So if your cat doesn’t rub around you but head butts you – you know where you stand! 

Other signals tend to be much clearer – aggression and demands. If your cat intimidates you or is overly demanding they are probably dominating you – especially if you cave to demands or have a history of caving!

Cats are very subtle and not like dogs. Dominant behavior can just be subtle signs rather than all-out snarling aggression.

a tabby cat with arched back brushing against a pair of leg and wrapping their tail around legs

How Do Cats Show Submission To Humans


So if your cat does not show dominance to you is your cat submissive to you? Here are the telltale signs: your cat brings you gifts, your cat purrs around you, your cat rubs around your legs, your cat exposes their belly to you, they gently bite you, follow you around, lick you, make dough on you and slowly blink at you.

If your cat uses these or some of these behaviors they consider you at worst a buddy and at best higher up the social hierarchy and therefore in a more dominant position than them.

Conclusion 


Cats generally live in a social hierarchy to avoid confrontation. This can be a hierarchy of other cats in a multi-cat household or a hierarchy with humans. Within this hierarchy, there will often be a dominant persona.

Introducing a new cat or just a change in the social dynamics of a group (dominant cats aging) can change the situation and you may see displays of dominant behavior where one cat shows dominance. These shows of dominance can be non-violent or aggressive. They can be subtle or very expressive.

Likewise, clashes outdoors with neighboring cats may bring about shows of dominance and these can take the form of verbal, physical, or territorial displays and signs.