Feline fight or flight

A territory is an area that is actively defended against strangers of the same species, and such an aggressive encounter should be won almost exclusively by the owner of the territory.

Generally, the territory is smaller than the home range but in the domesticated restricted environment of a house the home range and territory may be one and the same thing. The solitary nature, agility and nocturnal pattern of cats make it much more difficult to obtain accurate information about all their movements, behaviour patterns and social distances. It is well-known that male cats are more territorial and form larger, more rigid and permanent territories. These areas are contained enough to be observed by the resident tom in total and are regularly patrolled and scent-marked by him.

Although tomcats may comfortably eat at a common venue and may even sleep in close proximity, their territories seldom overlap, they actively try to avoid each other on common ground and paths. When population permits, cats spread out and make maximum use of new and available safe space. Some tomcats will allow queens into their territory but not in the immediate proximity of their home site. This intrusion is taken very seriously, instinctively, and the closer the trespasser moves to the home site the greater the aggression meted out by the male in charge of its territory. When approached by a stranger of an unfamiliar species, such as a dog, a cat will flee when the unfamiliar animal reaches a certain distance. That interspace is called the flight distance.

A cat that cannot escape to flee or a cat that is completely unaware of the intruder, such as being caught by surprise, will defend itself at a second, closer gap, known as the critical distance. The flight distance for the adult cat is approximately two metres and somewhat further for the inexperienced kitten. Queens with kittens have a greater critical distance than other cats and some will instinctually, maternally and aggressively meet an intruder from quite a distance.

When a cat is approached by an individual of a species which it does not fear, such as humans who feed feral cats, then two other distances become important. Special well-accepted individuals are allowed an intimate approach, including physical contact, and thus may enter the cat’s personal distance. Other conditioned acquaintances will not be attacked but are not allowed within the personal distance, such as a friend of the feral cat feeder.

A cat’s accepted space is called the social distance. This usually occurs when a kitten is suddenly introduced to an established pet cat’s home territory. Threat displays such as hissing, spitting and paw-swiping often serve to inhibit further approach by a violator of the personal distance. Cats are extremely sensitive about these invisible boundaries.

There are many influencing factors and variations, regarding all these ranges and distances, instinctively part of feline social behaviour. Castrated toms, better known as jibs, and spayed queens, better known as grimalkins, have reduced hormone levels and a vastly decreased desire for all these spatial and distance defences. The barriers do not disappear completely. Kittens reared in large numbers and sterilised early are much more tolerant about the invasion of their home range, territory, personal distance, flight distance and critical distance. Having said this, the cat social behaviour is dynamic and elastic in ability to adapt to different environments.

As proof, thereof, some individual cats can have an enormous home range of say one hundred hectares yet a social structure of two-thousand cats can occupy the same space if they have no other option.

 Read more on this topic next week.

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