Self-preservation is at the root of almost all cat behavior. And if the feline's master plan — eat, procreate and be merry — results in what may seem to be odd or unpleasant habits, so be it. Cats must assure themselves of sufficient food, avoid life-threatening conflicts and promote their chances of successful mating. One of the ways they accomplish these goals is to avail themselves of a highly specialized system of communication, one perfectly suited to their largely solitary lifestyle.
Territorial disputes are at the root of many conflicts between felines, wild or domestic. Altercations between domestics are far more common than confrontations in the wild because of the artificially dense environments of the cities and suburbs where most cats reside. Sexually intact males are involved in the greatest number of disputes, but all cats, wild or domestic, male or female, may become embroiled in conflicts.
Since direct contact among felines in the wild seldom occurs, they must rely almost entirely on indirect methods of transmitting messages. Through a series of scent and visual markers, cats post their own distinctive "Keep Out" signs or "Welcome" mats to announce their own happy hunting and breeding grounds. Potential trespassers coming across such a marker must retreat or enter at their own risk. Outdoors in rural areas, the suburbs or the urban jungle, domestic cats mark territory in much the same way.
All felines, wild or domestic, will mark territory for themselves, no matter how small. The size of the territory is dictated primarily by the availability of food. Where it's scarce, cats must stake out large tracts to satisfy their appetites. Where it's plentiful, a small territory will do. Social factors, however, also play a role in territory size. Sexually intact males will roam territories up to 10 times larger than those of their female counterparts in order to find mates. Even neutered domestic males exhibit some degree of the greater wanderlust demonstrated by males in the wild.
Fighting Over Turf
What happens if more than one cat claims the same territory? If food is plentiful enough to sustain all of the felines within it, the area may be shared quite peacefully. Lions are likely to have formed prides because of the number and size of their prey. The members of a pride can cooperate in taking down larger, often combative prey, such as a 3,000-pound giraffe, and still have enough food to sustain themselves until the next hunt. The largest prides, often containing as many as 20 to 30 lions, can be found in East Africa, where prey is plentiful. In desert regions, where food is much harder to come by, lions live in smaller groups or even just in pairs.
In almost all feline flare-ups, one cat is the aggressor and the other is the defensive cat. Because these fights can be extremely violent and possibly life-threatening, even the aggressor seems to realize that it's better to avoid a dispute than to risk injury from combat.
When two cats cross paths, the aggressor frequently asserts itself immediately, often boldly approaching the interloper to sniff its tail. Through hissing, spitting, bared teeth and other intimidating or defensive postures, cats consciously and unconsciously reveal their intentions, all in slow motion.
The apprehensive cat may betray its fear in a series of defensive displays, including drawing back slowly from the aggressor. Many feline flaps degenerate into nothing more than lengthy face-offs until the defensive cat eventually breaks eye contact to flee.
While scurrying from the scene of the showdown, however, the vanquished may receive a decisive bite on the tail.
Sometimes the call to arms can't be denied. Most outright fights occur when the defensive animal is cornered and unable to flee or fails to communicate through body language that it is backing down. The aggressive cat expects the defensive cat to hiss, spit or snarl. And when the fearful cat lies down and turns onto its back, it is taking up the typical defensive posture. With outstretched paws and claws bared, the fearful cat is in the best position to defend itself and inflict the most damage on its opponent. Circling menacingly, the aggressor will angle its body so that it appears to be larger, all the while searching for an opening to lunge at its prone opponent.
This odd crablike sideways dance may continue for quite some time. Depending on the defender's ability to maintain its guarded position, the aggressor might actually tire of waiting and give up. If not, the fight is likely to be brief but furious, marked by piercing cries, scratching and biting. The aggressor will attempt to grasp its opponent by the head and bite its neck. Frantically pedaling all four legs, the defender will try to toss the attacker aside. At the first break, the defensive cat usually bolts, with its proverbial tail between its legs.
Equally aggressive felines, whether wild or domestic, wage war in a straightforward, more violent fashion. After a face-to-face confrontational show of strength, one cat attacks the other. An intense, ferocious battle ensues, remarkable for the loud shrieks, the vicious bites and raking of back claws, and the short period of time between bouts. Cats can be thrown surprisingly long distances during these titanic struggles. The fur literally flies. Some felines stubbornly persist in warring with each other several times over an extended period until one of them either leaves the territory or learns its lesson and avoids the other.