How to Dominate a Cat
Cats are not dogs. Dominating a cat is not something to maintain constantly, the cat's rightful place in the house pecking order is not going to be a rank the way it is for a pack animal. Dominating a cat is how to establish some boundaries with your cat in a way that the cat understands. When cats adopt you, they treat you as another cat. Sometimes they act like perpetual kittens, other times there's a reason people say "my cat runs my life." But it's possible to take that parental role and establish meaningful dominance for communication.
The simplest way to establish some dominance with cats is to raise them from kittens. Breeders sell kittens at twelve weeks old, but shelters adopt them out at eight weeks old. Kittens younger than twelve weeks can develop an extreme emotional dependence because you've been in a parental role during the age when they learn to socialize. Be sure your kitten has been raised by humans and understands human-cat interaction or you will have a harder time teaching this to an adult.
Kittens at five or six weeks are fluffy, passive, bumbling and dependent physically as well as emotionally. They can eat kitten food and use the litter pan but will constantly run back for reassurance. It's the age greeting card photographers get their best results, before they turn into Rocket Kittens -- but they need their mothers at this age to grow into psychologically healthy cats.
If you choose an older cat, seek one that's already socialized to humans and responds well to you personally. Does the cat look up to make eye contact? Does the cat purr when you approach, or lean against your hand? Will the cat come toward you if you make clicking sounds and scritching motions with your hand? All this is starting off on the right paw with a cat.
Purring means a cat wants to be social, is seeking interaction and affection. Cats will purr when they are sad or hurt, because they want the comfort of their family and clan members. When a cat or kitten enters your life, you are being adopted into that cat's family as a human member of the clan. Cats will adopt many other species into their clans. Cats who get along with dogs do so because they establish pack dominance over the dog by sitting higher and giving dominant body language. Dogs are comfortable with this if raised by a cat, it's psychologically stable.
Understand cat dominance. Cats are not pack animals. To function well, a hunting pack has a leader and the leader decides what the pack will do, the beta will give advice, the others follow and the omega plead and beg to be privileged with remaining in the pack. Dogs can be comfortable in the omega position. To a dog, being the omega in a great high pack better than all other packs is far better than being the alpha of a miserable pack of one.
To a cat, she or he is the alpha of the pack.
Cats do not work together. Cats work alone and socialize together in their off time. They sleep together, guard each other in the nest, socialize for pleasure, communicate, play, share food, establish safe den territory and have one sterling grace cat lovers learn to appreciate. A cat's reaction unless cornered is to walk away from an unpleasant situation.
Thus, attempts to dominate a cat the way a human would dominate a dog will often result in the cat walking away, tail high, pretending that didn't happen. Or severe discipline from the cat for crossing his or her boundaries.
You can win a stare-down with a cat. Even an adult cat. Even an adult cat who's used to winning stare-downs with humans. The result of winning a stare-down with a cat is usually that the cat will stalk away. A direct stare-down may be a territorial challenge. Within a clan, many different cats are establishing themselves constantly. Dominance is a fleeting thing. Who looks away first does matter -- but humans will look away a lot sooner than most cats until they understand this. It also helps to understand that winning a stare-down with a cat does not necessarily win your argument with that cat, or win anything but that moment's stare-down.
Don't try to enforce this all the time. Don't always look down first or always look away. Keep this to moments when the cat is clearly challenging you in areas that ought to be yours. The key to cat dominance is that a dominant cat is saying "This is mine." In the ephemeral way that sitting in a chair makes it yours, not necessarily the permanent way that you can't stay in this den any more. Too much aggressive dominance to a cat may convince the cat to move out, find friendlier accommodations. This is one of the pitfalls of relearning dominance behavior from human or canine to cat -- if you carry it too far, you convince the cat he's not welcome.
Toms are more likely to move on than queens. Female cats are the dominant gender among cats, but they understand this is not always the case with humans. Dominance is maternal. The dominant cat takes care of other cats. Food gifts to you are a cat's respect to you as the keeper of the den, and a recognition that you're family. It's symbolic now after thousands of years of human-cat interaction, but because cats hunt for their friends and family, cats learned to bring mice to humans.
To the humans this meant "See? I'm earning my keep, guarding the granary."
To the cat it means "I love you and you're family. You give me food, so I'll bring you something."
Only put in the effort to win the staredown with a cat when it's over something you really do not want to give that cat. Like not clawing your chair. Watch for boundary testing behavior, that is the time not to back down because you do have to live together on mutually agreeable terms.
Use sweet reason. I'm not joking. Cats understand what humans say a lot better than people credit them for, because their mouths can't pronounce all the words they know. Cats respond to their names and much more. Explain things to your cat in simple terms, but explain in adult language what's going on. Your cat may understand you perfectly and still disagree, but there is a start. Also remember that human-socialized cats do read human body language well, sometimes better than other humans do. Be truthful with your cat.
"We're going to move. See all these boxes? We're getting a new apartment. You need to ride in your cat carrier now, but when we get there I think you'll like the new place. It's got lots of room and windows with birds, it's going to be great." This is an example of how I talk to my cat.
Don't lie to your cat about things like going to the vet. Cats do understand the concept of lying and they'll distrust what you say if you break that trust.
Cats lie perfectly well themselves, but if you're honest with the cat you'll raise a cat who's honest with you.
If you have to stop a cat doing something you don't want her to, or pick her up to get him in the carrier to get him to the vet, here's where raising the kitten helps. Use the Kitten Grip. You are large enough that by sheer size you can establish yourself as Mom or Adult Family to Kitten.
Cats have loose skin on the back of their necks. Ever see cute pictures of mother cats carrying kittens in their mouths? Even adult cats have this handle, you can firmly grip the loose skin of the back of the cat's neck and lift. Get the cat off her feet fast when you do this. Instinct will make her dangle, slightly curled up, trusting you are big and strong and know where she should be at the moment.
The Kitten Grip is not as uncomfortable as it looks, and it's very comforting to a cat. It means being protected and taken care of. When the cat curls up and surrenders responsibility, you have completely dominated that cat in a gentle, affectionate, familial way that is entirely within cat instinct. Humans do this with their hands, you don't need to bite the cat's neck to do this.
If the cat struggles, hang on and hold the cat at arm's reach. Wear thick sleeves and keep a firm grip. This may be difficult with a large cat, and the kitten grip works best with cats who know and trust you. From an adversary, the kitten grip is terrifying. A cat who fights it does not trust you, and trust needs to be established. Do not shout at the cat while doing this. Do not threaten the cat. Keep a good grip and do whatever you had to do with the cat quickly -- use the Kitten Grip to move the cat into a carrier before the cat can figure out what's going on.
Then sit down next to the carrier and explain why you did that. "Look, I know you're scared, but we do have to go for your annual checkup. I'll be right with you, I won't let any of the dogs in the waiting room scare you, and you're going to be all right. I know it's scary and rotten, but let's get this over with. I love you."
Reasoning with a cat often penetrates even after a delay of reality testing. Stay with your cat at the vet. Most veterinarians are very good with cats and will calm even hysterical and hostile cats easily with body language. Act as if it is your right to do this, be aware it's for the cat's good, be gentle and loving in your language and voice tone. Confidence is good for a lot.
What would you say to a phobic human being to persuade him to go in to see the doctor when he needs to? Treat the cat as a person, because cats treat you as a person. But keep in mind this person is another species and will read your body language much more clearly than humans -- be honest with the cat.
If a male cat sprays territory in your house, that's instinct too. He's establishing that he's the big tom in the area. He is sending a message to all the other toms that they had better be his tribe or gone, because he will accept other males if the queen likes them. He'll only compete that viciously when the queen's in heat. Now if he's purebred and you mean to keep him unneutered, you may have to do something like confine him only to certain areas of the house, or create a cattery room on a porch. I've seen some interesting arrangements to let purebred cats live partially outdoors but protected from predators, like a nine foot tall tiger-cage arrangement where an indoor room and a roofed-over cage allowed them into their own cat garden, complete with catnip and nontoxic plants to play with and chew.
The best solution is to neuter him. Take him in to a good vet to have it done and be gentle with him afterward, don't make a big deal of it. Neutered males will live longer and develop more social skills once they get used to it, they usually don't resent it. Many seem to think of it as kitty birth control and still enjoy sex in a less driven, less combative way with cats they get along with.
If you can't neuter the cat, consider using your perfume or aftershave and following the cat to spray on his spots. Clean each of them thoroughly and spritz them with your scent. Explain verbally. "I am a 145 pound tom and you are a 12 pound tom, I am the big cat in this household. I love you, but you gotta understand this is my territory."
This worked with a male cat I had for years, and though he occasionally tested it if I forgot to spray my territory often enough, he got used to my aftershave as a territorial marker. There was one, so he was happy. If I neglected it, he had to do it -- who else would ward off strange toms from chasing our queen?
Some male cats like their bellies rubbed, and will purr and relax demanding tummy scritches. This is personal taste, a little more popular with males than females. Some pregnant female cats like belly rubs because a human can help shift the kittens around gently to make her more comfortable. If she allows this during pregnancy she may allow tummy rubs later on.
However, the first instinct a cat has about laying on its back pointy side up is "Let's play!" It is a basic opening move in Cat Fu, it allows teeth and all four paws into the game. The move is to bite and grab with forepaws, then bicycle kick hard with hind claws to disembowel the prey -- which may be your arm.
Playing "got your paw" with a cat in this position will inevitably result in the time the cat gets your paw and hangs on with claws, ripping a long scratch or several. Wear heavy gloves to play this game. Wearing an oven mitt and playing tummy-tickle with the cat can be a lot of fun, and you can even slide your hand out of the mitt when she's going to town on it in that prey-slaughter mode.
The point to remember is that laying on his back is not a submission move from a cat. It's a defense move. To quote "Get Fuzzy," Satchel was right not to try to pick up Bucky when he was laying "pointy side up."
A soft, pleading, kittenish mew is a submission move. Loud purring and pleading for attention can be submissive. It takes a while to distinguish submission from affection, the body language is a little different. A cat can be aggressively affectionate. Leaning, cuddling, walking into your lap, banging her head into your chin or the side of your face while purring loudly are all affection moves. Walking past and hip bumping is just a message "You're family," a friendly greeting to establish that you're still loved.
Submission will involve laying down, not fluffing fur, crouching with ears forward and soft kittenlike noises.
Domination by fluffing, hissing, standing sideways and crab-dancing with false strikes is not always something affectionate from a cat. From a dog or a primate this kind of anger display is part of pack behavior. When a cat's angry enough to display this kind of behavior, the cat has had it and is extremely angry.
I have seen a tiny eight week old female kitten display this behavior toward a 20lb tomcat, and the cat bowed to her and walked away backward, accepting that she was a cat princess and she would not tolerate his cheek. She didn't repeat it, that was a single confrontation comparable to the stare-down.
It means "Get out of my territory or submit." This is some of how cats sort themselves out. The difference is that since it's not a pack, the lower ranking cats will all have some line they don't let others cross--each cat holds territory separately and that social territory is fluid, it's contextual. It's not as hard and fast as alpha, beta, delta.
One of the big differences between cat and dog ownership is that if your cat is well socialized and doesn't have bad habits, it's safe to let your cat dominate you some of the time or even a lot of the time. Female cats especially tend to take charge of everyone in their territory. They will sort out among themselves who the matriarch is, she will be a cat of very strong personality but not always the largest cat.
She will be motherly. She will care about everyone's feelings and take care of them when they're sad or hurt. This is one of the biggest ways that cats take over people's lives, because the dominant cat is the one whose back is a crying shoulder for every bad day or disappointment. She will wash you. Washing behavior is a big part of cat dominance.
I'm not suggesting that you wash your cat with your tongue to establish dominance. Petting gently in the direction of the fur is the equivalent in cat-human pidgin. Cats understand that we aren't cats, but over thousands of years reliable signals have built up that cats treat as the equivalent of their social signals. Hands take the place of mouths for most human responses.
Responding to the hip-bump with a verbal greeting or bending to pet the top of the cat's back or side of the cat briefly, once, is the same affectionate greeting the cat initiated. Picking up a cat and holding the cat in your lap is dominating the cat, again in that parental way. Petting the cat while the cat's in your lap and speaking softly and affectionately is the human equivalent of that mother-cat lick and a purr.
Domestic cats sometimes seem to be smiling. Feral cats don't even try. This is because cats do understand that a smile is a human purr, and will try to teach this to you by smiling while purring to try to help you understand what a purr means.
Watch the cat you live with. Most intelligent cats will teach humans how to interact with them, hissing and spitting or walking away when a human does something socially inappropriate and responding with a purr and added attention and affection when you get it right. Tail twitching usually means it's time to play, it's warming up to some rowdy fun or to a brief conflict.
Ear language is important in understanding the tail twitch, eye contact and forward ears with tail swishing is a warmup to play. Flattened ears are hostile and suspicious. Whiskers move around. Cat eyes are eloquent in expressing meaning, as much as human eyes. After a while you'll get used to reading your cat's mood.
Politeness counts. When dominating a cat, don't be rude to the cat. Don't mock the cat while doing it. Just be firm and loving as a cat-mom, and you will get across the message that the cat's not rejected. Time, patience, honesty, confidence and consistency are the best ways to establish enough trust that you can dominate a cat.