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How Do Cats Show Submission? What Science Says

The concept of submission and dominance often applied to pets, including dogs and cats, is misleading. This theory sprouts from an old study on captive wolves who were unrelated to each other. During the study, the wolves were placed in the same enclosure and fought.1 Therefore, the researchers claimed that wolves displayed aggression (dominance) or submission.

However, the environment the wolves were studied in was extremely unnatural, as wolves live in family packs typically. Therefore, the study was thrown out later by the lead researcher. Researchers in the field no longer utilize the term “alpha wolf” or “dominance” since these behaviors aren’t natural.2

Instead, wolf packs are led by the parents. Their puppies may stick around for a few years and follow them before making a new pack. However, the puppies and parents don’t fight for dominance.

So, what does this have to do with cats? Well, it means that cats don’t show submission. The concept of dominance vs. submission is outdated and untrue. Furthermore, any studies indicating submission or dominance were done on wolves, which aren’t related to cats. Therefore, the concept of submission can’t be applied to cats.

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Cat Body Language

With that said, cats are designed to avoid fighting by making displays of strength. Like most animals, fighting in a natural setting would lead to disaster for many cats. Therefore, they’ve developed a set of behaviors that help them avoid fighting as much as possible. Often, this involves the cats sizing each other up and then one “winning.”

For instance, a cat’s ability to puff up makes them look bigger, which can help intimidate other cats. When scared, cats will often puff up and raise their backs to look bigger to the threat. Cats will do this to each other, humans, and anything else they find scary. It’s a natural response to feeling threatened that’s ingrained in a cat’s genetic code.

When two cats are put together, there may be situations where both attempt to make themselves look bigger. If one cat wants something the other cat has, it may puff up and threaten the other cat. The other cat may puff up too, and they may hiss at each other for a bit. Preferably, one of the cats will be intimidated by the other and run away. The fight would have been avoided, and the “winner” was chosen without harming anyone.

cats fighting
Image Credit: rihaij, Pixabay

Due to the widespread use of the terms “dominate” and “submissive,” some may interpret these behaviors as one cat gaining dominance over the other. However, this isn’t exactly how cats work. The cat that ran away wouldn’t forever be “submissive” or attempt to fight the other cat for dominance. Instead, that cat may eventually start avoiding the bully. Often, one cat is more easygoing than the other and just learns to stay out of the other’s way.

However, that doesn’t mean that one cat is dominant or submissive. In animals with true, strict social structures (like some species of fish, for instance), the social structure breaks down if the lead animal dies or is removed. In cats, this isn’t the case. The more easygoing feline will continue life just fine if the bully is removed.

Furthermore, “dominant” animals often lead the others. For instance, the oldest female in elephants will lead the rest of the herd. The females don’t fight for dominance, but one individual is seen as the leader.

In cats, this isn’t the case. One cat simply leaves the other alone. No one is leading anyone else. Cats aren’t pack animals and live independently.

sleepy cat laying on the lap of owner
Image Credit: Alena Ozerova, Shutterstock

But What About Humans?

Many studies have been done on human-cat interaction. These studies started decades ago and have looked at just about everything. Therefore, we know much about how cats interact with people and vice versa.

It’s commonly believed that cats think humans are just big, unusual felines. However, this isn’t the case. We know that cats act differently around humans than they do other cats. For instance, cats have a special purr similar to a baby’s cry that’s utilized for humans but not other cats. Some felines may act very affectionate towards humans but not like members of their own species.

Therefore, cats don’t have the same relationship with people that they do with other cats. The common threats and sizing up cats do to each other don’t occur in cat-human relationships. They know we aren’t cats, and different rules of behavior apply. Instead, cats seem to be far more open to their human companions. They may also be quite manipulative towards their human caretakers to get what they want but tend to be more straightforward with their interactions with other cats.

For this reason, cats do not show dominant or submissive behaviors towards their humans. They don’t show these to other cats, either. Common advice about “making your cat submissive” is uncalled for and unnecessary.

cat and woman nose to nose
Image Credit: Lubava, Shutterstock

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Cats don’t show submission or dominance. The concept of dominance is outdated and comes from an old, thrown-out study on wolves. This study was done in unnatural settings and produced unnatural results. Sadly, many of the concepts from the study are etched into popular culture, though. You’ll still find websites discussing submissive behaviors, such as avoiding eye contact.

However, these behaviors are submissive displays in any pet—including dogs and cats. Cats may threaten each other and “size up” to avoid a fight when possible. But these behaviors don’t put one cat in a submissive position and the other in a dominant position.

Furthermore, cats know we are not other cats. Therefore, they don’t treat us like other cats. They’ve even developed particular meows to manipulate their human caretakers into giving them food, but they don’t utilize this meow with their own kind.

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Featured Image Credit: rihaij, Pixabay