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Cat relationships, dominance, submissiveness and what is normal?

Moggiesnewmom

Site Supporter
#1
I have always just had one cat at a time, so I”m not really sure what normal relationship dynamics between two cats that are friends should look like, and what might be trouble brewing that can be averted.

If anyone can share stories about their cat’s relationships, and how this works, or doesn’t, or interpret what is going on between my 2 - I would really appreciate it!

I live with 2 Savannah cats. A 2 and 1/4 years old neutered male F7 SBT and a 1 and a 1/4 year old F6 who is also a neutered male.

My older F7 cat who has previously been introduced here as HB is probably not a typical Savannah in his personality. He has never climbed the curtains or trashed a roll of toilet paper. He is super sensitive and responds to even the gentlest “no”, and he generally seems to delight in anticipating what I want and being well behaved. He is extremely intelligent and he has a lot of restless energy, is often bored, and seems good at envisioning ways his life could be improved and he lets me know what he wants, but never in a way that becomes too annoying. I work out of my home and my cats get a lot of attention. HB probably walks a couple miles a day through a series of walkways and enclosures I made for him, and but getting him interested in a game is challenging and he has always been very particular about what toys he likes. When he was a kitten he loved playing fetch with a realistic looking toy mouse, but as soon as he regularly began catching real mice in the enclosures, the only toy that really gets him going is various stuff tied to a wand toy.

When HB had been with me almost a year I decided to get him a buddy. I chose an F6, as I was concerned a regular kitten might not be able to cope with a robust Savannah. I had thought I was going to pick up the little Mel in the litter, but when I got there the kitten I have mentioned here before as WC seemed to fall in love with me, and the little black one just seemed to want to be left alone. So I came home with WC.

At first HB was absolutely terrified of the kitten in the quarantine room and he spent the first couple days hiding in my workshop needing me to bring him food and water and a litter box. After about 8 days he had worked up the courage to start to come close enough to hiss at WC’s little feet he could see under the crack in the door. A few days after WC came to live with us, we got hit with a hurricane force windstorm, and we had no power for more than a week, which made the whole quarantine a lot more difficult. I live in a tiny house so managing 2 cats in different rooms and candles when it was dark 16 hours a day was a bit of a nightmare.

Anyways, after 8 days, one dark morning WC managed to slip past me, and he chased HB downstairs. I ran down after them and by the time I caught up to them, they were taking turns approaching each other, both skipping with playful intentions, and both clearly delighted to meet each other. So that was the end of the total quarantine.

Initially HB seemed to absolutely love having a kitten! There was occasional play that seemed a bit rough, (HB’s open mouth resting on WC’s neck) but the gentlest reminder from me and HB would back off. WC was not at all intimidated and always immediately came back for more. They would enthusiastically play together for hours every day. They often slept together and HB would groom WC, and really seemed to take on the role of big brother or Dad.

As an example of how much HB loved WC... HB’s favourite treat is freeze dried chicken necks, and the first time they were together and I offered HB his favourite treat, HB dropped his treat in front of WC. I took it away and gave it back to HB. He again dropped it in front of WC. So I again took it away and put it just outside the cat flap for HB. And he went and got it and again dropped it in front of WC! I was really surprised he would be so nurturing! It also seemed like HB was intentionally bringing WC mice as gifts, but I wasn’t really sure until one morning HB came running downstairs as soon as I got up, and with a big puffy tail asked to go out on the enclosed back porch, where it turned out he had left a 1/2 frozen dead mouse the night before. He right away got it and dropped it in front of WC, and then backed off and watched WC play with it, and refused to play too, even when WC batted it in his direction. He clearly had been looking forward to giving his catch to WC and was just waiting for me to get up so he could go get it.

HB always puts WC first, (or maybe he is just afraid of any potential conflict?) If there is food, HB stands back until WC eats his fill. If there is a game with a wand toy, HB stands back and lets WC have his fun, but he seems to enjoy watching and will come closer just to observe. If I try and wear WC out and then play with HB, WC doesn’t wear out. And if I try and put WC out on the porch, so HB has a chance to play too, HB will just go sit and stare at the door until I let WC in, and WC generally loudly howls to be let back to play the game...

WC is a happy go lucky, rambunctious, mischievous, confident but pretty obnoxious character who will knock HB aside when he wants something, without a second thought. WC has Savannah batteries than need to be discharged or he over amps. He climbs the curtains, uses my mosquito/ spider net as a trampoline and my objections just mean he hasn’t managed to convince me what a wonderful game it is...yet!! WC is also totally sweet and charming, extremely cuddly and a nice change from HB’s extremely cautious reserved and extremely particular nature. But he is also a totally inconsiderate jerk when it comes to HB, and I am pretty sure HB is starting to resent that.

WC just assumes everything nice is for him, and HB is just in the way. WC is never nasty or aggressive, just oblivious and pushy. But lately I notice HB giving WC the stink eye, or outright running away or hissing in WC’s face when WC shows up to take whatever HB is enjoying for himself. But as WC matures and is now bigger than HB, when HB stands aside he starting to have a disdainful “WOW are you ever an inconsiderate jerk” toss of the head that wasn’t there before.

They still play together a bit every day and sometimes nap together. WC seems to totally trust HB. HB likes to stick his bum in WC’s face, sniff WC’s bum, and straddle WC. Not sure what HB is doing, but WC never does it to HB. It looks like maybe some kind of dominance thing but WC doesn’t seem to mind at all. The other day WC was sleeping by the fire and HB came and straddled him and took WC’s neck in his mouth. WC just rolled over so he was tummy up, extended his vulnerable throat, raised his paws and stretched his front legs and fell back asleep while HB dominated him (if that is what was going on?) then HB decided rather then killing WC, a bath was a better idea and he began grooming him...

WC rarely grooms HB, and I often get the feeling WC would be perfectly happy being the only cat. He doesn’t really seem to appreciate HB and often ignores HB when HB tries to invite him to play.

They both seem to have mostly worked out certain times they have with me, and avoid having to share me. If WC is on my lap HB won’t come up. And if HB is on my lap and WC tries to come up, HB leaves in disgust. They have never both been on my lap at the same time. HB loves curling up on top of the bed in the crook of my legs, and WC likes snuggling beside me under the covers, so they manage to share me without having to interact with each other. But if I get up, they will both cuddle together on the bed. Something they never do when I am in it...

I try to provide a lot of things they can only play with together like a ripple rug and fortresses of boxes and cushions.. and that seems to help.

And clicker training may be helping a tiny bit as WC will sit and wait his turn for a treat rather than just try to take HB’s. But he still needs to be reminded to wait his turn.

So I would love to know more about people’s experiences with cats that get along or don’t, what is normal, how this gets worked out or doesn’t, and what the dynamics are. Or even just what submissive or dominant behaviour looks like in a cat?
 

Moggiesnewmom

Site Supporter
#2
And just adding a link to a short video of the last part of when HB brought WC the mouse he left overnight on the back porch.

https://drive.google.com/file/d/1-VNBWR-u1KvAHuCAXpycFURou6xfcJK5/view?usp=sharing

It is WC in this video with the aforementioned, dead ,1/2 frozen mouse, and it is HB hanging back, looking like he really doesn't want to challenge WC in any way.(?) And this is typical of HB's body language whenever WC is enjoying something. As can be seen here, HB won't even join in the fun when WC bats the mouse towards him! But he very clearly wanted to give WC this mouse and was looking forward to doing this, with a big puffy tail, just like when we give someone we love a present. I find their behavior & relationship puzzling!
 

Ninja-n-Bear

Site Supporter
#3
It looks like maybe some kind of dominance thing
Yes. All three of mine do this to each other, Bear is the only one who is serious, and used to leave gouge marks on Ninja’s neck almost daily. Since f2 Zazu came home a year ago the dynamic has changed. Bear submits to her, and hasn’t left marks on his (formerly beloved) brother in a very long time. Bear and Ninja were inseparable as kittens, but haven’t slept together without me in the bed in over a year. All three will groom each other, but it always turns into a fight over who gets to do the grooming. Ninja is a total dick about the top level of the cat trees - hates it when anyone else dares to sleep there and will forcibly eject the offenders when given the chance. All three play together extremely well, but I had to teach them to take turns, and they have specific wand toys as well as ones they all like. Spoiled beasts.

But he still needs to be reminded to wait his turn
Heh, I have to wrangle three savages when it comes to treat time. Everybody wants everyone else’s treat - because it MUST be better. Zazu wants everybody’s treat - because she’s a bottomless pit, LOL. She gets her treats tossed across the room - you might try that with pushy boy, it will remove him long enough for HB to enjoy his treat with less stress. I switch up who gets first plate down at mealtimes so that none of them get too comfortable in the “alpha” feeding slot, because that has caused some trouble in the past.

I’m not sure there is a normal when it comes to cats? Haha. From your description it sounds like your cats are what passes for normal. Keep working on pushy boy, and maybe give HB some extra 1:1 quiet time with you - sometimes it’s good to give them a break from each other when they aren’t super bonded.

Hope that wasn’t all babble, it’s late!
 

WitchyWoman

Admin
Staff member
#4
Your boys will continue to work out their hierarchy until they're at least 3 years old. Whoever is the most dominant (seems like WC at this juncture) will be the boss. Whether the less dominant cat will be happy with that remains to be seen.

Each time I brought a new kitten into the house, the elder cats loved the baby. Each time the baby hit maturity, things went awry until a new hierarchy was determined. My F1 and F6 get along. One of my F2s tolerates the F1. That same F2 and the F6 are tightly bonded. The other F2 is hated by the F1 and F6 and that F2 has to be separated from them all the time.
 

Moggiesnewmom

Site Supporter
#5
Thanks for the responses and for sharing some of your experiences, and for reading all that!

It is really helpful to know that cats relationships change as they mature, even if they are littermates, and that older cats usually love kittens!

Another video clip I posted in another thread, taken last January when WC went out for the first time and HB was trying to get him to follow him all around the perimeter of our house. You can hear HB calling for WC to follow him, and then at one point HB gets confused because he is facing WC but wants to get WC to follow him in the opposite direction and the spot he is in is too narrow to easily turn around. SO HB begins batting WC with his paw... WC runs back before HB can get him to keep going.

https://drive.google.com/file/d/1biGAgJ1JGwt1pSsRuc9sJphhxmKuGwJj/view?usp=sharing

HB has never injured WC or vice a versa. The only time one of their interactions came close to a real cat fight was WC was chasing HB, probably wanting to play, but with a stubborn oblivious determined fixed look he gets when he doesn't want to take no for an answer, which seems to scare HB. WC caught up to HB in a tunnel walkway and HB felt trapped and reacted with sounds I have never heard him make. WC does seem to be learning a hiss in the face means nothing enjoyable will come from pursuing whatever he is after, but not always.

HB has a warm spot on a walnut curing rack above our woodstove, and he used to share it with WC, but I never see them together up there anymore, or even WC trying to get up there. So somehow they seem to have come to an agreement that is HB's private domain up there.

Trying to spend any 1 on 1 time with HB is difficult, at least if it involves play. WC will wake up from a sound sleep and come charging down from the drawer he likes to sleep in upstairs as soon as he hears the faintest playful leap. He can't bear the thought of missing out on anything fun, and it is all about him... And I feel bad that WC hasn't gotten more one on one time. It is just me and it is challenging juggling the needs of 2 cats!

Watching them play together this morning I think they are starting to read each other a bit better. WC seems to think he isn't having fun yet until he gets going at 150%. What is going on isn't as important to him as giving in to the madness of the chase. WC does the big truck mud wrestling version of play. For HB it is all about delicacy and grace, being so light of foot he almost flys, the perfect well considered leap and touch down. But I noticed a bit more mutuality in them taking turns approaching each other for the next round, then I have been seeing recently, so that is hopeful! I don't so much feel either of them wants to be boss of anything except themselves. Just they have really different styles, and WC is extremely enthusiastic and has almost no impulse control. At all....

What does being the boss mean for a cat?

I am not sure what people mean when they talk about dominance or submission between cats, and from reading some other threads that came up doing a search on the topic, it sounds like there is something called confident submissiveness, and scared submissiveness, and that dominance can either be territorial or not?

What do these different catitudes look like in terms of behaviors?
 

Moggiesnewmom

Site Supporter
#6
Using Google I sort of managed to answer my own question... My observation that it is HB doing most of the grooming, and that he seems to have exclusive rights to his bed in the walnut rack ( the highest place downstairs) suggests he is dominate.

https://kittyclysm.com/why-cats-groom-each-other/

I also was reading that it is usually the dominant cat that is making the demands on the humans, and for sure it is HB who has me jumping through hoops... WC is super easy going for the most part. Being pushy about being first with toys, food or human resources can also be a sign of dominance, but as HB has always stood aside, even when WC was tiny, this seems like it may just be the generosity of the dominate cat towards a youngster? I read that this can happen. And maybe WC just learned to be pushy as a survival strategy growing up in a litter that included a much larger Serval kitten? Anyways... I really hope as they mature they will stay friends!

I appreciate the insight people shared!
 
#8
Thanks for the suggestion Patti! I have ordered a copy of this and found a preview of a few pages online through Google books and it looks to have the information I am wanting!

I have been working to teach WC better manners, and he seems to be really wanting to learn how to be a good kitty. He is responding well to the clicker training where he has to sit and wait patiently for a treat while HB gets his, without trying to steal HB’s (I mix it up so HB is not always first, but it is WC who needs to learn stealing isn’t cool) And WC has got the general idea -even when I misplace the clicker. So that will hopefully provide a framework for learning to pay attention to cues and being considerate ... (this is something WC is generally not good at)

And in the last week a couple times I have felt it appropriate to scruff WC holding him close to the floor while I scold him for trying to chase HB, when HB was running away, hissing and growling and seeming to feel cornered. I am pretty sure WC just wants to play, same as when he attacks my feet when I am sleeping, but he is now bigger than HB and sometimes HB just needs to know he will back off. WC seemed pretty upset being scuffed and scolded, and immediately picked him up, took him into another room and comforted him, but he needs to learn to listen to HB’s cues. And I think WC maybe understanding what I was trying to communicate... Last night I was in a room which HB and something got knocked on the floor right when WC walked in, causing HB to puff up like a Halloween cat in alarm, and this was focused on WC’s approach. So WC stopped in the door way and sat there, looking like he had just landed from another planet but was determined to learn our customs, and he stayed waiting until I told him it was Ok to come in, which he did right away when he was invited...

I am not sure if it is best to try and modify their responses to each other, or just leave it to them to figure out...? But I guessed it was best to intervene when it seems the fur was going to start flying... and I don’t want them to have any bad memories to reinforce any mistrust. It is as much HB’s fault as WC’s, as HB is way to easily scared of stuff that isn’t actually scary...
 

Ninja-n-Bear

Site Supporter
#9
Well done! As far as intervention, I've learned to recognize the subtle differences between play fights and fur-will-fly seriousness. Not sure what others think, but I’m all for teaching them to have good manners and have used scruffing to get the point across. It took a lot of patience with my pushy boys when Zazu came home, but it’s paid off big-time with the new kitten - integration has been a breeze! Glad you gave him some comfort after the scruffing, it’s good to let them know it’s the just behavior that you don’t like.

Have a happy holiday with your boys!