A Moment of Science

Alpha Scat

Now, every cat scats, but if you have more than one indoor cat and you're interested in finding out which cat is the alpha, you can watch the scat.

two cats by their litter box

Photo: Jocelyn Durston (flickr)

Cats are strongly territorial creatures who mark their belongings by odor.

“Alphas” and “betas” are terms used by people who study animal behavior to designate the dominant and sub-dominant members of a social hierarchy. In human society, for example, former President Clinton is the alpha-male of the American population. Of course, he occasionally has to fight contests with alpha males from other populations, such as the leaders of foreign countries.

This kind of alpha-beta distinction is fairly common in the animal kingdom. Among different species, the alpha may have different ways of signaling her or his status as leader of the pack. In house cats, one of the less appealing signaling devices, at least from a human standpoint, is scat.

Scat is the word we are going to use to designate what your cat leaves in the litter box. Now, every cat scats, but if you have more than one indoor cat and you’re interested in finding out which cat is the alpha, you can watch the scat. Oftentimes the alpha cat will leave her or his scat uncovered in the litter box, so that it smells terrible when we human beings have to go and clean things up. Beta cats will be more likely to cover their scat by scooping sand over it with their paws.

Are alpha cats just less polite? Not really. Cats are strongly territorial creatures who mark their belongings by odor. Any cat coming into this house, the alpha is saying, will immediately know who’s boss. The odor of the mighty alpha is unmistakable! And none of you betas had better stink up things more than I do!

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