Competition for food for feral cats and even for litter boxes for the domestic cat are sources of aggression between cats. Dominant cats in a hierarchy can control a subordinate's access to the food source. Sometimes higher ranking cats may threaten lower ranked cats for no immediate reason or hog the food source while not utilising it.
A subordinate cat gives way to a dominant cat based on past experiences of interaction. You will only get simple linear hierarchies in small groups of five or less and they are rare. Large groups of cats have complex partially linear hierarchies1, which can also change.
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What are the signs of a cat showing subordination to a cat that shows dominance? Subordinate cats:
- walk around dominant cats;
- wait for the dominant cat to pass before moving into an area;
- back off when when the dominant cat approaches;
- avoid eye contact;
- show a hunched, crouched posture;
- roll onto their back
- stick their tails 'to either side of their thigh'1
- turn their ears down and back.
- block subordinate cat movements;
- bat at the subordinate with their paws;
- chase the subordinate and sometimes mount the subordinate cat;
- hold ears up and rotated them to the side;
- arch the base of the tail;
- stare at the subordinate cat;
- when encountering the subordinate cat: hind legs are extended and stiff with base of tail elevated and ears stiff and erect and rotated laterally while staring at cat.
Source: 1. The Welfare of Cats ISBN 978-1-4020-6143-1 - excellent book by the way.