There are some animals that are always recommended to be kept in pairs or groups: guinea pigs, for example, should never be kept alone due to their strong social structure and needs. But what about cats? These popular pets are often thought of as independent, and even aloof, but do they get lonely without a feline friend?
Cats have both solitary and social traits. They are territorial, and hunt alone, but can also live in groups and perform social interactions such as grooming each other and play. It can be difficult to tell if a cat is happy alone, or craving company. All cats are individuals, and have differing social needs. Kittens are most likely to need a playmate, whereas introducing adult cats to each other can be a tricky process.
The feline social structure
Cats are generally territorial, and hunt alone. These traits don’t exactly scream “great at socialising”, but feline social structure is a little more complicated than that. Some cat species, such as tigers, are often solitary for much of their lives. Others, such as lions, live in groups.
Domestic cats can equally live alone, or in groups. Feral cats often form small colonies; groups of cats living close to a source of plentiful resources such as food and fresh water. These colonies are typically composed of female cats living with their kittens. They display cooperative parenting, social play and grooming. Male cats do not tend to be part of these groups, and often live quite solitary lives. Adult males often have large territories which may overlap with one or more of these predominantly female colonies.
These groups of cats are observed to function best when the colony is small, and the individuals are known to each other. The strongest social bonds tend to be formed between a mother cat and her kittens, and between siblings from the same litter, even within these groups.
What about domestic cats?
In some ways, our domestic cats are still similar to their wilder ancestors. However, they have also been influenced by the domesticity that our pets now enjoy. Cat behaviour is adaptable and individual, and will be affected by their genetics, their home environment and their experiences in early life.
Kittens are naturally social, forming bonds with littermates, but also engaging in social play with non-related kittens and even obliging adults. Juvenile felines require play and social interaction to learn about their environment, build necessary life skills and provide exercise and stimulation.
As kittens transition to adulthood, some seem to retain this social drive, and actively seek out companionship. Adult cats can form strong bonds: with other cats, with other pets and with their human companions. However, some cats appear perfectly content without a feline companion. And it is common for even cats living in the same household to lead quite separate lives, with no positive interactions such as mutual grooming or play.
Should I get another cat?
There is no particular right answer to this question, as this is very dependent on multiple individual factors. You may be able to tell from the personality and behaviours of your cat whether they may appreciate a companion; although there is no concrete rule!
Social, playful kitties are more likely to benefit from a friend, especially if they have early experiences of being around other cats or kittens, and are not obviously anxious or nervous in personality. There is no definitive way to characterise loneliness in cats. Some may show behaviours such as hiding away, increased vocalisations and separation anxiety. Single cats can also show signs of boredom or frustration, such as destructive behaviours. Those pets who are left alone for periods of time may benefit from a furry friend – although this is not always the answer!
Some cats may find the addition of a new pet stressful and a more negative experience than positive. Adult cats who are accustomed to living alone, have had a difficult start with poor socialisation, or negative experiences may prefer a quieter, more solitary life. Any cat who is displaying signs of stress, such as inappropriate toileting or excessive grooming may find a new cat in their environment to be an additional anxiety rather than a help.
Welcoming a new cat
If you’re considering adding another cat to your household – how exciting! Try and choose a cat who will fit in well with your current pets. Consider age and energy levels and try and match closely to your existing cat.
Bringing a new cat into a household can be a difficult time to navigate, so try these steps to make the transition as smooth as possible.
As cats are territorial, set up an area for the new cat that can be just ‘theirs’, to settle into for the first few days without disrupting your other pets. Cats don’t like to share resources unless already bonded, so provide a new set of everything: bowls, bed, toys, litter trays and all.
2) Scent swap
Once the new cat is settled in to their new little space, their scent should now be all over their territory, their beds, toys etc. The first introduction should be scent only. Take a blanket or toy from one cat and give to the other, and vice versa. Let the cats investigate each other’s scent by doing this a few times, until they are familiar with each other via this important sense. Then, allow them to investigate each other’s area, with the occupying cat removed temporarily.
3) Visual contact
The next step is letting the cats see each other. Try and arrange an area in neutral territory, and with escape options for both cats if this stage becomes a bit overwhelming. Provide reassurance, treats and rewards to try and ensure this initial contact is positive. Repeat this stage until the cats remain calm when they see each other.
4) Free contact
If the preceding steps have worked well, this stage should feel quite anticlimactic! Allow the cats full access to a neutral area, keeping interactions short to begin with before allowing unsupervised free roam.
If introductions aren’t going well, fall back to the previous step and allow more time. If you’re finding the transition difficult, consider help from a qualified behaviourist. A common reason for cat-on-cat aggression is competition for resources, so make sure you have plenty of food and water bowls, beds, hiding places, litter trays and toys for all cats.
Keeping a solitary cat
If you decide that your cat is happy as a singleton, this is absolutely fine. Try and provide plenty of opportunities for companionship and play from yourself or other members of the household. Play, grooming, cuddles and treats are all ways for you and your cat to bond, and provide all the companionship and social interaction that they need.
Cat behaviour is a mix of the solitary and the social, and each cat is individual as to their need for companionship. Mother and sibling groups tend to be social, but adult cats (especially males) are often solitary. If introducing a new cat, provide plenty of resources and make the transition slow and smooth. Cats can be equally happy as a single feline, but may require more interaction from their human companions.