The stereotype that cats are aloof loners who care more about their food and warm sleeping spots than they do about their humans has been around for years. If such comforts came without you and your companionship, your cat would be out the door, right? Not quite, believe it or not. Plenty of cat owners — maybe even you — with friendly, attention-needy felines serve as proof.
Fortunately, it’s not too late to start playing a vital role in your cat’s life. These simple steps can help create a great relationship with your beloved feline.
Cats Are Social
“Dogs, humans and almost all the other species we come in contact with are pack species,” says Dr. Tony Buffington, DVM, Ph.D., director of Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine’s Indoor Cat Initiative. “Cats are solitary hunters,” he adds. “A lot of people misinterpret that to mean they are asocial. That’s not really what it means.”
Feral cats hunt alone, but they live in colonies, notes Ingrid Johnson, a Marietta, Ga., cat behaviorist. Supporting this more family-oriented view is a 2006 Harris Interactive survey that found that eight out of 10 veterinarians believe feral cats are in fact social by nature.
Signs of Cat Loneliness
Cats can’t pipe up and tell us they need more face-to-whisker time, but there are warning signs. Take note of the following behaviors, which can indicate your pet’s unhappiness:
- Excessive grooming
- Excessive meowing
- Overeating or not eating
- Coughing up hairballs because of the over-grooming
- A decrease in activity and interaction
Curing Feline Distress
If you detect any of the indicators for loneliness, you can take steps to make sure your cat is not an unhappy feline. Here are some tips:
- Visit your veterinarian first Since the symptoms of loneliness can mimic illness, it’s best to have your veterinarian examine your kitty. You’ll want to rule out physical causes, such as thyroid issues, infections or other health problems, which could be causing your cat’s distress.
- Think pairs If possible, plan to have a cat “family.” For example, Johnson recommends adopting two cats at a time. “I always, always recommend adopting two cats,” she says. “I do not adopt out single cats unless they were raised as a single cat.” She further advises, “Don’t get one little kitten and make them an only child. I do not adopt out kittens unless they are in pairs.”
- Choose companions wisely If you’re attempting to introduce a new kitty to be a companion for your cat, be cautious, say the experts. “If a cat is having problems, getting another cat is like taking a married couple that is having problems and saying, ‘You just need to have children,’” Dr. Buffington says, explaining that such introductions could even backfire, since you’d be adding yet another source of stress to an already maxed-out cat. She also instructs that you consider your cat’s energy level when bringing another cat into your home. As an example, if your kitty is a sedate 10-year-old, a frisky kitten might not make the best companion. “Don’t get a kitten (in this case). Get a pair of kittens so your 10-year-old doesn’t have to wrestle or rough and tumble,” advises Johnson.
- Enrich your cat’s environment Your cat is certain to live a safer, healthier life as an indoor cat. But, like zoo animals, indoor cats are cut off from the more dangerous, yet stimulating, outside environment, says Dr. Buffington. “They are always at risk for loneliness in that situation.” It’s up to you to provide a rich, stimulating environment that engages your cat and prevents its loneliness. You’ll want to make sure your cat has places to climb and scratch, as well as toys that provide mental challenges and let your kitty act out its instinct to pursue prey. “People sometimes think cats will create their environment for themselves,” Dr. Buffington says, pointing out that’s false.
- Be creative about play Too often, we buy cute cat toys on impulse at the pet store, then toss them in a basket. Instead, rotate toys in circulation so your cat doesn’t get bored. Grab a handful of toy mice, or other small toys, and toss them in a catnip marinade in a plastic bag before turning them over to your cat, says Johnson. Feline foraging toys, such as Play-N-Treat balls and the SlimCat, make your cat work for its dry food, since kitties must roll the balls and bat at the containers to get the pellets to dispense. Johnson feeds her cats dry food solely through such foraging toys. Working for the food is “positive frustration. It’s like a little Mensa toy for cats,” she says.
Always remember that your cat does need your interaction, concludes Johnson. “They have independent features and they don’t have that neediness of a dog, so we tend to forget about them,” she says. “But the idea of the loner cat is just folklore.”