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Should Cats Live Alone or In Pairs?

Cats can be solitary, but they can also be affectionate, friendly and playful. They can also fight. So, are cats happier in pairs or living on their own?

Is it better to have one or two cats? Some cats respond well to living in pairs, while some prefer living alone. This is because of how cats adapted to living in the wild. Where food is easy to find, cats don’t feel the need to cooperate and live in groups. But where food is scarce, or the prey is large, they need to work together and form colonies. This is seen in the wild (e.g. in lion prides) and in cities (where feral cats form large groups and live together). Also, cats which are highly socialized with other kittens during their youth get along better with other cats.

The guide below looks at real science to determine how and why cats live alone, but why they can also form groups in select circumstances. It will finish by looking at the pros and cons of having two cats, from whether keeping cats alone is cruel, to the reasons why cats can fight.

Is It OK to Have Just One Cat?

It’s perfectly fine to only own one cat. Most people who own cats only have one, and they find that their cats do just fine.

If you do plan on having just one cat, though, you should provide it with plenty of stimulation. You should spend lots of time with it, and give it lots of toys to play with. While the jury is out on whether cats can get lonely like we do, they can definitely get bored, so you have to account for that.

As for whether cats should live alone or in pairs, the jury is out on that too…! Some cats seem to do better in groups, while some do better when kept on their own. But why might that be, and is there a way you can tell whether your cat would prefer company? Let’s find out.

Do Cats Need Company?

While cats are solitary creatures, that doesn’t mean that they always want to be alone.

This, like most things cat-related, has actually been the subject of extensive scientific study. One study in particular, published in PLOS One, looked at how cats and their owners behave after having been apart from one another. Their paper states that:

Little is known about the cat’s (Felis silvestris catus) need for human contact, although it is generally believed that cats are more independent pets than e.g. dogs. In this study, we investigated the effect of time left alone at home on cat behaviour (e.g. social and distress-related) before, during and after separation from their owner.

To study this idea, the scientists came up with the following experiment:

Fourteen privately owned cats (single-housed) were each subjected to two treatments: the cat was left alone in their home environment for 30 min (Group 1) and for 4 h (Group 2). There were no differences between treatments in the behaviour of the cat (or owner) before owner departure, nor during the first 5 min of separation. During separation, cats were lying down resting proportionally less in Group 1 compared to in Group 2, probably due to a similar duration of higher activity early in the separation phase in both treatments.

In other words, the cats that were left alone for longer were more active while their owners were away. They also found that ‘at reunion’, the cats which were left alone for longer ‘purred more … and stretched their bodies more’, and that owners similarly talked to their cats more when they returned! The scientists behind the study stated in conclusion that ‘it seemed as cats coped well with being left alone, but they were affected by the time they were left alone, since they expressed differences in behaviour when the owner returned home. The increased level of social contact initiated by the cats after a longer duration of separation indicates a rebound of contact-seeking behaviour, implying that the owner is an important part of the cat’s social environment.

Do Cats Need Human Company?

This is a difficult question to answer.

On the one hand, cats are solitary creatures. While the evidence above does suggest that cats left alone for a long time got lonely, that doesn’t mean they need human company; they may have initiated contact with a friendly cat after having been alone.

At the same time cats have adapted to being human pets. Cats only infrequently meow at other cats, as meowing seems to be mostly reserved for communicating with humans. Cats meow when they want something, be that affection/company, food, or access outside. More studies need to be done to understand exactly what cats think of us, and how much they need us.

Do Cats Get Lonely when Left Alone?

You could understand the above to mean that cats get lonely. But you could also understand it in more basic terms, which seem like they better match what we know about cats.

Yes, this could mean that the cats in the experiment ‘got lonely’. But it could also mean that they just got bored. Housecats, especially indoor cats, rely on their owners for interaction. When the owner isn’t there, nothing happens. The cats can’t watch TV or listen to the radio; they just sit there. When the owner finally does come back after four hours in the experiment above, the cat is probably relieved that something, anything, is happening that can interest it.

The question then becomes at what point are loneliness and boredom different things? We crave interaction with other people partly because of emotional attachments, of course, but partly because to be alone all the time is more boring than being around other people.

Since we can’t get inside a cat’s head, it’s practically impossible to tell which is the case. What we do know is that cats are largely solitary, and don’t always form close bonds with their owners, and never as strong bonds as other pets do. It’s therefore likely that cats are bored without company, but not quite lonely.

Are Wild Cats Solitary Creatures?

Just because they’re a common house pet, cats don’t have the same evolutionary background, needs or wants as dogs. While dogs enjoy forming packs, cats don’t. The wild cats that our house cats are descended from are solitary animals. The Journal of Feline Medical Surgery put it like this:

Cats are descended from a solitary, territorial ancestor, and while domestication has reduced their inherited tendency to be antagonistic towards all animals larger than their typical prey, they still place more reliance on the security of their territory than on psychological attachments to people or other cats, the exact opposite to dogs. Many feline problem behaviours stem from perceived threats to this security, often due to conflicts with other cats.

This may surprise you, as the wild animal that people compare house cats to most commonly is the lion. Lions famously live in prides in the wild: large groups with complex social structures, not too dissimilar to a wolf pack. What you may not know is that lions are the exception rather than the rule. Lions are the only big cats that live in groups in the world. All others live alone.

That doesn’t mean that cats have no idea how to interact with each other. From the youngest age, kittens interact, and learn how to play and socialize. But once they reach adulthood, cats will largely avoid each other, especially when hunting and eating.

But What About Feral Cats?

What’s interesting, though, is that what we know about feral cats actually contradicts this. Feral cats are cats that have lived their whole lives without human contact. They don’t seek out or rely on people. By contrast, a stray cat is a regular house cat that has gone missing or run away. Feral cats and house cats are the same species. The only thing that’s different is how socialized they are with people. According to a paper on the subject:

The study of these cats is helpful because they provide a glimpse into what domestic cat behavior can become when the constraints of living in a human-organized home (e.g., limited space, high densities, forced relationships) are removed and new problems are encountered (e.g., need to hunt for food, find shelter, avoid predators). Because these cats must deal with natural problems of food, shelter, and both interspecific and intraspecific interactions, their behavior often is considered more instinctive or “natural” than those of human-constrained “pets.” They are studied to provide insight into the behavior of domestic cats in the home.

And what scientists found out might shock you:

First and perhaps most important, they stressed the relationship between group size and prey size. Group formation in felids in general, including domestic cats, seems dependent in large part on the size of prey that can be captured and the need to fend off scavengers. So, for example, lions working together can take much larger prey than individuals alone and can better resist attempts by hyenas to take over a kill. However, many felids, particularly the smaller ones, do not need to take large prey to gain their necessary food intake and can hunt and eat alone. As would be expected then, feral domestic cats living on wild prey such as rabbits and rodents tend to be solitary, but those with access to clumped food sources related to human activities, such as around barns, landfills, and fishing dumps, live in groups. Clearly domestic cats have a built-in flexibility in grouping behavior and are not restricted evolutionarily to being solitary.

This means that where cats have to work together, they can; but where they feel that they don’t need to, they won’t. This is remarkable flexibility, and helps cats survive in hostile environments. But it also means that since indoor cats have no need to form groups, they won’t (or at least won’t necessarily).

In reality, then, the house cat’s desire for alone time isn’t some in-built instinct that can’t be reversed. This explains why some cats do well living with others, while some hate it.

Cats Aren’t As Domesticated As Dogs

The role that people have played in domesticating both cats and dogs also shouldn’t be understated.

Domestication is a long and complex process. We’re most familiar with the idea of a breeder selecting for certain traits, and only breeding the cats that exhibit that trait. That’s how we ended up with so many cat breeds with desirable features like long, soft fur, for example.

What people don’t appreciate is that breeders also select for traits of friendliness and trust, even if they don’t do so willingly. That’s because they will find it easier to breed the animals that trust people, since those that don’t trust people will hiss, spit, scratch and bite while the friendly ones won’t. The friendly ones therefore pass on their genes while the unfriendly ones don’t, or at least don’t as much.

Cats haven’t been domesticated for as long as dogs. It’s thought that cats were domesticated some time around 8,000 years ago, although nobody’s sure exactly when it happened. What is known is that dogs were domesticated long before that, as far back in time as 32,000 years. People have therefore had far longer to increase these friendly traits in dogs than in cats. Add onto that the fact that dogs are already predisposed to live in groups, while cats aren’t, and that explains why cats are so different in temperament.

Can Cats Enjoy Living in Pairs?

With all that said, it should be clear that cats can live in pairs. Owner experience backs this up, of course. But the question then becomes whether cats can enjoy living in pairs or larger groups, and whether they can prefer it to living alone.

Cats can enjoy living in pairs, but they also might not. Sort of like people. Part of this, at least, is to do with how the cat was raised when it was young. Cats learn to interact with other cats when they’re kittens. They learn social signals like body language; they learn how and when to play, and how and when to fight. If your cat had negative interactions with other kittens or cats during this period, then it will grow up to be wary of other cats. If it had nothing but positive experiences, then it won’t have such a problem. It’s the same as how negative interactions with people during this critical growth period can make a cat wary of people.

And in other cases, there seems to be no rhyme or reason to a cat’s behavior. Some cats are simply lovely, and will get along with any other person or any other cat. Others seem hell-bent on making life as difficult as possible by being thoroughly disagreeable. As such, whether your cat will enjoy living in pairs depends… Well, on your cat!

Is It Cruel to Have Only One Cat?

It isn’t cruel to just have one cat.

If your cat is an outdoor cat, then it’s definitely not cruel. Your cat will get plenty of time interacting with other cats outside of your home.

The problem is if you keep an indoor cat, and you don’t spend any time with it. If you keep an indoor cat, then you are, essentially, its entire social life. Nothing happens in its world that doesn’t revolve around you. If you’re out of the house for most of the day, and you don’t get any chance to spend time with it when you are home, then that won’t be nice for the cat. It might be a stretch to call that cruel, especially if your cat is one that enjoys its personal space and time; but at best it’s a little thoughtless, and your cat could have a better quality of life in other circumstances.

Having Two Cats: Pros and Cons

Whether or not you think your cat needs company, there are pros and cons to having two or more cats. You should balance these against your cat’s need for friendship.

  • Con: do cats get lonely without another cat? They don’t, so there isn’t a strict need to have more than one.
  • Pro: your cat has things to do when you aren’t at home. Indoor cats don’t have much to do when you aren’t around. Cats living together can keep each other company.
  • Con: the cats might fight. Your old cat may not take well to sharing its space with a new cat, especially if it has lived alone for years. The pair may fight incessantly, and both cats will be unhappy (your old cat even unhappier than it was before).
  • Pro: if you love cats, well, now you have two! If one doesn’t want to spend time with you, it’s likely the other one will.
  • Con: twice the cats means twice the bills. If you have to pay lots of money for cat food and vet bills already, expect that cost to double.

You should also consider the pros and cons from your perspective, not just that of your cat. There are a few reasons why you might want to have either one cat, or two or more cats. If you enjoy the company of cats, have time and money to spare, and can deal with the pair bickering, then having two cats might be the better option for you. But if having another pet would put a strain on your finances, and if you have a stressful job, then sticking to just one cat would be the better idea.