Debunking the Myth Cats Are Antisocial

By Katie McHenry

The Importance of a Good Match

As SPCA NOVA volunteers, we have the job of assessing adoption inquiries to find the matches that are right for both the adopters and the cats. For instance, if an adopter is looking for a sedate lap cat, we recommend a calm adult feline or pair rather than young, rambunctious kittens or “teenagers.” Conversely, if a family wants playful companionship for their children, we recommend a pair of young adults or kittens, depending on various factors, such as the ages of the children and kittens and the kittens’ degrees of playfulness.

Regarding what the person wants, we consider what type of cat personality the adopter is looking for, as well as their living situation, age, work hours, and lifestyle. As for what the cat needs, we consider each cat’s temperament, age, and activity level in terms of their potential adopter’s lifestyle. This means if an adopter works more than the usual 40-hour work week, and works outside of the home, we would likely recommend adopting a pair of cats rather than just one. Many people don’t realize cats are not the solitary creatures some people think they are. Cats crave not only active and playful stimulation but also companionship – human and/or feline, depending on the cat.

In fact, SPCA NOVA only adopts out kittens in pairs (unless the adopter already has a young cat at home) because when a cat needs feline companionship, humans aren’t an adequate substitute. Humans can’t replace what a cat can offer another cat who needs feline bonding or feline interaction.

Biscuit’s Dilemma

Several years ago, an SPCA NOVA cat named Biscuit made it clear he needed a feline companion. Even when his foster mom layed with him and gave him attention, it wasn’t enough: he kept attacking her feet, jumping onto counters, knocking things onto the floor, and even trying to get into the shower with her! Once we added another cat (Ozzy) to the mix, Biscuit seemed content and stopped his antics with his foster mom. Biscuit and Ozzy wrestled, chased each other around the home, and even groomed each other – all behaviors Biscuit couldn’t have engaged in with a human. Ozzy offered Biscuit not only playful interaction, but feline companionship that so many cats need. And Biscuit’s current companion, Tony Atlas, provides the same interactive play and companionship that both Biscuit and Tony need.

Even in the case of cats who prefer to be the only feline in the home, they still need companionship, just in human form. And if your cat isn’t receiving the attention they need, they will become lonely and bored and may act out in different ways: knocking objects off counters while you’re gone, urinating outside the litter box, or interrupting your sleep. So why the common misconception that cats are antisocial?

Cats Versus Dogs

Beyond the fact that dogs descended from wolves and cats descended from African wildcats, humans domesticated dogs more than 10,000 years ago – before domesticating any other animal, including cows and pigs – and used them both to assist in hunting and to help guard the home. Conversely, cats “domesticated themselves” only 4,000 years ago, being drawn to human civilization by rodent populations.

In this way, each modern companion animal was domesticated differently, at different times in history, to serve a different purpose for humans, meaning that they learned to interact differently with our species over a span of thousands of years. Whereas dogs might be more visibly responsive to their human’s tone or pitch of voice, cats might appear more “aloof” by not outwardly responding. However, cats do communicate with humans via meowing, ear position, and tail movement. The problem is not all humans understand the feline language.

A cat’s tendency to remain on high alert can also be mistaken for emotional detachment. However, this demeanor is essential to their species because they are  both predator and prey due to their size – smaller than wolves and dogs but larger than rats and mice.

Another reason for the myth cats are less social than dogs is that dogs’ ancestors (wolves) live and hunt in packs. By contrast, most cats’ ancestors (African wild cats and other wild felines, like tigers and leopards) hunt on their own and live relatively solitary lives, except when mating and rearing their young. However, there are exceptions “in the wild” where cats do form social groups. Lions live in groups called prides with one or more males and a group of related females and their young offspring. In addition, feral domestic cats tend to form female-centric colonies in which social structure is dependent upon colony size, food availability, and familial relationships.

Socialization Factors

In the debate about “nature versus nurture” – i.e. whether human behavior derives primarily from genetic factors or life experiences – most psychologists agree humans tend to be a product of both. The same is true of cats and their personalities. And just like humans, no two cats are fully alike.

Some cats might be genetically predisposed toward outwardly affectionate behaviors, such as sitting on laps or sleeping on their human’s pillow, but if they haven’t started meaningful interactions with humans by the time they are six weeks of age, it’s harder to fully socialize them. In this case, they may remain shy and somewhat fearful of humans regardless of hereditary tendencies and may just bond with one person: their primary caretaker. This also means if cats aren’t exposed to other cats from a young age, they may be more likely to prefer life as the only cat of the household.

Why Kittens Need Companionship

Like toddlers, kittens crave constant stimulation and can create mischief, such as climbing drapes or chewing electrical cords, without the proper outlet for their energy. Kittens are also active at night and enjoy wrestling with and biting their playmates. In the absence of a second kitten, your hands and feet might seem like a suitable replacement for playful biting and scratching. Having another kitten to wrestle and play with reduces the chance of the kitten engaging in destructive behavior resulting from boredom.

Additionally, in the first few months of life, kittens learn how to be cats from their mother and litter mates. While it can be necessary to separate a kitten from their mother for adoption purposes, they still need feline companionship to continue their social development. A year ago, a friend who had adopted a single kitten from a shelter asked me for help. My friend had to work long hours, leaving the kitten home by herself all day with no outlet for her energy, so when he came home at night, the kitten wouldn’t let him sleep. He asked what he should do, and my answer was simple: find a suitable young feline companion for his kitten!

In Summary

A while back, SPCA NOVA heard from a woman interested in adopting a single cat. She was convinced that adopting just one was the only way to get the cat to bond with her, and that if she adopted a pair, they would bond with each other but not her. SPCA NOVA assured her that adopting two social, affectionate cats, would not only get her twice as much love, but it would also provide her with happier cats. She took our advice and adopted a pair. In the end, what’s best for the cat ends up also being best for their human, because happy, well-socialized animals make the best companions.

Perhaps the “Cat Daddy” himself – Jackson Galaxy – says it best: “Realize that the myths about cats being independent, aloof and completely self-sufficient are just that: myths. Cats are incredibly social. They thrive on companionship, and they have physical needs that depend on you. If you work 16 hours a day and still want a cat, just remember that they are family members with needs only their parents can fill.

“Although this might sound counter-intuitive, if you are a very busy person, consider adopting two cats. Perhaps seek out a bonded pair, or if they’re two cats who don’t know each other, there’s no better time to introduce two cats than when they’re being introduced into a new environment.”

Biscuit and Tony Atlas enjoy hanging out together. As an only cat, Biscuit (top) was into a lot of mischief. Finding him a companion helped.
Kittens, like Pookie and Odie here, have a lot of energy and need companionship to burn it off in non-destructive ways.