Is Your Cat Ready for a Buddy?

Practical thinking about starting a feline family

Cats tend to bond faster and most strongly when introduced at a very young age. It is a great idea when adopting a kitten to adopt a sibling companion. This is not just because the amount of play and exercise they require can exhaust you (and why not let a sister or brother cat do that work for you ;-), but because they’ll grow up with a companion and have a social circle of their own, not just of loving humans.

But are they meant to be social with their own kind? Lions hang out all the time, right? John Bradshaw writes in Cat Sense that when you look at the nature of cats, don’t look at lions. For one, that community isn’t as harmonious as we’d like to believe. A lion pride is based on the “benefits of cooperation and competition, with each individual lion employing tactics that maximize its own breeding success.” And, outside of lions, most cat species don’t live very socially.

Facts of the feline world may be what they are, but we’ve all witnessed some pretty beautiful cat friendships that were neither formed in kittenhood nor with siblings. It warms my heart to come home to two cats curled up together — if we can’t accompany them, nice that they can find comfort in each other while we’re not around. But introducing cats is such a challenge that, before embarking on that journey, you should consider the personality of your current cat first.

Cat interactions are incredibly complex. If you picture older children introduced to a newborn sibling, there are often some (sometimes funny) unwelcoming moments, like, “can’t you put her back in your tummy?” But rather than jealousy of the parents’ time and attention, much of the cause of cat tension is territory. So, for better interactions, think about both your available ‘territory’ and your cat’s personality.

A spacious vast house might accommodate several cats who can find their own niches. A small city apartment might be best for up to just two.

Space is much easier to measure than personality.

It is my experience that three out of four cats are happier with another feline around. But there’s still that one in four that should never have to contend with another cat in their life. If you’ve exposed your cat to other cats and know he or she enjoys being with them, you’re safe. But it is very hard to know if you’ve not witnessed him or her any exposure to other cats.

This may sound strange, but if you can part with your kitty for one night’s lodging at a luxury kennel, you might learn a lot. I put my cat Nino up at a kennel (very swank place in San Francisco) and I got the instant sense that (a) he was a bit nervous of most cats in neighboring cells (he hissed in fear quite a lot) but (b) he was also curious about them: instead of curling up in a ball and hiding in his carrier or in the back of the cage where he couldn’t see or be seen, he kept reviewing each one of them intently. If a kennel doesn’t allow you to stick around with your cat to help him adjust before you leave him there, that kennel is not worth 10 seconds of your cat’s time there, by the way! So stay and be a silent observer, you could learn a whole lot you didn’t know.

Many cats at the kennel had the same cautious curiosity. Others couldn’t care less who the new inmate was. Some looked even more intent on buddying up than Nino did. They were as different as the same number of humans in one room would be.

I gathered some good data points there: I could see various personalities come through and could picture Nino’s reactions as neither the alpha male cat, nor the timid retreating cat. I pictured his rank on the totem pole as pretty middle. And if I had to guess above or below, I’d have said a bit below. Slightly shy, not overly shy.

When I concluded I needed to find him a buddy, I also concluded that his territory would be in question. If I brought home a cat that was in that upper range of the totem pole, I could really be inviting a lot of tension as they sorted out their relationship.

I’ve now introduced him to three cats all of whom I deemed a bit more timid than him. I spent a lot of time with those (and other) cats at shelters to really get a sense for who they were. I found that my hunch was spot-on: he was ga-ga in love with two shy gals, but a third one with slightly more extroverted personality has challenged him and taken him more time to cozy up to.

One thing I’d observe now after these long term relationships is that he has scooted himself up that totem pole and become a leader. He is affectionate and playful (even with his more extroverted buddy!), but he very much needs to keep on leading. I attribute that to both his personality and to him establishing his roots first. Be sure your new cat doesn’t “outrank” your current cat: that’s a dynamic your first cat will not love to contend with.

If you can take time to observe your cat’s personality and to set up as non-threatening a social situation as possible (like a day at the kennel), you can come to your own conclusions on your cat’s need for company. Ultimately, there will be no truer test than the slow introduction you’ll have to go through, but considering all aspects before jumping into that process will be both wise and rewarding.

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