In 1983, I brought home Taffy, a spunky eight-week-old kitten. Taffy tried several times to play with my other cat, Bobby -- an older tom cat who wanted nothing to do with the kitten's antics. After several swats from Bobby's large paws, Taffy would give up and slink away. Soon she spent a lot of time sitting and staring into space. She became lethargic. A trip to the veterinarian proved Taffy was in perfect health. Something else was wrong; Taffy was lonely.
So a month later I brought home Candy, another spunky eight-week-old. Only a month apart in age, Taffy and Candy became inseparable. Taffy's spirit returned.
Holding onto the belief that cats are solitary, independent and aloof, we sometimes don't realize that a destructive or lethargic cat is lonely. But a cat alone, especially a kitten recently separated from her siblings, can feel the anxiety of separation and the stress of loneliness.
So, how do you know if your cat is lonely? The signs will vary from cat to cat, and also depend on why the cat is lonely. "My cat Tabs went through major grief and loneliness after his same-age, different litter 'brother' Zorro died," says Wendy. "He went through the house howling for his friend every night for a month."
Often, grief and loneliness go hand in hand. "Signs of grieving and loneliness can be very similar," says Julie Moews, DVM, a veterinarian at Bolton Veterinary Hospital in Bolton, Connecticut. As with Taffy, many lonely cats will become lethargic, stop playing, stop eating or stare into space.
A lonely cat may also hide a lot, especially a new cat who is scared, or may sleep more than usual. A lonely cat may also cling more to you. Some cats become aggressive or destructive in their attempt to alleviate boredom and loneliness.
What should you do if you think your cat is lonely? Moews says, "The first important step is to make sure there is nothing physically wrong with your cat." Even if your kitten or cat has an obvious reason for being lonely, a check-up is still the first step. A sick cat will be more depressed and recover less easily than a healthy cat.
Once your cat has a clean bill of health, it's time to help her deal with her loneliness. Getting another cat might seem obvious, but is not always the best solution. Even when there is more than one cat at home, cats can feel lonely.
When Correy adopted Zoie, an eight-year-old female tabby, from a shelter, the cat began showing many signs of loneliness. "She would hide a lot," Correy says, "and she just seemed sad." So Correy went back to the shelter and adopted the one cat Zoie had gotten along with: a male orange tabby named Shemp. But Zoie had already taken over the house and did not want another cat in her territory. She became more distraught and never came out of hiding. Her loneliness deepened.
Shemp went back to the shelter (where he was adopted out to a wonderful family) and Zoie went back to being top cat. Correy began to spend more time playing with Zoie when he was home and he bought her a cat tree and lots of toys. "She's happy now," he says. "The house is hers, I spend as much time with her as I can, and she enjoys being an only cat."
Kittens and adolescent cats are good candidates for a feline playmate, but make sure the new cat is of the same age. Older cats, especially if they are grieving for a lost friend, are more likely to reject a new cat coming into their territory.
Spend more time with your lonely cat. Create games and playtimes that will make your interactions special, and give the cat some distractions. Leave the television or radio on (not too loud!) while you are away, and make sure your cat has plenty of toys to play with, grass to munch on and a good quality cat tree to climb and sleep on. Sometimes other kinds of "playmates" can help: a fish tank (with a tight cover) or a bird feeder set up just outside the window can be welcome distractions for a lonely feline.
Most important, make sure your cat knows she is loved. Give her lots of attention, talk to her and cuddle with her. Make her part of your cat pack.