Are Cats Social or Solitary? Your Questions Answered

Traditionally, cats have been viewed as solitary creatures that look after themselves without needing much interaction. New research says otherwise.

Apr 3, 2023By Abigail Gould
cats social or solitary

You know that your cat loves you. But you also know that sometimes your cat ignores you. It’s no secret that cats need their alone time, and not exactly polite about it!

So what’s the story? Do cats need us? Or do they just let us think that they do because it’s convenient for them? Could it be that cat’s antisocial behavior is just misunderstood?

This article will discuss the surprising and confusing social nature of our furry…um, friends.

Are Cats Both Social and Solitary?

calico cat lying on grass

We don’t know how to define the social nature of cats. As it turns out, cats are hard to study. Cats are notorious for doing life on their terms, which makes them particularly uncooperative subjects for scientists. Unfortunately, it also means there isn’t much conclusive research available.

So, if you’re ever inclined to read any papers on the Felis catus, you’re likely to find that scientists disagree on the social nature of cats.

A quote from a recent study states:

“It is evident that the domestic cat is capable of a much more complex social structure than has previously been thought, and that this also extends to the adult males, which at first sight appear to be independent of it.”

In other words, there is one giant question mark over whether cats are truly solitary by nature, as scientists have always postulated. We can only hope these brilliant minds will one day satisfy our curiosity.

Do Cats Have a Family Structure?

social cat colony

Yes, cats do have a family structure. Professional cat researchers use the term ‘facultative sociality’ to describe cats' social lives. It basically means that cats can live together in an organized way (if they want to).

Cats also have a matrilineal family structure, meaning groups of queen (female) cats stick together, and there is no alpha male. These cohabiting kitties will protect one another, defend their den from intruders, and even look after each other’s kittens. Having said that, each cat takes responsibility for finding their food. And no one likes newcomers.

When there is no human intervention, feral cats form colonies. Cats come together when there is more than enough food and shelter for everybody (not to mention places to poop in private).

Cat relationships are complicated, and it seems that personality plays a vital role in family structure—some cats just don’t get along. The dominance hierarchy works in a way that scientific studies have yet to decipher fully.

Rather than being emotionally indifferent, cats have an amazing capacity for love. They express it in a different way than what we as humans do.

Do Cats Get Lonely?

three tabby kittens together

When cats are left all by themselves for prolonged periods, some behavioral issues develop. These might include neuroticism, such as excessive meowing or grooming. A cat might also become destructive, depressed, or aggressive. They might even start vomiting or making a mess outside the litter tray.

So yes, cats do get lonely.

Even though cats choose the highest, most inaccessible places to take a nap or gaze down at the family, they do need company. Studies show that cats display separation anxiety, proximity seeking, and reunion behavior. This indicates that cats have a high capacity for attachment—evidence that cats care a lot!

Is It Okay to Have Just One Cat?

working from home with cat

Are you worried about leaving Waffles home alone during the day?

Your concerns are completely valid! But, there is no one correct way to answer this question because much will depend on your circumstances.

Here’s a scenario: Waffles can go outside as he pleases, and his ‘parent’ works from home every afternoon. So, he is perfectly content as the “only child”.

Not only do you need to think about Waffle’s opportunities for following his own “kitty pursuits”, but you also need to consider his personality. And, how much time you have to spend with him.

If you suspect your “only child” is lonely, your gut instinct could be correct since you know your kitty better than anyone.

When Do Cats Want to Be Alone?

cat climbing over fence

There are specific things that all cats like to do alone. These include eating, hunting, and using the litter tray (privacy is a thing with cats). While bonded kitties will often cuddle up and nap together, there will be times that they separate for some much-needed solo sleeping time.

Cats become stressed and uncomfortable when they are forced to share food, water, and sleeping places. When competing for these resources, a cat will look for less crowded territory. Additionally, personality will determine how much alone time a cat needs.

And always remember, every cat has a past.

How friendly a cat is will depend on how they were raised as a kitten. Formative experiences—such as playing with their littermates and bonding with their mother—will determine how confident a cat is around other cats and humans. Besides upbringing, how humans first treated a kitten will come out in his behavior as an adult.

Think of it all collectively as emotional baggage. Yes, if your Waffles is a loner, there could be some unresolved issues from his child—ahem—kittenhood that he’s still dealing with.

Let’s Be Friends

two cats looking out of window

When considering cat social behavior, we have to account for the emotional subtleties that occur within the personalities of individual cats. And that’s a difficult thing to do. Making broad, generalizing statements doesn’t always work.

Cats are far more emotionally complex than they are given credit for.

The bottom line is that all cats have some kind of social nature and the needs that go along with it. They often bond closely with other cats and humans. However, not all cats are friendly to the same degree. Plus, not all cats are good at expressing themselves, and not all cats have understanding human parents.

Whatever the case, we can (and should) forgive them for their little awkward moments.

Check out more articles in this series on the blog!

Abigail Gould
By Abigail Gould

Abigail’s experience with animals comes from growing up on a farm. She has been fortunate enough to look after cats, dogs, ducks, geese, chickens, and guinea pigs. Of all the pets she’s cared for, guinea pigs have been the most entertaining, dogs the most rewarding, and cats the most essential!