Balancing cat social needs and space needs
July 12, 2018 2:22 PM   Subscribe

How do you balance cat social needs and space needs in a small living area? What are some ways to make a small apartment comfortable for multiple cats (and their human)?

Earlier this year I adopted an active and very (very, very) talkative cat. I keep a regular schedule and give her a lot of love and attention when I'm at home, but am still leaving her alone during work hours. In addition, I may soon begin traveling more than I had originally anticipated. I am concerned that my very social kitty isn't getting enough interaction and am considering adopting a second cat so she has a full-time companion and playmate. She was housed in a multi-cat area at the shelter I adopted her from so chances are good she would do well with a conspecific friend.

However, my apartment is small. The size and layout work fine for one cat but might not scale well for multiple cats. Example: there is space in the bathroom for one litter box, but no suitable area to place another per the "one litter box per cat" guidance. It would be pretty awkward to keep them separated for more than a short period of time if that became necessary. And so on. All the multi-cat households I have lived in have been much more spacious. I don't want to trade one possible source of kitty stress (time alone) for another (too many cats in not enough space) if that doesn't make the cat better off.
posted by 4rtemis to Pets & Animals (9 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
One thing that adds space from a feline perspective is various levels of surfaces to hang out on. So if there are a good deal of cat trees or shelves they can go up on, the cats are more likely to be able to carve out their own territories within the apartment.

Just one data point, but I have always had n-1 litter boxes for multiple cats and it's been fine, just as long as I keep on cleaning them well as least once every 24 hours.
posted by Kurichina at 2:33 PM on July 12, 2018 [2 favorites]

My husband and I lived for three years in a small (maybe 400 sq ft?) one bedroom apartment with two cats. We had one standard litterbox in the bathroom, one Clever Cat top-opening litterbox in the living room to minimize litter scatter, and a 3-4' foot cat tree by a window. We fed one cat in the bathroom and one in the kitchen so they weren't right next to each other at mealtimes. They had a variety of elevations and small spaces to hang out--frequently one of them would be on the cat tree or curled up on the back of the couch, and another curled up in a cubby in the bedroom closet or under the couch. It was easy for them to have alone time if they wanted. I would keep the new cat in a bathroom at first and slowly introduce them. I've always had n litterboxes, not n+1, and it's been no problem.
posted by impishoptimist at 2:41 PM on July 12, 2018

I only have one litter box for 2 cats in an 800 sq ft apartment. The originally met in a 400 sf studio, with the younger in the bathroom for the first week. I was more concerned with the fact that I couldn’t open the windows than the size they had. They certainly need more vertical space than horizontal, and are rarely in separate rooms anyway.

If I find one cat alone in a room, it’s 90% that the other has accidentally locked themself into a cabinet or closet. They might not always be snuggling. But they don’t want to left out.

If you can, make sure you keep the litter box somewhere with multiple exits. Otherwise this is really no big deal.
posted by politikitty at 3:25 PM on July 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

Maybe there is newer info to the contrary but I read years ago a recommendation to feed cats together, at the same place and time. The idea I believe is that feeding together activates familial feelings.
posted by R2WeTwo at 3:39 PM on July 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

Despite what many owners would like to suppose, and notwithstanding some counterexamples or occasional snuggling, for the most part cats do not particularly like each other.
posted by slkinsey at 4:34 PM on July 12, 2018

I have had from 2 to 24 cats in an apartment at various points. Some cats adore other cats, some are solitary. They develop social groups and bonds that depend hugely on personality. I would get your second cat from a foster situation where you have some recommendation that this is a cat who likes other cats and is laid back.

Vertical spaces, lots of soft hiding corners and a litter box or two that can't be guarded (ie: one mean cat can't prevent access to the other).

The automated pet food dispenser solved a lot of mealtime bickering for my trio because I set it to disperse tiny amounts 10x a day and they just shrug when one of them gets there first because they trust the Mighty Robot Lord will feed them again soon.

We trialled a fourth cat my kid got from murky backgrounds recently and it was hell for everyone. The cat has been rehomed to a single cat home where he is a delight, so again: foster-adopt.

Strays are usually very sociable in my experience, and ferals once they figure out humans.

If you live in a flat, please get window grilles. My morons would be pancakes without them.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 4:48 PM on July 12, 2018 [5 favorites]

This will veer a little into c(h)at filter. But I think the stereotype of cats being non-social creatures is both understandable and also completely inaccurate. And I think leaning into those stereotypes creates this idea that cats need a whole bunch of space to be happy, which is why I'm justifying digging a bit deeper into that stereotype.

Cats perceive themselves as both predator and prey. So usually when we consider a cat to be aloof or dislike, the truth is that they don't feel safe. They feel the need to withdraw and be in a position where they can simultaneously see everything and also be outside your reach.

So when they dislike the new cat you've adopted, or the strange human you've invited over, they don't actually want enough space to be completely unaware of that threat. They want to be nearby so they can tell when it's safe.

Even when I had cats that merely tolerated each others existence, they didn't like being too far from each other. If they completely ignored the other, they'd be vulnerable to a sneak attack. And while my dearly departed cat was somewhat annoyed with the interloper, she was also overall happier because being the only cat without access to the outdoors was boring for her. A rugrat eased her boredom even if it she never developed a close social bond.

So hopefully they'd bond socially. But even if they don't, they might be happier than they'd be as an only cat. And in both scenarios, more space isn't really any better than well designed space. And yes, there exist some cats who'd prefer being a boring lap cat with their humans. But most cats have a drive to be social, and the typical human work schedule usually doesn't quite meet that need.
posted by politikitty at 6:54 PM on July 12, 2018 [3 favorites]

Black cat club! Maisie says hi.

Three cats in an apartment here, and sometimes it does feel like one too many: as he's become more mature Jake, our largest and the only male, would clearly like more territory and sometimes will bully Jacqueline out of what he's designated as his area. Other times though they'll coexist nicely, spacing themselves out around the place, and coming together to gaze longingly at birds on the balcony.

The N+1 litterboxes rule is totally impractical for apartment living, IMHO; we'd be swimming in litter if we followed it. More important I think to try to avoid putting a litterbox in a dead end. We have a Litter-Robot at the junction between two rooms and haven't had any problems with guarding or competition over it.

We feed our three separately as Jake and Jacqueline do get noticeably stressed by the presence of another cat while they're eating. (Maisie's more food-driven and couldn't care less who watches her eat.)

Hidey-holes and vertical spaces, yes: places for them to withdraw to. Ours tend to get territorial about cat trees, in a "this platform is where I sleep now, you can't be here" way, although their preferred spaces are constantly shifting; we have multiple trees to avoid competition. They get energized when we re-arrange furniture: HEY THINGS ARE DIFFERENT AND INTERESTING. We built catwalks for ours to give them more vertical space; they really like them and use them a lot. The catwalks also gives them a way to escape us if they're tired of being underfoot and/or fussed over.

Another cat-space-increasing trick: pull furniture away from the wall slightly so that they can walk behind it instead of always having to be out in the open.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 6:58 PM on July 12, 2018 [4 favorites]

considering adopting a second cat so she has a full-time companion and playmate

I can't offer any advice on the multiple cats thing, but as someone who has done the come by every other day and take care of the cat for a single cat whose owner would travel for up to a month at a time -- do whatever you need to do to make this happen.

You might check with cat adoption organizations to find one that will take the new cat back if it doesn't get on well with yours.

Maybe you can set up an enclosed litterbox in a closet or the kitchen.

I used to date someone who had four cats in a one bedroom apartment, they seemed to get along with each other just fine, although one of the cats wasn't really into humans sharing the apartment space. Litterbox was a larger automatic/robotic type crammed between the toilet and wall in the not especially spacioius bathroom.

Get a short haired or low shedding cat as pet hair builds up MUCH more quickly in a small space.
posted by yohko at 8:58 PM on July 12, 2018

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