I frequently get questions from readers who are looking to add a new cat to their family. How do I find a cat that will be a good match for my cat? Should I get a cat who’s the same age as my resident cat, or should I get a kitten? Male or female? Will the resident cat accept the newcomer? I wish I could give definitive answers to all of these questions, but the reality is that while you can do some homework, ultimately, each cat’s unique history and personality will determine the outcome. And these questions are even harder to answer when it comes to deciding whether to get a companion for a senior cat.
Are you projecting your own feelings onto your cat?
A frequent scenario I’m asked about is this: a senior cat recently lost his or her companion. The remaining cat appears to be grieving. No two cats react the same way to the loss of a companion, but there’s no doubt in my mind that cats grieve. And while cats may not show grief the same way as humans do, a 1996 ASPCA study fund that 46% of cats ate less than usual after the death of a companion cat, around 70% showed a change in vocalization pattern, more than half of the cats became more affectionate and “clingy” with their owners, and many of the cats slept more, and changed the location of where they usually slept. Overall, 65% of cats exhibited four or more behavior changes after losing a pet companion.
Watching a cat grieve is hard, especially when the human is also grieving the loss of the companion cat. It’s only natural to want to help the surviving cat feel better.
Will bringing in a new cat help a grieving cat?
Cats are, by their nature, territorial animals, and while slow and gradual introductions are the best way to ensure that two cats get along, there’s never a guarantee. Additionally, most cats are inherently wary of strangers, which also contributes to challenges with new cat introductions.
Accepting a new cat can be even more difficult for senior cats, especially when the new cat is a young cat or kitten. Cat guardians often think that bringing a kitten into the family will “make the old cat act young again.” However, from the senior cat’s perspective, the disruption of his familiar routine may create a significant amount of stress.
Make the right choice for your cat
If you’re considering adding a younger companion to your household, it’s imperative that you ensure that your older cat does not lose anything that he or she already has. Senior cats should not have to compete for resources such as time with you, resting, viewing and hiding places, and food and water. “Your highest allegiance is to the cat who was there first,” says Dr. Andrea Tasi of Just Cats Naturally, a house-call based, feline-exclusive practice dedicated to a holistic, individualized approach to each cat. “Ask yourself: how do I preserve my older cat’s day-to-day resources as effectively as possible?”
Your senior cat’s health
Consider the impact of a new cat on your senior cat’s health. If you have an elderly cat who is ill, I do not recommend bringing another cat into the home until your resident cat has passed. The stress of a new addition to the family may aggravate your older cat’s condition, and could actually shorten his life. But even seemingly healthy senior cats may be dealing with underlying health issues that haven’t manifested yet. A 3-year study at the Ohio State University found that stress has a considerable impact on a cat’s health. “Many senior cats are what I call tightrope walkers,” says Dr. Tasi. “As long as the rope is taught and the cat’s environment is stable, they do just fine. But if even one thing changes, they may fall into catastrophe.”
How to choose a companion cat
If you truly feel that your cat would be happier with a younger companion, consider your resident cat’s temperament when selecting a companion. If you have a timid cat, she would probably do better with a laid back, calm, mellow cat. A dominant cat will most likely do better with a self-assured, calmer cat. If you’re fortunate enough to have one of those happy-go-lucky cats who loves everyone, she will probably get along with a cat from either end of the personality spectrum. “In my experience, cats who readily accept other cats easily are the exception rather than the rule,” says Dr. Tasi.
Keep in mind that temperament and personality can be hard to detect if you meet a cat in a shelter. Most cats are stressed in that setting and won’t show their true personality until they’ve been in a new home for several weeks and sometimes even years.
Size can also make a difference, especially if you have a slightly dominant cat. The theory is that cats of similar size and build will accept each other more quickly. Try to choose a new cat who is the same size or slightly smaller than your resident cat.
I believe that gender, other than as a personal preference of the guardian, is the least important consideration when it comes to choosing a good match for your resident cat.
If you want to adopt a kitten, consider adopting a pair. Most senior cat won’t appreciate being constantly pestered by an exuberant kitten, and the kittens will have a friend of same or similar age and energy to play with.
If you’ve carefully thought through all aspects of this decision, and you’ve decided to move forward, Dr. Tasi suggests working with a rescue group that allows you to foster a potential new companion. “Fostering gives you a chance to see whether the new cat and your senior cat are a good match,” she says.
If your senior cat seems comfortable and content with his life, this may not be the time to bring in a new companion. Make sure that you’re clear that you’re making the decision based on what’s best for your cat, not what’s best for you.
Have you introduced a younger cat to a senior cat? Share your experience in a comment.