As someone who is obsessed with her cats, I secretly hope the answer to the question posed by this article’s title is, “Never. Never too many cats.” I love Foxy (my gray tabby) and Jacques (my black American shorthair) and daydream about adopting kittens (especially little orange ones) on the reg. Alas, this isn't about me. This is about the cats. So, how many cats is too many cats? There is no magic number at which “how many” becomes “too many.” It’s more like a magic threshold one crosses at which point life goes from being “feline-friendly” to “feline-unhealthy.”
For some cat owners, “too many” means two cats. For others, it means nine. Frankly, it all depends on the type of environment and attention you can devote to your kitties. Spoiler alert: You’re not going to get a specific number from us; anyone who gives you one, shouldn’t. To clarify, and to help you identify if and when your quota is met, let’s look at some data, significant insider info and general best practices for raising a healthy cat family.
Crushing the crazy old cat lady trope
Can we all agree this is a tired stereotype? Dudes and nonbinary folks like cats, too. Just ask my boyfriend or Ricky Gervais or Steven Ray Morris of The Purrrcast. Plus, it furthers the incorrect notion that living alone means you can devote all your time and attention to your cats. Wrong! In fact, the more cats you have (even if you do live alone and intend to maintain a solitary life well into retirement), the harder it is to give each cat the attention it craves and needs.
In case you hadn’t heard (because you were lint-rolling all the cat hair off your sweater), a study came out this month revealing cats form strong emotional bonds with their humans. All of us cat owners were like, “Duh.” But everyone else reading the Oregon State University findings in the journal Current Biology discovered that 64 percent of the kittens in the study demonstrated securely attached bonds to owners. For reference, 65 percent of infants respond the same way to their parents. Now, when anybody asks, I’ll be able to back up with science the claim that my cats are my babies. Also, studies have shown cats recognize and respond to their names.
The thing is, with too many cats in one household, forming secure emotional bonds becomes harder. Cats may become clingy, depressed or develop poor socialization skills. Beyond that, Dr. Justine Lee, DVM, notes it becomes really hard to monitor the overall health of each cat when you have to work overtime to keep track of who’s who. Urinary tract issues (and many more health concerns) are a lot harder to notice in one kitty when you’ve got ten others stealing your focus.
Consider cat personalities
As Cats Protection, a feline charity in the U.K. that has been saving the lives of cats for almost a century, says, cats are solitary hunters who can become territorial or aggressive if they live in close proximity to cats from different social groups. You’ll know cats are from the same social group if they share scents. (Watch for mutual grooming or sleeping next to each other.) Cats from different social groups can get cliquey and lash out at each other.
Depending on a cat’s personality, she may not take kindly to new additions to the family. Even cats from the same litter have been known to distinguish themselves as being from different social groups. Introducing a new kitty to an existing group can—and should!—be a longer process to make sure everyone fits well together. Forcing two (or more) cats who don’t get along to live together can cause emotional distress (one cat may not allow another to use the litter box), malnourishment (one may prevent another from eating) and potentially costly vet visits (one may start unfair fights with another).
It’s also important to note many cats hide their unhappiness. Hissing and clawing may be absent, but distrust or fear may permeate your cats’ relationships with each other. Again, with a lot of cats in one household, it’s really hard to keep track of these behaviors—both subtle and not-so-subtle. The fewer the cats, the easier it is to monitor actions and make sure everything is copacetic.
Basically, five cats who get along well and love each other are healthier than two who don’t.
Think resources, not space
OK, if you’re a crazy old cat lady with a huge, empty mansion, then is it OK to have 100 cats? No! Just because you have a ton of space to let your cat pride roam freely doesn’t necessarily mean a healthier lifestyle for the cats. A much better indicator of a healthy environment is strategic resource placement. Resources are things like litter boxes, food dishes, toys, beds and windows. You’ll need plenty of space between food dishes and litter boxes (no one wants to eat where they poop). Cats also need places to hide (especially when acclimating to a new home) and places to perch (they feel safe observing the world from above). It’s also best to give each her own warm, clean bed.
For eliminating, the general rule of thumb is: one litter box per cat, plus one more. Some experts advise at least one litter box on each floor in a multi-story home. So, for Foxy and Jacques, we’ve got three litter boxes in our two-bedroom apartment. These must be cleaned daily; with just two cats, there’s already a lot to scoop and sweep. Urination problems are almost a guarantee with more than a few cats, especially because felines often refuse to use dirty litter boxes.
Cats from different social groups should eat and eliminate in different areas. Depending on how many cats you have and the various social groups that develop within their group, you may need to (literally) cover a lot of ground with their resources.
In 2013, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) classified hoarding as its own unique mental disorder (it had previously been lumped in with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). Within hoarding, animal hoarding is a disorder subtype. Why? Because some people hoard “stuff” (if you’ve ever seen the show Hoarders, you know what we mean by “stuff”) and others hoard animals. Rarely do the two disorders present at the same time (though sometimes animals are hiding amongst the stuff, which is awful). It’s an actual illness that doctoral student Elisa Arrienti Ferreira decided to study as part of her master’s degree thesis at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil.
Ferreira found 88 percent of animal hoarders were unmarried; 64 percent were considered elderly and 73 percent were female. Hmm. So much for crushing that crazy old cat lady trope. However! Interestingly, many of the subjects began hoarding animals after a significant negative life event, like the loss of a job or a child. Caring for an animal (or a lot of them) can easily become someone’s obsession if they’ve lost something important to their identity. The problem is, where there are too many animals in one household, neglect soon follows. If you think you know someone suffering from animal hoarding, or who is on the brink, contact the ASPCA.
The Bottom line:
Personality and resources overrule a specific number any day. If you need to get an extra kitty fix, volunteer at a shelter! Fostering is also a great way to spend time with some more animals in your home, helping them in the process.
And if you’re going to become a crazy old cat lady just to redefine the label (as I will be doing), just be sure you maintain a manageable number of felines and are able to actively monitor each one’s health.