Cricket and Tucker came to Northeast Abyssinian and Somali Rescue (NEAR) as a set. The 7-year-old littermates were extremely bonded, and co-director Kristen Wookey wanted very much to keep them together.
But the siblings were also special needs cats: Cricket had cancer, and Tucker was diabetic. So placing them together was going to be a much trickier proposition.
Eventually, another NEAR member offered to take the female blue Aby mix, giving her “a loving home and a chance for treatment,” Wookey says. As their foster mom, she “had a very hard time” the day that Cricket left for her new home. “In retrospect,” she says, “I may have had a harder time than either cat.”
The bond between feline siblings is a wonderful thing to watch. I have had several sets of littermates over the years, and the affection between them was almost tangible.
Together Is Better
This much is true: If you’re going to bring a kitten into your life, you’re better off adopting 2. They’ll keep each other company, and if they’re feral, they’ll help one another tame down.
Our first set of littermates, Cricket (a different cat from the one mentioned above) and Kilah, came to us from my uncle’s dairy barn and wanted nothing to do with us. After 3 hours, we caught both of them. We knew that if we didn’t get the second kitten, it was going to take forever to socialize Kilah. As it turned out, Cricket, the runt, caved first, and Kilah, seeing her sister getting attention and treats, surrendered afterward.
Kittens “learn by observation,” cat behaviorist Pam Johnson-Bennett points out. They help each other get the lay of their new home — since Mom isn’t there, they have to figure it out on their own. “This applies to everything from using the litter box to what objects are safe to land on and what ones aren’t. A more inquisitive kitten may help a more reluctant kitten to blossom.”
John Bradshaw at the University of Bristol seconds this idea: “Littermates that are homed together usually form a stronger bond with one another than two unrelated cats.” He describes a study that he and Suzanne L. Hall did of cats in boarding catteries back in 1998: it involved “fourteen pairs of littermates that had lived together since birth with eleven pairs of unrelated individuals that had not met each other until at least one of the pair was more than a year old.”
Bradshaw and Hall discovered the following:
- All of the littermates slept together despite the heat. Only a few of the unrelated pairs did this, “and even those only occasionally.”
- Littermates were apt to groom each other. The unrelated felines did not.
- Most of the littermates were fine with eating next to each other. The non-littermates had to be fed separately.
Love and Friendship, Kitten-Style
We talk a lot about the human–feline bond. It’s important, but so is the feline-to-feline bond. Cats who have these bonds tend to be better adjusted and live longer.
It starts early. Bonding is critical to a kitten’s development, according to Dr. Nicholas Dodman, BVMS, MRCVS. A kitten with an attentive mother grows up confident and secure — he will be a smarter, more balanced kitten, “one that can make its own way in the world.”
Somewhere between 3 and 6 weeks of age, kittens begin focusing less on Mom and more on each other. They begin wrestling and running races together. They sleep together and even go to the litter box together (sometimes they even fall asleep in the litter box together).
In a very real sense, the kittens begin to form their own pride.
This is what I’m seeing with the litter I’m currently working with, where 2 of the kittens have just gone to their forever homes. The 3 left behind were slightly confused at first. Then they regrouped, forming a more tightly knit pride. They now follow each other pretty closely. And if one goes off on his own, he soon scurries back to the others.
That’s why it’s so satisfying to see 2 kittens go to a new home together. They provide each other with company and comfort.
Those of us who work with cats know that they’re far more sociable than they’re given credit for.
“The common stereotype of the cat as an anti-social loner is far from universally true, and in fact, cats generally prefer companionship to solitude,” says the Tree House Humane Society. “Strong emotional bonds are often formed between litter mates and cats that have relied upon each other in the wild.”
These friendships can also form, as human friendships do, from sheer happenstance. It’s possible that 2 completely unrelated cats can come together and become so tightly bonded that your inner mush can’t help cheering.
Phoebe, our fluffy stray, bonded with Circe, our blue Abyssinian kitten, within days of coming here as a foster. I didn’t have the heart to separate them, and their friendship lasted till the end of Circe’s life.
These relationships will sometimes fluctuate, as human relationships do, but they generally remain strong.
A Package Deal
Johnson-Bennett considers the littermate bond to be critical, especially in a rescue situation.
The kittens have often lost their moms and “are even too young to be away from their littermates…. If you adopt a pair, the socialization can continue and they can create security and comfort for each other.”
People involved in cat rescue work hard to keep bonded pairs together. There’s this strong sense that the cats have already lost enough — their caretakers, their homes and everything that was familiar to them — without having to lose their best buddies, too.
And if the cats bonded as strays or at a shelter, then it feels as though they really do need each other to survive.
That’s not anthropomorphizing them — that’s fact.
“Simply put, 2 cats that will be incomplete without each other are a bonded pair,” says Daniel Quagliozzi of the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. “In some cases, they are un-adoptable on their own. The pain of being on their own makes their behavior regress, and their life condition take a turn for the worse. Illness, depression and a lack of socialization will soon take over, leaving no inkling of the cats they once were together.”
Sadly, not all rescue groups and shelters have the resources to do this. “Bonded cats are a blessing and joy to foster but frequently difficult and heartbreaking to place,” Wookey remarks.
In Cricket and Tucker’s case, the special needs factor was a big one. The dilemma, as Wookey says, then becomes, “Do we deny both cats a home, or do we break them up so they can be placed in a loving home?”
It’s not exactly Sophie’s Choice, but it’s painful nonetheless and one that cat rescue people must face time and again.