Few statistics and studies have been conducted on the subject of bonded pairs in cats and the phenomenon is only recently gaining attention in veterinary circles.
What is a bonded pair? How do I know if my cats are a bonded pair? To find answers and dive deeper into the subject, we interviewed Amy G., a former veterinary technician who volunteers at Wild Blue Rescue. She has extensive experience as a foster parent, caring for hundreds of cats over several years. Amy has observed the behaviors, needs, and kitty adventures of bonded pairs that she took in.
How do you know if two cats are in a bonded pair relationship? In your experience, does it usually happen at a specific age or from a specific circumstance?
While many people think cats are aloof loner animals, they do form strong bonds. If you spend any time at all with feral colonies or homes with multiple cats, you will see these proximity or family bonds. Truly bonded pairs are different from bonds of proximity. Bonded pairs exhibit things like calling for each other when they are apart, showing signs of depression (not eating, sleeping, not playing) when apart, eating together, sleeping together, cleaning each other, and spending most of their time and energy together.
Pair bonding can happen at any time between any two cats–the pairs I've cared for have formed between littermates, mating pairs, and kittens who are brought together at a young age.
Why is it important to keep cats in a bonded pair together?
Bonded pairs of cats need to stay together for the health and mental well being of each other. Where social-bonded cats can be separated with no ill effects on the other cats or the cat leaving the clutter, bonded pairs do suffer ill effects when separated for any length of time from their partners. These bonds are so strong in a bonded pair that when one of the cats dies, the other may quickly waste away without help from people. If the cats stop eating they can develop a deadly liver condition which is very difficult to heal from and causes death in many cases. Depression is not helped until the cats come back together.
Are there any challenges that come with caring for a bonded pair?
Day to day life with a bonded pair tends to be like life with any other set of cats. The challenge comes in when one of the cats becomes ill, or the cats need to be separated for any reason, including going for a vet visit. When the cats can't see or hear each other they can get distressed.
Have you ever cared for a bonded pair that includes one or both cats having a medical condition or disability? Does that have any effect on the bonded pair relationship/functioning?
Yes, our current fosters Taus and Gravity formed an unusual bonded pair. Taus came to us from Texas unable to use his back legs, at first we thought it was swimmers legs, a common condition, but was later found to be a birth defect in his spine. Gravity was a feral kitten taken in during a TNR [trap, neuter, release] project and she wasn't responsive to socializing for a long time. Gravity came to us with her sister and Taus came to us with three other kittens of unknown origin. As the other social and healthy kittens were adopted out, we noted that Taus' laid back personality was having a great impact on the feral-ness of Gravity, so we started housing them together. They quickly formed a social bond and Gravity started to be calmer the more time she spent with Taus.
Over the coming weeks we started noticing strong bonding behavior between Taus and Gravity. Taus had to sleep in a large crate at night due to his incontinence from his rear paralysis and Gravity started jumping up into the crate and waiting for Taus to get his diaper off and cleaned up before she would start eating. She started to wait for him to get his diaper on before she'd run off to play, and her play quickly modified her behavior to meet his abilities (she plays soft with Taus where she would tackle her sister and wrestle hard).
Over time we started to see the hallmarks of a bonded pair of cats, including not eating at all unless they were together, rubbing heads all the time, grooming together, modified play, crying out for each other when apart, and sleeping together. Gravity will run into the crate at night and get all excited while Taus gets "ready for bed," then she'll rub her head on him and clean him when he gets in the crate to settle for the night. We could place canned cat food in their crate, put Gravity in, take Taus for a bath and when we brought Taus back, Gravity would be sitting there with food untouched until Taus was next to her then they would both eat together. Now they are more strongly bonded than ever and are looking for a forever home!
What are some of the greatest joys of working with a bonded pair?
I enjoy watching the way the bonded pair plays together because it's different to normal cat play. It's like they anticipate the other’s moves and it really makes watching their play amusing and surprising. Knowing they will always be happy when you are out is also a comfort–they are never alone when you aren't there.
Is there a specific memory of a bonded pair you would like to share?
Smokey and Pretty Girl were a bonded mating pair that came to us in a story of two halves. Pretty Girl was a friendly feral who had kittens. The property owner asked Wild Blue Cats to take her in and find her and her kittens' homes. She was a doting mother but was always sad and would call (we thought for her kittens) at all times. A few weeks passed and the property owner called us again telling us that Smokey had stopped eating and was kind of wasting away, so we agreed to take him in as well and try and bring him around.
Pretty Girl was in the bathroom at one end of our house and we housed Smokey in the bathroom at the other, not realizing we were dealing with a bonded pair. Once they heard the other meow, they both started calling. Having experience with bonded pairs, I brought Pretty Girl into where Smokey was, by this point both had been spayed and neutered, and they immediately changed in stance and their eyes even looked brighter. They started grooming and rubbing up against each other, I put food down and both ate like they hadn't eaten in weeks (which was pretty much what had happened). We brought the kittens into where Smokey was and he started to parent them in tandem with Pretty Girl. He was even more doting than she was and would groom the kittens and sleep with them, giving her a much needed break. The pair also took in a kitten who had been thrown from a car on a busy highway and nursed her back to health. They had a happy adoption story, going together to live with a family where they could be together always.
Do you have any advice for cat parents who have recently adopted bonded pairs or who are considering adopting bonded pairs?
Have a plan in place for illness or death of one of the cats. Preparing for the circumstance will help when that time in life comes. Plan to take them to vet appointments together, even if only one of them needs to be seen. Have a big enough food dish that they can eat off the same plate, because they will. Make sure beds and toys are built for two because they will just sleep on top of each other if the bed is too small. Finally, enjoy the incredible bond your kitties have–it's rare and beautiful.
What makes Wild Blue Cats an especially good organization for the happiness of bonded pairs?
Wild Blue Cats works very hard to recognize true Bonded Pair kitties and we won't separate them for the sake of adoption. We work with the pair's best interests in mind making sure they find a home that understands the unique bond the two have. Over the years we have adopted out bonded pairs such as Smokey and Pretty Girl, but there have been others who were both severely disabled and homes were found who understood their challenges and the bond between the two cats. Bonded pairs are few and far between, but Wild Blue Cats understands and respects the needs of a true bonded pair.
Armarkat is proud to support our nonprofit partners. You can learn more about Wild Blue Rescue at www.wbcats.org.
Quote of the day: “One cat just leads to another.” – Ernest Hemingway