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Preventing & Fixing Single Kitten Syndrome

Cats give birth to an average of four kittens per litter. In the wild, even solo kittens without siblings have their mother cat around as they develop through the first few months of life. As kittens grow, they learn appropriate feline manners from other cats. If that doesn’t happen, your kitten might start to display symptoms of single kitten syndrome. Here’s an overview of what single kitten syndrome is, how to fix single kitten syndrome if you’re already observing the symptoms in your kitten, and how to prevent it when raising a kitten.

What is Single Kitten Syndrome?

Single kitten syndrome, also called only kitten syndrome, single cat syndrome or Tarzan cat syndrome, occurs when a kitten up to 4-6 months of age doesn’t get social feedback from siblings. Just like kittens will ideally be socialized to humans during the critical early period, kittens benefit additionally from being around other cats during this time. A single kitten may therefore not learn what behaviors are appropriate or inappropriate. For example, hard biting is not appropriate for play. Wrestling and pouncing with claws retracted is appropriate, but deep scratching is not appropriate. Harassing others while they are eating, drinking, or sleeping is not appropriate. This lack of feedback during a crucial period of development can have lasting effects throughout the cat’s adult life. Fortunately, there are things you can do to prevent and address the symptomatic behaviors.

Single Kitten Syndrome Symptoms

A kitten with single kitten syndrome may display the following behaviors:
  • Frequent whiny meowing & other attention-seeking behaviors
  • Biting and clawing ankles, especially when you start to walk away
  • Suckling on clothing, blankets, and other pets
  • Excessive neediness toward human caregivers
  • Marking territory by missing the litter box
  • Chewing wires and curtains
  • Chewing doors and cabinets
These behaviors can continue into adulthood. The behaviors may decrease, increase, or stay constant as the cat gets older.
Here’s how to prevent single kitten syndrome, and fix the symptoms if they’re already present.

Preventing Single Kitten Syndrome

Pros and Cons of Getting Two Kittens

The best way to prevent single kitten syndrome is to provide a kitten with one or more siblings. Adopting two young cats allows them to learn appropriate manners from each other. As they play, they will communicate the type of biting and scratching that is appropriate and what is too rough. And when the kittens want to wrestle and play rough, they will focus on each other rather than your hands and ankles. This is a case where two truly is easier than one. The only cons of getting two kittens are that there is extra food to buy and extra litter to scoop. But there really is no other downside to getting two young kittens at the same time. Even two kittens from different litters will get along and learn from each other when both are adopted young.

Kitten Play Dates

If you can’t personally adopt another kitten, consider if you have a friend or family member who also has a kitten. You might be able to arrange “play dates” on a regular basis so that the kittens can socialize together. This strategy may also be a possibility if you have friends with adult cats. However, not all adult cats are interested in meeting new kittens or spending time with energetic young animals. Judge the temperament of the older cat before trying this, and don’t force any interaction that might be negative or stressful for either animal. If the older cat is amenable to young company, she will certainly not allow a poorly behaved kitten to get away with too much rough play before correcting the behavior. If you want to adopt a single cat, please consider adopting an adult cat rather than a single kitten. Adult cats make wonderful pets and don’t have the energy output and care requirements of a kitten.

Work Daily with your Kitten to Teach Good Habits

If you are unable to adopt another kitten, work daily with your kitten to teach good habits. The two best ways to teach good habits are to never allow your kitten to see your body as a toy, and to be sure your kitten has outlets to express all instincts and excess energy.

Help your Kitten Feel Safe and Secure

Provide your kitten with quiet, cozy spaces where she can sleep, nap, and relax. By setting up spaces like this nearby, your kitten will be able to feel some of the comfort that she is missing out on by not being able to snuggle with other kittens. A comfy cat bed, a cozy cat house, or a soft blanket can help calm and comfort a solo kitten. Solo kittens are more likely than paired kittens to cry out during the night. A stuffed toy that makes a heartbeat sound can help to comfort your kitten and make her feel less alone.

Humans Are Not Toys

When touching your kitten, always use gentle hands. Never grab or “wrestle” roughly with your kitten – even if it’s fun for both of you! When you do this, your kitten will likely play rough with you – by gently and playfully biting your hand or grabbing you with claws out. While this may be fun and cute now, this behavior will not age well. A full grown cat who “playfully” bites or scratches can draw blood. Even if you’re okay with that behavior, the cat may do it to someone else. And reinforcing a “fight” response in a kitten, even a playful one, can cause an adult cat to be more easily triggered into actually fighting. A loud noise, a tall person with a hat, a suitcase, or someone who moves too quickly could cause an easily-triggered cat to reflexively bite or scratch. For more on kittens and biting, including why kittens bite, please read our article on how to stop a kitten from biting.

Teaching Kittens Appropriate Behavior

What you can do is consistently reinforce that humans are for gentle pets and snuggles. If your kitten learns that people will always approach with a calm, loving, respectful touch, he will be less likely to display the signs of single kitten syndrome now or as an adult. Gently and consistently redirect your kitten’s rough play on your body to an appropriate cat toy. Part of teaching a kitten that hands are gentle is respecting a kitten’s boundaries as much as possible. Don’t scoop up a kitten from above with no warning; instead, make sure the kitten knows you are there and better yet, tell him you’re about to pick him up. Does that sound silly? It might, but cats are very smart and this is an easy way to establish a mutually respectful relationship. This will establish not only how your lifelong companion relates to not only you, but what your kitten expects from all humans she meets. When your kitten doesn’t want to be petted, don’t force it (unless you are socializing a feral kitten, in which case, take it slowly). Unless medication or a care activity needs to be administered, listen to your kitten if he tells you (usually by pulling away or walking off) that he needs some space.

How to Play With Your Solo Kitten

Play interactively with your kitten until he or she is tired out at least 3 times each day. Remember that kitten hood only lasts a few months and that it is important to commit to this process during this critical developmental period.
With intentional caregiving strategies, you can alleviate some of the symptoms of single kitten syndrome in an only kitten.

How to Fix Single Kitten Syndrome

What if your kitten is already displaying markers of the type of bad behavior described above? If your kitten is still under the age of 4-6 months, implement the prevention steps above. If you are consistent, your kitten will quickly relearn her habits and turn her behaviors around. Be sure to play with your kitten several times daily until she is tired. If your cat is an adult, play regularly with him as well. If your older kitten adult cat is being needy as a result of single kitten syndrome, it can be more difficult to adjust her behavior. Cats older than 6 months are past the critical socialization period and have their habits, expectations, and reactions thoroughly cemented in place. However, cats are smart and they can learn. Try this approach to help you & your cat manage the symptoms of only kitten syndrome. When your cat demands your attention, even if you are in the middle of something else, drop everything and give him your full attention for 5 straight minutes. Give him loving pets with both hands. Hand feed him his favorite treat. Carry him around and look out the window with him. Play with his favorite toys with him. After 5 minutes, his cup may be full and he may be ready for a meal, a nap, or a nice window sit. Additionally, you may want to try other strategies to change up your cat’s routine. Exposing him gently to new stimuli, and helping to address anxiety using other strategies can also help your cat to relearn new habits.

Single Kitten Syndrome FAQ

Is it OK to Get Just One Kitten?

It is strongly discouraged to get a solo kitten. Two kittens really are easier than one, because they will play with each other and exert their endless kitten energy together. Two kittens will teach each other manners and appropriate social behaviors. One kitten will be lonely and not have the same opportunity to play and learn. Many shelters won’t adopt out single kittens under 6 months without a kitten companion because the benefits of another kitten are so profound. Plus, it is so fun and joyous to watch two kittens play together. If you strongly prefer to have one cat, consider adopting an older kitten or an adult cat.

Are Single Kittens Lonely?

Yes, single kittens can be lonely, especially if they are left alone for long periods of time such as while you are at work or out running errands. Kittens are young animals and may feel vulnerable or scared without a companion. They are also more likely to get into trouble when left alone without a companion. The best way to prevent loneliness is to adopt kittens in pairs. This is ideal for a kitten developmentally and good for their mental health as the kitten will not be alone for long periods of time.

Is it OK for a Kitten to Sleep in your Bed?

A kitten is small and fragile, and should not sleep in your bed. It is very easy for a kitten to get kicked, squished, or smothered. Try putting a small crate with a cozy blanket near your bed if you want your kitten close by at night. Or, if you have a pair of kittens, they will happily snuggle up together in any safe, kitten-proof space.

Single Kitten Syndrome Summary

If you want to avoid single kitten syndrome, adopt a pair of kittens! Or a sweet and loving adult cat. If you have a kitten displaying single kitten syndrome symptoms, you’ll be able to address them with these strategies. Before you know it, you’ll have a calm, well-behaved cat on your hands (and purring in your lap).
Preventing and addressing single kitten syndrome is done easily by following the steps outlined here.