How Many Cats Fit in Any Given Home? We Ask 2 Experts

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My husband and I live in a one-bedroom, 800-square-foot apartment in New York City. We have two cats, and though I fantasize about filling my pockets with kittens and making a break for it every time I pass an adoption fair, we probably won’t bring a third cat into the household. Do I worry about multiplying litter boxes? Or complicating my guys’ pair bond? Or what a newcomer would add to the diameter of cat-hair tumbleweeds in our space?

The truth is simpler (and perhaps creepier) than that: I maintain a strict 1:1 cat-to-lap ratio because I don’t want our pets to feel neglected. It’s a rule that makes little sense — our cats are just as likely to pile together on top of me or my husband as they are to seek attention from us separately — but it’s a rule I’ve continued to follow.

Pile of kittens!
Small kittens resting outdoors by Shutterstock.

There’s no science in that, of course, and I can’t guarantee that I’ll never be seized by the need to bring another cat home. So how do you know how many cats your household can handle? I considered what the Internet had to say — which, as with most subjects, was in turns helpful, entertaining, and kind of frightening — and then got professional advice from Dr. Jeannine Berger (a vet and behavior specialist at the San Francisco SPCA) and Pam Johnson-Bennett (an author and cat expert). Here’s where we ended up.

Cat sleeping in file box.
Red cat sleeping on a pile of papers by Shutterstock.

Rule No. 1: There is no “rule”

Some people swear up and down that you should never have more cats than bedrooms; others argue that all will be well if you have more litter boxes than kitties, or if you have at least 200 square feet of space per cat. Magical formulas are attractive, but they aren’t very useful.

“Determining how many cats you have should be based on your ability to provide [for] the emotional, physical, nutritional, and medical needs of each cat, and whether each cat has quality space, safe retreats, [and the ability to] move about without feeling threatened,” Johnson-Bennett says. “I’ve done consultations in 3,000-square-foot homes where two cats couldn’t coexist peacefully.”

I’ve seen situations like that, too; friends of mine in Chicago have divided their home with a baby gate for years because of their two cats’ extremely irreconcilable differences.

Berger concurs: “So much depends on the individual cats — their age, energy level, history together, and so on.”

Kittens in catbox.
Little kittens sitting in litter box by Shutterstock.

“N+1” is a pretty good litter box guideline

“We generally recommend that you have one more [litter box] than the total number of cats,” Berger told me (and Johnson-Bennett agrees). “This is especially important if there are cats in the house that don’t get along, or are shy, or have any kind of medical problems.”

Sometimes cats will “cope” with sharing litter boxes, she said, but that doesn’t mean they prefer it that way. That was hard for me to hear, because we’ve always had just one box for our two cats (whoops).

“I know in small apartments that can be challenging,” Johnson-Bennett says, “but even having boxes that are a few feet apart can ease multi-cat tension.”

Box size is also important, she says. Some people who live in small apartments buy litter boxes to match the size of the living space that are too small for the size of the cat. She says no matter how small the apartment, litter boxes must be matched to the size of the cat.

Berger explains that keeping them clean is crucial: “What matters most is that the litter box(es) are kept clean — even cleaning after each elimination if it’s a shared box — because the most common reason for inappropriate urination issues in indoor cats is because the box is too dirty for their liking.”

That we can certainly do.

Cats in a cat tree.
A Ragdoll and a Maine Coon make a sleepy cat pile by Shutterstock.

Vertical space is crucial

Many people argue that a home’s footprint is less important than the ways in which a cat or cats can maneuver in it — specifically, the ways in which they can go up.

“What matters most to a cat is the quality of the space,” Johnson-Bennett says. “Cats live in a vertical world, and we live in a horizontal world. In a small space, think up by using cat shelves, walkways, cat trees, and window perches. You’d be surprised how much space you can make use of even in the tiniest of living quarters.”

For inspiration, Berger recommends looking at The Cats’ House, Bob Walker’s feline paradise in San Diego. It has remarkable amounts of vertical territory for cats.

Kittens in a window.
Two cats watching outside by the window by Shutterstock.

Three words: Windows, windows, windows

If you’re hunting for a home that’ll satisfy you and your furry pals, one architectural feature is especially high-value. My two experts described windows in almost exactly the same way: They operate as “cat TV,” and they’re enormously important in offering your cats quality space.

“If you put a cat tree or a window perch in front of the window,” Johnson-Bennett says, “it increases the value: Now your cat has a place of his own to nap in the sun.”

When you’re dealing with more than one feline, that cat tree should have a lot of branches.

“In a multi-cat environment,” she says, “even if that environment is very small, the use of a multi-perched cat tree can encourage cats to share a space without disrupting any status issues between them.”

Grey cat playing with mouse.
Cat playing with a plush mouse by Shutterstock.

Pudgy cats aren’t cramped, they’re overfed or bored

Some people on message boards (sorry, Internet, but I’m calling you out on this one) argue that you know your cats don’t have enough room if they gain weight. To put it bluntly, those people are wrong.

“Weight gain — unless there’s a medical reason for it — is due to calorie input vs. energy input,” Johnson-Bennett says.

Cats can’t feed themselves, and it’s our responsibility as their caretakers to give them an appropriate amount of food — and to make sure there’s plenty for them to do.

“You can provide exercise for your cat, even in a small space; your cat doesn’t need to run 20 miles a day to stay in shape,” Johnson-Bennett says.

She advises considering the way cats hunt in the wild — it’s all about stalking and pouncing. You can conduct interactive play sessions in a small space, and your cat can get beneficial exercise in a way that provides fun and satisfaction.

“Just as cats need quality space, they need quality time — yours,” she says.

How many cats do you have? Do you have a formula for how many your living space will accommodate? Tell us in the comments.

Read more by Lauren Oster.

About the author: Lauren Oster is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She and her husband share an apartment on the Lower East Side with Steve and Matty, two Siamese-ish cats. She doesn’t leave home without a book or two, a handful of plastic animals, Icelandic licorice mints, and her camera. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram.

6 thoughts on “How Many Cats Fit in Any Given Home? We Ask 2 Experts”

  1. We rescued a little -2 month old female kitten and decided not to neuter her. We never neutered cats, in Mexico at least, so I had the impression that female cats should have at least one litter, and mine finally, at 2 years old got pregnant and three monts ago she had a three cat litter and they are lovely ones, get along well and decided to keep them all, so now we have 4 cats and are very happy with them. Ours is a two bedroom home with a large living room and a nice garden with trees. Our female queen is free to go out since she was 1.5 year old and loves to roam around the neighborhood, which consists of not many houses with large backyards. Very few cats, some dogs and our cat knows very well where is safe to go and always get back home many times a day and always spend the night at home. By the way, there is no way to fence the backyard thightly enough to prevent cats from going in and out. The little three ones are now exploring our backyard, not allowed to roam free outside of it and they are always under our watch. They love to play and jumping into the tree. We think 4 cats is maybe too much, we think 3 is perfect, but we decided to keep the 4 cats and cannot imagine to give one away. We will neuter the mom soon and the little ones ASAP.

  2. I have 3 cats, mom and her 2 boys, 6 years old. I said I would never have more cats, but a pregnant stray was released by our field, and it was 3 months out for spaying because of covid. I decided to foster them after they were born April 10th, in our large master bath with the mother. They are now 10 weeks old. I was able to place 2 of them together to a good home, but unsuccessful so far with the mom and three others. The shelters are full and appointments are far out for surrendering them.
    So I'm having them all get physical exams, shots, and spaying, all girls, footing the bill. My husband and I emptied one of our unused large bedrooms with 2 windows and ledges out. We then have created a cat apartment with large tall cat towers, a futon, a soft chair, different levels of beds and 3 cat litter boxes with privacy walls like in an office where they have cubicles. We are building some cat trees. They have lots of toys and the siblings will be able to stay together and I love the mother, she is so gentle and beautiful I can't understand how cruel people are to boot them out in the middle of winter even. We are retired and have lots of time to spend in the room reading, visiting them, playing with them all as well as with our older 3 cats.
    I feel they have a better life with us than in a full shelter in cages scared to death, afraid, and separated. Yes, I will have 7 cats. I'm a clean freak also, they will never be dirty and if something happens to us, my daughters have promised to look after them, split the two family's between them. At least I can sleep at night knowing they are safe and being loved and cared for, spoiled, and who really knows what happens to surrendered kittens. They can fill all the paper work out and promise to keep them indoors and all, but who really knows what they do when they walk out that door. I came to love these kittens and their moms, I know they are safe with us.

  3. I currently have five indoor only unrelated neutered male cats ranging in age from 5 years to 13 years in my 1800 square foot rancher and they all get along wonderfully. My new rule of thumb is that if you need more than one hand to count the number of cats you have, you probably have too many. I had six cats for awhile as I was fostering a couple of seniors but I was feeling overextended. I have six large litter boxes- three in one of the bathrooms and the other three in the hobby room off the screened-in catio that I clean constantly. I have six large sturdy cat trees positioned near windows throughout the house and a multitude of toys. All my windows are large and have wide sills to accommodate the fattest cat. Their 12×9 catio has floor to ceiling screening that faces the backyard that contains bird feeders and bird baths so it is better than a video for them to watch all the birds and squirrels. I put out handfuls of peanuts just out the door so the cats get a true front row seat to watch the stellar’s jays swoop in and out and the squirrels running back and forth. Many people say that they want to come back as one of my cats when they die.

    1. I’m impressed at the detail you put in to your cats interest. As a cat mom of 3 I also go out of my way to enrich the lives of my cats, they deserve the best. I think , personally, the amount of cats you own should be judged how much you like or dislike cleaning. I’m kinda of a clean freak so the constant cleaning doesn’t get to me, however if you do not like it then less is better. Cats deserve clean boxes and homes!

  4. Pingback: Avoiding Feline Fury: A One-Room Guide to a Happy Indoor Cat | Traveling With Your Cat

  5. Pingback: 12 Ways to Know You're A Crazy Cat Person | Home & Lifestyle – Geniusbeauty

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