Reader Question: Can Cats be Hoarders?

Can cats be hoarders? My colleague Alice Moon-Fanelli says anything’s possible!

QUESTION: We have had Heff for a year. He was a humane society cat and the vet said he was about 2 years old so now he would be 3 years old. During the day, he will find pairs of socks or other piece of clothing and bring it into the kitchen area, meowing, a specific meow, while doing the transport. We cannot figure out what triggers this behavior. He appears very well adjusted to indoor life and outdoor cat cage time, he eats well and gets along with my 4 other cats. I can come home to 3-4 pairs of socks on the kitchen floor!!! He also does this behavior when we are home. Do you have any thoughts on his behavior?

 Joanne Priebe

ANSWER: Dear Joanne,
Heff seems well-adjusted so why does he carry your socks and other clothing into the kitchen area? My own spayed female cat loves to retrieve clean folded socks from the laundry basket and deposit them in our upstairs rooms, especially the study. She makes a characteristic guttural vocalization when she’s transporting her “babies”, which is always my clue to interrupt and redirect her behavior to her very own catnip filled socks – my nice angora socks that shrank in the dryer- and put my laundry away! Her behavior looks like a mother cat moving her babies from one nest to another for safety reasons.

This is a tidy explanation, except then why are there numerous reports of castrated male cats engaging in the same behavior?

Adult cats often carry prey home. Perhaps the socks represent a prey substitute – especially if they haven’t seen the laundry recently! Females, especially those with kittens, do carry prey home more frequently than either intact or castrated males but both sexes engage in the behavior to varying degrees. Perhaps cats without kittens bring home “leftover” food that they don’t intend to eat right away as they find themselves in a conflict situation- so much food so little appetite! You mention that Heff makes an unusual vocalization when transporting your socks.

Female cats bring prey to the nest for kittens and emit a guttural “keening” cry of urgency (not alarm) to call the kittens’ attention to the catch. By calling to her young she “ensures” that they will benefit from her success and the catch will not be lost to a nearby unrelated animal. The similar behavior exhibited by spayed or neutered housecats may be an attenuated maternal behavior or (now I am really going out on a limb!) attention seeking behavior stemming from retained kitten experience (look what I’ve brought – always brings the kittens running and always means food). It is interesting that Heff brings your socks to the kitchen. Is this where he is fed? Is he fed meals or ad lib? My TiAmo, who is meal fed, focuses her sock “deposits” in my study, which is where she receives her meals.

Finally some cats have been reported to be collectors or hoarders of various household items, for whatever reason. According to anecdotal reports, these cats usually have a “cache area” where they leave their booty. If Heff’s behavior is problematic for you, you can discourage his sock stealing if you deny access to his most favored items by storing them in cat proof drawers or closets. If he does not have access to his preferred clothing items for a while, the behavior may extinguish.

Heff sounds like quite the character, despite his seemingly eccentric sock fetish – which in fact has a logical ethological explanation. Enjoy and good luck finding matching sock pairs!

Alice Moon-Fanelli PhD,
CAAB Animal Behavior Consultations, LLC
Brooklyn Veterinary Hospital