Cats have a reputation for being self-sufficient, especially when compared to their canine counterparts. Little bath time is required, for example, thanks to their overzealous grooming habits. They also don’t need to be taken outside for bathroom breaks multiple times per day.
But make no mistake: Cats are not low-maintenance pets. Find out just how long it's okay to leave your cat alone.
How Long Can Cats Stay Alone?
“I would never describe any pet as low-maintenance if you’re providing good care for them,” says Mikel Delgado, a certified applied animal behaviorist and cat behavior consultant at Feline Minds. “They can use a litter box, but they have physical and emotional needs that need to be met just like any other pet.”
In part because of this misconception, she continues, some pet parents assume it’s OK to leave their cat alone at home for much longer than is advisable — or safe.
“I do not recommend leaving a cat alone without any human contact for longer than 24 hours,” says Delgado, who has worked with cats for more than two decades. “And to be honest, even that, I think, is a bit too long.”
Best Tips For Leaving Cats Alone
Of course, sometimes you can’t avoid being gone for longer than a day. (We all deserve a vacation once in a while!) For those instances, Delgado shares her tips for leaving cats alone to ensure your feline friend is happy and healthy whenever you return.
Routine, Routine, Routine
Whether you’re leaving the house for just a few hours while at work or for longer periods of time, keeping to a routine is your best bet. This means that, on top of making sure your cat has fresh water and plenty of food, feeding should take place around the same time each day.
“There’s been research showing that if you disrupt the routine,” Delgado says, “they can get really stressed out. And when cats are stressed, they show what are called sickness behaviors — things we would associate with an illness.”
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These sickness behaviors may include diarrhea, vomiting, loss of appetite or refusal to use the litter box. If you’re typically welcomed home by these messes, odds are your cat isn’t purposely acting out; he or she may simply be under a lot of stress.
In addition to keeping to a familiar routine, cat owners may also want to try tapping into other forms of familiarity — like your unique smell. “Cats are much more sensitive to scent than we are,” Delgado says.
Consider this your permission to forgo doing that last load of laundry before walking out the door! Leaving out used blankets, dirty clothes and unwashed bed sheets will not only save you time, but may also keep kitty’s anxiety at bay.
Consider a Cat Sitter
For longer stints alone, a pet sitter is the perfect way to make sure your cat isn’t getting into dangerous situations (i.e. eating something they shouldn’t) or injuring themselves. Older cats may need to be checked on more frequently, says Delgado, because their physical needs are greater.
When choosing a sitter, familiarity is the name of the game. If a trusted family member or friend — someone your cat is already familiar with — is willing and available, that’s a great option.
But Delgado says hiring a professional pet sitter, someone who’s part of an organization and comes with insurance, can bring a different sort of peace of mind. She recommends taking the time to introduce them to your cat before you head out of town, and relying on the same person each time, so they can build a relationship.
How frequently a sitter should visit depends on the cat, though Delgado opts for once or twice a day. “Some cats are really needy,” she says, “and would benefit from longer visits where there’s more interactions.”
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Even for cats that are fearful of strangers, it’s often beneficial for the sitter to take care of the cat’s physical needs and then just be a quiet presence. “Maybe read on the couch or watch TV or do things that the owner might do for a short period of time,” Delgado says.
Another thing to consider is how long the owner will be gone for. The emotional needs of your cat might start to ramp up the longer you are gone, for example — despite cats’ stereotypically aloof demeanors.
“If the owner is gone one or two days, and they’re getting their physical needs met in a very short visit from the cat sitter, that may be fine,” Delgado explains. “But if the owner continues to be gone, the cat may become more and more stressed and need more interaction.”
Pet Tech Products
In the gadget-centric world we live in nowadays, you may find yourself tempted to take advantage of the variety of pet tech products that are on the market: Automatic feeders and self-cleaning litter boxes, for example, can definitely make conforming to a routine more manageable.
But Delgado urges pet parents to think about the pros and cons of each.
For one, you should consider how your cat is responding to the tech. A webcam that’s mounted and immobile isn’t intrusive, but a two-way webcam that chases your cat around and allows you to speak through it might be scary or confusing.
“For some pets, it’s going to be very confusing why they can hear your voice but they can’t smell or see you,” Delgado explains. Similarly, some cats are put off by the sounds produced by a self-cleaning litter box.
Even gravity feeders — an elevated food storage container that automatically drops more food into a bowl as it’s depleted — can be dangerous, she continues, because you have no way of knowing how much your cat is eating. When used regularly, gravity feeders can make issues like sickness and obesity easy to overlook.
“My motto is ‘pet tech, not neglect,’” Delgado says. “I’m fine with using technology, but it’s not a replacement for a human coming and checking on your cat.”