By Elizabeth Xu
Chances are your cat likes to stay to him or herself most of the time, so you might think they don’t even notice your absence each day after you head to work. Actually, you’d be surprised at how much they do notice.
If you’re a cat person, it might appear pretty easy to set things up for your cat while you’re away, and in general, for a lot of cats, it is pretty easy. However, there are special considerations to keep in mind if you leave your cat every day to go to work or school, or plan to head out of town for a few days. Sure, your cat is pretty self-sufficient in most ways, but that cat litter box won’t clean itself.
Here are nine things you need to know before you leave your cat alone during the day, with a pet sitter or at a boarding facility.
If you don’t like the idea of leaving your cat completely alone while you’re away for an extended time, you’ve no doubt considered taking them to a boarding facility that specializes in cat care. After all, that way you’ll have someone to watch over and feed your cat, and your cat will have someone to interact with, too. Turns out that actually might not be the best move for your cat.
“Cats are territorial and it’s typically much more stressful for them to be placed in an unfamiliar environment, especially if that environment contains the sight, scent, and sounds of other animals,” says Pam Johnson-Bennett, cat behavior consultant and owner of Cat Behavior Associates, LLC. “When cats are placed in a boarding facility, they get the double whammy of not having the cat parents around as well as losing their territory.”
No matter how long you’ll be gone, cats need a clean litterbox, says Kelly Meister-Yetter, animal advocate, blogger, and author of Crazy Critter Lady. If the litter box has not been cleaned, you won’t like the results.
“They will often go just outside the box to let you know that it needs cleaned, or they'll find some out-of-the-way place in the house to use,” says Meister-Yetter, noting that sometimes cats will go outside of their litter box when they’re feeling unwell, too. Before you get frustrated, it’s a good idea to look into all of the possibilities, especially if your feline’s usually good about using the litter box. Unless the cause your cat’s “accidents” is obvious, make an appointment for a health evaluation with your veterinarian.
People think cats can be left alone because they sleep so much and tend to be independent, but Johnson-Bennett says they need interaction and enrichment, too. This will help your cat to alleviate any boredom issues, and the behavior problems that can develop as a result.
“Create a little fun for the cat before you go off to work,” she says. “There are so many simple ways to create activity and entertainment for a home-alone kitty. Puzzle feeders, a cat tree, cat perch, open paper bags, interesting and safe cat toys, and even a cozy bed near a sunny window can make a difference to a cat who spends the day alone.”
You enjoy spending time with your cat, whether you’re playing or just cuddling up on the couch. But sometimes you have no choice but to leave your cat alone—especially if you work outside of your home. Even if your cat is used to you leaving daily, they can get lonely and you should know the signs that there might be a problem.
“Because cats appear very stoic, it can be easy to miss signs indicating that all is not happy in kitty’s world,” Johnson-Bennett says. “Changes in behavior, appetite, litter box habits, or grooming could be signs that a cat is having trouble with too much time spent alone.”
If you discover that your cat doesn’t do well when you leave even for short periods, there are things that can help their anxiety. Meister-Yetter suggests using a pheromone plug-in, which uses artificial pheromones to help your cat to stay calm. She says that having some background noise, such as a TV, might help with anxiety, too.
Even if your cat isn’t the most loving creature, rest assured that he or she will eventually realize you’re not home. You are the source of their food, after all.
“My own cats’ reactions to me going on vacation range from glad to see me again to, ‘Oh, were you gone? I hadn't noticed!’ to ‘Who are you and where have you been?’” says Meister-Yetter, who has four cats.
Sometimes lonely cats just need a friend—a feline friend, that is. If you leave your cat alone every day, consider whether you have the time and energy to give to your cat. If the answer is in the negatives and your cat clearly needs more interaction, another cat can fill that need.
“Many cats who spend time alone may actually benefit from having a feline companion,” Johnson-Bennett says. But never get another cat solely for the benefit of your current one. You must be fully committed to your new pet and to working through any issues that might develop between your pets.
A pet sitter or friend should always be called if you’re going to leave your pet for a long period of time, Johnson-Bennett says. Cats should never be left for more than 24 hours without having someone check on their well-being. In addition to helping with unexpected illness or injury, the caregiver will help keep your cat on a routine, which is important because “cats are creatures of habit,” she says.
“It will be less stressful for the cat if a normal routine is maintained in terms of having the litter box scooped regularly, food served at the normal times, and some degree of normal activity in the home,” Johnson-Bennett says.
Meister-Yetter agrees, and regularly employs a professional cat sitter. “The sitter should check the food and water bowls and refill accordingly. The sitter should also administer any medications, scoop out the litter box, and spend a good 15 to 30 minutes either interacting with the cat or simply being present in the home.”
You’d never leave your cat without food and water, of course, but when they get that food is very important. Because cats like routine, Johnson-Bennett says that any friend or pet sitter should visit your cat at least as often as the times you give your cat meals.
“If the cat is normally fed on a schedule, you would want to keep as close to that schedule as possible to reduce stress,” Johnson-Bennett said.