This then begs the question: When can you leave them alone?
If you’re planning a trip, or just planning on returning to work, there are some definite factors to consider. Experts tell Inverse the answer is probably not as long you might think — but there are ways you can keep your cat safe and emotionally healthy if you need to be away from home for a limited amount of time.
“You should not leave your cat alone for a prolonged period,” Mikel Delgado tells Inverse. Delgado is a cat expert at Feline Minds and a postdoctoral fellow School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of California, Davis.
“Cats also have emotional and social needs that can't be met when they are left alone for extended periods.”
How long can you leave your cat alone?
Delgado recommends not leaving “a cat alone without a person to check in on them for more than 24 hours.”
You might be tempted to leave Mr. Whiskers home alone with a bowl of food and head off for a weekend road trip — but you could be putting your cat’s health in jeopardy.
“Cats may overeat due to stress, knock over their water dish, or get injured — so it's not okay to just leave them with a big bowl of food and keep your fingers crossed,” Delgado says.
Okay, so I’ll use an automatic feeder to keep my cat fed, right? Problem solved?
It’s not that easy says Katherine Pankratz, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist.
“It's not okay to just leave them with a big bowl of food and keep your fingers crossed.”
Pankratz (a cat owner herself) tells Inverse that “automatic feeders sometimes fail or don't work as anticipated,” which has occasionally caused her to reach out in a panic to her friends to check in on her cat.
It’s also important to consider your cat’s emotional well-being, Delgado says. If cats are stressed out due to an owner’s prolonged absence, they may display symptoms of emotional distress, including:
- Lack of appetite
- Not using the litter box
Do cats need a cat sitter?
“You should arrange for a pet sitter to check on your cat at least once a day,” Delgado says. Twice a day, she notes, would be even better.
Pankratz agrees, suggesting a “consistent caretaker that your cat gets along well with.” Ideally, the caretaker would provide meals around the same time you usually feed your cat.
But it may not always be possible to find a consistent sitter who knows your cat. If your cat is sensitive around strangers, you might feel wary about asking an acquaintance to play with them. But it’s okay if the sitter at least takes care of the pet’s basic needs like feeding and making sure the litter box is clean, Delgado stresses.
“They can sit and read, talk gently to your cat, or just be a ‘typical human presence’ by sitting on the couch, watching TV, or checking their phone,” Delgado says.
Essentially, she recommends letting the sitter interact with your feline on the cat’s terms. Some cats may even prefer a sitter that sleeps in the home overnight, but that varies depending on the feline.
How can you make your cat less lonely?
The best way to keep your pet from feeling lonely is to have someone spend time with them, Delgado says.
But there are other ways you provide your cat enriching activities to make them feel comfortable while you’re gone. Delgado recommends a combination of the following options:
- Food puzzles
- Safe solo toys
- Music or videos specifically for cats
“Those aren't a replacement for a pet sitter, but your pet sitter can help set up and rotate enrichment for your cat,” Delgado says.
Pankratz also suggests leaning providing “comforting smells” to keep your cat company. She recommends not cleaning linens such as couch covers, cat beds, or bedding to retain your scent while you are away.
What should you do before leaving your cat alone?
Once again: You shouldn’t leave your home alone for a prolonged period if you can help it. A caretaker who can check on your cat daily is ideal.
Delgado and Pankratz both suggest setting up a webcam or some kind of video surveillance to keep a remote eye on your cat while away.
Check the webcam to make sure your cat is eating properly, using the litter box, and generally don’t seem too stressed out. If you have a cat sitter, you’ll also need to let them know they’re being recorded, Delgado adds. She also recommends using a timer that can automatically turn lights on and off as needed.
With extreme weather events becoming more common as a result of the climate crisis, pet owners need to keep in mind the impact of quickly fluctuating temperatures on their cats — especially when they cannot be there to check on them.
Earlier this year, Oregon saw an overwhelming number of heat-related illnesses in pets as record-breaking summer temperatures hit the state. (Related: Dogs can be especially vulnerable to heat — check out our guide on how to keep pups cool in hot weather).
“It could be safer to regulate the environmental temperature to prevent any drastic change while you are away, like freezing temperatures or extreme heat,” Pankratz says.
Cats are more comfortable in warmer temperatures than humans — but before you heat up the thermostat as you head out the door, Pankratz says it may be better to stick to a consistent temperature that’s appropriate for both your comfort and your cat’s. Whatever temperature you would keep the thermostat on while you’re at home is probably okay for your cat too.
But Pankratz also advises recommends providing “warm resting spots” like cat beds and blankets in case your kitty starts getting chilly.
Ultimately, when you got a pet you signed up to take care of them — but if you follow these tips, you can keep your feline in good health while you’re away from home.