Cats are often very independent. They don’t need help using the litter box, they keep themselves active indoors, and some can even self-regulate their food intake. Perhaps, because of this, they are seen as less needy and more able to be on their own, away from their humans.
Unfortunately, this leads to many cat parents thinking that their cats don’t care when they leave for days on end or even work long hours. But, just like dogs, cats depend on their humans for companionship.
If you’re considering leaving your cat alone a lot and are afraid your cat will be lonely if you do, consider the following:
FACT: Cats bond strongly to their people and animal companions.
While many pop-culture depictions of cats show them as aloof or unattached to their humans, research shows otherwise. A 2019 study discussed in Science Daily found that cats attach to their people more than previously thought.
The experiment briefly separated cats from their caregivers, and the reunion was documented and classified by attachment style. The results showed that while every cat may have a different attachment style, the majority of cats look to their caregivers as a source of security, especially when in an unfamiliar environment. The study suggests that “about 65 percent of both cats and kittens are securely bonded to their people,” meaning 65 percent displayed calmer, more relaxed behavior in a new environment when their person was present.
Cats also have the ability to mourn a loss and experience grief. A 1996 study called the Companion Animal Mourning Project found that 70 percent of cats who lost a companion cat showed signs of grieving by becoming more or less vocal than normal. Many surviving cats also became more affectionate towards their pet parents, another sign that they were in mourning.
Stories like this counter the myth that cats barely realize when their humans leave. Vets even recognize separation anxiety as a condition in cats.
FACT: When left to their own devices, cats sometimes live in social family groups.
While most species of cats are solitary (lions being the only exception), feral domestic cats will sometimes be found living in groups when there is enough food, water and shelter to go around. The groups are usually formed of large families of inter-related cats.
How long can I leave my cat alone?
Now we know – cats enjoy your company! They may also enjoy the company of other cats. Concerned cat parents who understand this often ask me how long their cats are ok to be left without company. However, there’s no hard and fast answer for every cat.
Cats, social or not, thrive on their routines. They like their day to be predictable. When planning to be away, it’s important to figure out the best way to keep your cat as close to their routine as possible. Of course, you can’t always be there to execute the routine perfectly, so consider finding a sitter or friend who would be willing to keep your cat company if you’re working late or leaving on vacation. Pet sitters can offer one-on-one attention and usually have flexible schedules in order to accommodate specific routines.
If you or your sitter notice signs of separation anxiety in your cat, your cat may need some additional enrichment and company until you’re able to return.
Would a boarding facility for my cat be better?
The vast majority of cats find boarding facilities stressful They are environments that smell like other animals and are new to your cat, making them quite scary places. As we’ve seen, if you’re not there to comfort your cat they’ll likely find it harder to cope.
On the flip side, if your cat requires very specific medical attention, boarding may be a valid option for you to help ensure your cat gets the medical care they need while you’re away. Many veterinary offices offer boarding, so having the peace of mind of a doctor’s watchful eye could be wise.
If you do board your cat, bring along some items from home to make the transition easier—a blanket they love to sleep on, some socks you wore, or their favorite toys. These can help give your cat a sense of home. Smell is really important to cats, so don’t worry too much about washing the items—they scent will help cats to feel calm.
Should I get a second cat if I am away a lot?
There is no cookie-cutter answer to this. Getting a second cat can work wonders for some lonely felines, while it can create havoc and increase stress for others. Many, many medical disorders in cats are caused by the stress of having extra cats in the home. If your cat is one that might be accepting of a new feline friend, there are potential benefits to adding one. A pair of cats can stimulate each other’s brains through socialization and play, which can lead to less destructive behaviors. They could also help each other de-stress through mutual grooming and exercise.
But how do you know if it’s a good idea for your cat? If you can, discover how your cat has reacted to cats in the past. If your cat’s history involves hissing, hiding from other cats, or showing a general disdain for other felines, they may prefer to remain in a human-only home.
If your cat has lived with other cats before, they may be more likely to accept a new companion. But decoding whether they just tolerated the other cat or actually got along is tricky. Grooming one another is the most reliable indicator of a cat ‘friendship’—unfortunately sharing beds, food bowls and laps may simply be a truce rather than friendship!
It’s important to keep in mind that adding a second cat to your home does NOT eliminate the possibility of separation anxiety. While there is a chance it could help, it’s not wise to assume separation anxiety will disappear with the addition of another cat to your household.
And there are risks to adding a cat, even if your cat seems to superficially get on with other cats. Once in a confined space, cats may react differently, or even find themselves being bullied by the other cat, causing signs of stress like urinating outside the box, scratching the furniture and hiding away.
How can I help my cat be less anxious when they are alone?
There are things you can leave behind to help keep your cat entertained and calm while you’re away. Consider adding:
- Puzzle feeders that make your cat “work” for treats
- A cat tree or perch where your cat can enjoy a view
- A few of your cat’s favorite toys that are safe to play with alone
- A cozy bed in a sunny window
- A paper bag or box to jump in (with any strings removed)
- A toy rotation, where old cat toys get marinated in catnip and then brought back out as “new”
- Cat tunnels or shelves where they can enjoy a different perspective
- Anything else that can help make the day fun for your feline
Some cats may need a little extra help to calm their anxiety. If this is the case, try using a calming pheromone plug-in to help your cat. Some cats are also soothed by leaving the television on a low volume because it makes the environment feel more like it would if you were at home.
It’s important to remember that cats are complex creatures and categorizing them as indifferent towards their humans is untrue. Cats do bond with their pet parents and therefore miss them when they’re away. Knowing this about your cat will help you to take the proper steps to alleviate their anxiety and keep you both purr-fectly happy in the long run.