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To Hire a Cat Sitter, or Not to Hire?

Is it really okay to leave your cat alone for the weekend? Longer?

[From Tufts April 2012 Issue]

How guilty should you feel when you leave your cat alone for a few days?

If your cat is healthy, not very, say the veterinarians at Tufts Cummings School. “You can’t be a prisoner in your own home. You can’t never go on holiday,” maintains the head of our Animal Behavior Clinic, Nicholas Dodman, BVMS. Even Dr. Dodman’s own tabby, Griswold, who is deaf but likes to cuddle and comes running to be tickled and petted when he feels the vibration of footsteps, has to make do without housemates when the Dodmans are out of town for a couple of days.

Dr. Dodman would never let his cat, Griswold, spend a 24-hour period without someone coming in to check on him.

Fellow Tufts vet Linda Ross, DVM, agrees that a cat in good health can be left alone sometimes. “Some of my cats do get lonesome,” she says. “And they like to have somebody come and pet them when I’m gone.“ But they manage fine for short periods. “And there’s one,” she says, “who just goes and hides. He doesn’t want visitors because he doesn’t like strange people. The pet sitter has to go around the house and look under the bed.”

Even for cuddly cats who like company, Dr. Ross comments, it’s better to be left at home than to be boarded. “The stress for most cats of driving in the car, going to a boarding environment, and then seeing and smelling other cats is worse than the loneliness they might feel when you’re away.”

There’s also the fact that it generally takes cats several days to acclimate to a new environment, so a healthy cat is definitely better in his familiar environment if you’re only going to be away for two or three days and the cat can eat dry food.

“Cats are territorial animals,” adds Dr. Dodman. “One of their most insistent qualities is territoriality. Leave them in their own environment, and that’s one less stress.”

How to make the time without you more pleasant
Even if you’re going to be away only for a short weekend, Drs. Dodman and Ross agree that while it’s not imperative, it’s better if someone can come check on the cat, especially a cat who eats wet food, which should be put out meal by meal rather than be allowed to sit in large amounts in the bowl for days at a time.

Male cats, in particular, should be checked on, Dr. Ross says. They can develop urethral obstructions, which can prove fatal within a couple of days. It’s best to make sure a male cat is urinating every day.

Ideally, the visit to a cat’s home shouldn’t just be for feeding and emptying the litter box. The pet sitter should spend some quality time with your cat, pulling “bait” on a lure, having the cat sit on his or her lap, and perhaps batting some catnip around.

Environmental enrichment is also critical, says Dr. Dodman. “More than 60 percent of house cats never go out,” he notes, “and for good reason. “They can get run over by a car or eaten by a coyote. But while it’s safest for most cats to stay indoors, from a biological or evolutionary point of view, remaining inside forever is not optimal because they can’t engage in their species’ innate behaviors — hunting for food, mating, and so on.” The antidote, Dr. Dodman says, is to try to approximate the outdoors in your home to some degree so that when you’re away, your absence can be filled in with some instinctive cat behavior.

“Get climbing frames since cats like to go higher,” he advises. “They also like hide-y holes, so leave a couple of large paper grocery bags around or a box or two. In addition, leave out a ball with a hole in it for the cat to retrieve a hidden food treat, Dr. Dodman suggests. You can also put a food treat inside an empty toilet roll and then partially cover the ends with scotch tape so the treat won’t come out until the cat bats the roll hard enough.

If you’re going to be away more than just a few days, perhaps a week or more, Dr. Dodman says it’s best if you can get someone to stay in your house. The person may go off to work, but at least the cat will have several hours with the house sitter each day.

Leaving the unwell cat
When you have a cat with a health problem, leaving your pet overnight gets more complicated, Dr. Ross says. One reason is that when it comes to cats, stress tends to aggravate a medical condition, more than in other species. Compounding the situation is that a cat stressed by your absence may not eat, thereby exacerbating an illness.

A cat with diabetes who needs insulin injections twice a day will also have to have more hands-on attention. If the diabetes is not well-controlled, the cat is going to have to be monitored pretty regularly. It may not be enough just to come in twice a day and inject the medicine. Ditto for a cat with kidney failure who regularly gets fluid injected under the skin or oral medications. If the cat is stable, you might be able to get away with someone coming in to administer the treatments a couple of times daily and spending some time to see how the animal is doing in general. But if the illness is not under control, the cat should not be left alone all night. In such a case, if someone staying at your house is out of the question, it’s best to board your cat at a veterinary facility.

To be sure, while certain illnesses have to be taken very seriously, and require a person around to act as nurse, these are the outlying situations. In most cases, even cats craving company will be okay if left to fend for themselves for a weekend here or there. “Some cats are very mellow,” Dr. Ross says. A couple of days alone may prove to be R&R for them, too.

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