The rule of thumb for how long you can safely leave a cat home alone is 24 hours. Stephanie Borns-Weil, DVM, head of the Tufts Animal Behavior Clinic, does not like that rule at all.
“I would never leave a cat alone for 24 hours,” she says. “It’s not a good idea.”
It’s not just that a cat may have medical issues that require more frequent looking after, or that your cat may be too young or too old to remain alone for so long. It’s also that “cats who are family companions will feel the loss during your time away,” Dr. Borns-Weil says. “Cats cope with whatever their environment is, but it’s not optimal to have no dedicated play and social time” within even just one 24-hour period.
True, there are people who come home from an entire weekend away to a cat who greets them with a nonchalant yawn. But there is an increasing understanding today about the social needs of even seemingly aloof cats. They may be just as bonded as those that show more affection. Though they may respond to your return home casually, that is not a measure of how connected to you they feel.
“Think about how cats interact,” Dr. Borns-Weil says. “They want for you to play a bit, and then they go sit on the window seat.” That does not mean they do not want you around.
In fact, the anxiety of being left without the familiar comfort of their caretakers can stress cats far more than is evident on the surface, and longer absences may result in stress-related medical problems such as feline urinary tract disease.
If you’re considering leaving your cat overnight, you really would do well to bring another person into the mix.
Hire a human
Kittens and geriatric cats most definitely need to be tended to and have the opportunity for connecting emotionally more often than every 24 hours. Kittens should be fed every 4 to 6 hours. They’re also inclined to get into mishaps while exploring or at play. They may try to sample electrical wires by mouth, for instance, or climb curtains only to realize they can’t disengage their claws.
And senior cats are more likely to need medication and more frequent feedings. They also tend to exhibit less resilience with changes to daily life that could result in illness.
But even secure, healthy cats will need someone to come in to make sure that they are safe and well. The offer of play time and some brushing and friendly cooing will go a long way for your pet’s overall welfare, as well.
You can hire a professional or just ask a neighbor or family member your cat knows and trusts to come by for a half hour twice a day. Even if your pet is shy and decides to wait out the visit in the shadows, you can rest assured that her needs will be met and that she won’t be left alone in an emergency situation, like a door closing on her or getting stuck somewhere.
Better still, try to get a trusted person known to your pet to stay overnight, especially if you’ll be away longer than 24 hours. “That’s the optimum scenario,” Dr. Borns-Weil says, “to have someone the cat likes stay in the house.”