How Long Is Too Long to Leave a Cat Alone?
The answer to this important cat welfare question may surprise you.
Posted Nov 16, 2019
By Jessica Pierce and Ibrahim Raidhan. Ibrahim is the creator of Catloverhere.com.
Myths about domestic cats are as ubiquitous as funny cat videos. One of the most persistent of these myths is that cats are independent and really don’t need humans in their lives. Our cat may deign to spend some time with us, and might even curl up next to us in bed and purr in our ear. But ultimately, when it comes to human company, cats can take it or leave it.
The myth of the aloof, independent cat feeds another misconception: that cats are just fine when we’re not around. Indeed, a common piece of advice for someone thinking about acquiring a pet is “if you are gone a lot and don’t have time for a dog, get a cat instead.” Many people believe that cats can be left alone for long hours every day, and can even safely be left alone for days or even weeks, as long as food and freshwater are made available to them.
This is bad advice and does cats a great disservice because domestic cats kept as companion animals in homes likely need their humans just as much as companion dogs do.
Cats Are Social Animals
One of the most popular posts on the All Dogs Go To Heaven blog is “When leaving a dog home alone, how long is too long?" which was prompted by concerns that some pet dogs are left alone for many hours a day, often locked in a crate or bathroom or garage. Because dogs are highly social and are often strongly bonded with their human guardians, too much time alone is problematic. Although there is no definitive answer to how long, the loose consensus of veterinarians and dog experts is that four hours alone is fine for most dogs, but longer than four hours can be hard on them.
But what about cats? Is there any consensus about how long is too long to leave a cat alone? The answer may surprise you.
As far as we can tell, no one has studied loneliness in pet cats, no one has explored how long cats are typically left alone by cat guardians, and there is no research into how extended periods of alone time impact cat welfare. Indeed, very little has been written about the welfare of companion cats living in home environments. (For a review of the existing literature, see Foreman-Worsley and Farnworth, 2019.) So, the answer to “How long is too long to leave a cat alone?” is: Nobody really knows.
What we do know, though, is that as research into cat emotions and cat behavior develop, some of our myths about cats are being shattered. And one of the first to go is the myth of the solitary, independent cat who doesn’t really care whether or not we’re around. Indeed, two recent studies on cat sociality and attachment styles suggest that cats are very social and that they often form strong and complex bonds with their human families. Although little has been written about loneliness in cats, there is no reason to think that cats don’t experience loneliness, and they most certainly also experience boredom.
How long are cats being left alone in the home, on average? The answer, again, is nobody knows. To date, no data have been collected on the average length of time cats spend alone each day, or how being alone impacts their welfare.
Because so little is known about homed cat welfare, there are no guidelines for cat owners outlining how long alone is too long for a cat, and what factors might mitigate against loneliness. For example, cats who have access to the outdoors may be able to tolerate longer periods of being alone, but nobody really knows.
Furthermore, each cat is a unique individual. This makes it hard to generalize about what cats need because the needs of each cat will depend on the cat’s individual personality, the relationship the cat has with his or her human, the presence of other animals in the home (including dogs), and so on. The rough guidelines for dogs—that about four hours alone is comfortable, but longer periods of alone time may compromise welfare—may be a reasonable place to start for cats, but further research into cat welfare is needed in order to develop empirically-grounded guidelines for leaving cats alone.
What If I Don’t Have Anyone to Attend My Cat?
If you work or have to leave for a trip, you can try and arrange for someone to come and spend a bit of time with your cat. At least this way, your cat gets some sort of attention, mental stimulation, and love. It can be difficult to arrange for someone to come cat-sit every day, and the next best thing you can do is “catify” your house. What we mean by this is to make your house entertaining for your cat.
You can set up a cat tree, automatic feeders, and food puzzles, and can scatter toys around the house. This will at least keep your little feline friend busy until you get back. Another thing you can do is give your cat a companion by adopting another cat. This way, they have companionship and can keep each other busy. (But make sure to do a meet and greet or have a trial period, to make sure the cats like each other.)
So how long is too long to leave a cat alone? There is no straightforward answer to this. But the best advice would be to try and not leave them home for too long. Yes, you need to go to work or maybe go shopping, but at least try to provide some entertainment for your cat.
Here’s a useful article about how to keep your house cat entertained: "How to keep a house cat entertained—For hours and hours!"
And if you’re going away for a vacation, then you might get someone to stay in and keep your cats company and not just feed them and change their litter box. Better yet, you could even take them with you on vacation.
Foreman-Worsley, Rachel and Mark J. Farnsworth (2019). A systematic review of social and environmental factors and their implications for indoor cat welfare. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2019.104841.
Rioja-Lang, F., Bacon, H., Connor, M., Dwyer, CM. (2019) Determining priority welfare issues for cats in the United Kingdom using expert consensus. Veterinary Record Open 6: e000365. doi: 10.1136/vetreco-2019-000365.
Vitale, Kristyn R., Alexandra C. Behnke, and Monique A.R. Udell (2019). Attachment bonds between domestic cats and humans. Current Biology 29, R859–R865.
Vitale, Kristyn R. and Monique A.R. Udell (2019). The quality of being sociable: The influence of human attentional state,population, and human familiarity on domestic cat sociability. Behavioural Processes 158: 11-17.