How Long Is Too Long To Leave A Cat Alone?

“If you want a pet but you don’t have time to walk a dog, get a cat.”

“As long as they have food, cats are fine. They don’t care if they’re left alone.”

“Cats are solitary creatures who are content to ignore you.”

Despite taking over the internet and solidifying their status as one of the most endearing animal species, cats are still widely misunderstood, as these oft-spoken sentiments illustrate.

Of course, as we cat servants know, our furry friends do care very much about remaining in the company of their favorite people.

In a new column on Psychology Today, bioethicist Jessica Pierce backs up something we’ve been saying for ages: Cats are social animals, and it’s harmful to think of them as one step above a plant, content to live a solitary existence as long as they’re fed and watered.

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.

So how long is too long to leave a cat alone? Unfortunately no one knows for sure.

There haven’t been studies on the topic, in part because many behavioral scientists still believe cats are too difficult to work with in research settings.

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The big tough guy who cries by the door when I step out of the house for 20 minutes.

But new studies — including the research out of Oregon State that showed cats view their humans as parent-like figures — show cats form strong emotional connections to their people, mirroring the behavior of dogs and even human children.

Other recent studies demonstrated that cats crave human attention and affection even more than food, and look to their humans for reassurance when they’re uncertain about things.

Some people will say that’s all fairly obvious and unremarkable, but there are two primary reasons the findings are significant: First, in the scientific community something has to be proven in a controlled, replicable study. Anecdotes don’t count. Secondly, there’s finally enough research to confirm cats absolutely form bonds with their humans, and those bonds are genuine.

Although felines are superficially aloof, when you get to know them better it becomes clear they’re simply good at pretending they’re nonchalant.

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“No more computer, it’s Buddy time!”

While cautioning that cats are individuals with their own personalities and quirks, Pierce suggests looking to research on dogs and loneliness.

“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,” Pierce wrote, “but further research into cat welfare is needed in order to develop empirically-grounded guidelines for leaving cats alone.”

As for Buddy, who is known to meow mournfully and park himself by the front door when I leave, his one-off limit is about 12 hours, or half a day. I’m okay with leaving him alone overnight after he’s been fed, and while he may not like it, he’s fine if left alone for an extended period once in a while. I wouldn’t do that regularly.

Anything more than that, however, and I’ll enlist the aid of a friend to stop by, feed him and play with him. Maybe that way I won’t get the cold shoulder and resentful sniffs when I return.

12 thoughts on “How Long Is Too Long To Leave A Cat Alone?”

  1. Hi Buddy, hi Steve,
    Honestly, I don’t want a study that tortures cats by isolating them for days/weeks/months, to prove they need love and companionship. I possess common sense. I don’t want anyone to own any animals if they need a study to support what should be obvious.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I get what you’re saying, and we shouldn’t conduct studies that do harm, but in general it’s great that scientists are finally studying cats. It took decades because cats were considered difficult to work with. Now we’re learning so much about them.

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  2. I guess a lot depends on the cat as to how long you can leave it. My cat Tiger, although he had our adult son who lives at home with us, care for him, missed us terribly when my husband & I went away for a week. My other cat who I’ve just adopted was given up by her previous owners because she developed destructive behaviours because she was left alone in the house.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Her previous owner seems like a piece of work, and that’s exactly why it’s good that studies are showing cats are indeed attached to their owners. It’s tough to shake off the misconception that they’re anti-social animals.

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  3. If you can’t have a dog,a cat is obviously easier to look after or leave for a short while,however don’t kid yourself that you can leave a cat on its own for weeks on end so long as someone feeds it every day.Get TWO cats so that they are company for each other and you won’t regret it because when you ARE at home they will provide you with hours of entertainment with their funny playful antics!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Indeed, most shelters recommend adopting two kittens at a time so they have each other to play with when their people are out of the house. It’s also supposed to be better because they learn to limit their roughhousing with each other. If/when I adopt another cat I intend on getting an adult, but if I ever adopt a kitten again I will adopt a pair.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Like many I used to think cats were singular aloof pets, until, until we had Blacky. Blacky was a female cat black as a lump of coal and she would follow me from the house to the barn on some days and back to the house. Anyway, we took off for vacation for a week leaving Blacky in the house with plenty of food in containers around the house along with potty boxes and water bowls. When we came home I saw Blacky curled up under her favorite sleeping spot under the knock back table. I thought she was asleep. I reached down to stroke her and she was gone…dead. Her food and water was barely touched as was her potty box, none of the additional food or water or potty boxes were touched at all… nothing else was disturbed in the house
        We think she just laid down an died of loneliness.

    2. I do the same, but does anyone know for sure if having two cats makes it easier for cats to be left alone by their human? Has this been studied?

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    3. My cat was kidnapped and treated badly for a couple of weeks. Animal control was refused access because they had 24/7 security & the sheriff’s office wouldn’t let them get her even with the paperwork. I couldn’t keep her safe even though I was present when she was taken BY MY CAREGIVER! I was the legal owner. If I had done anything she was prepared to kill the cat. She has PTSD now and is no longer the diplomat of the area. Afraid to go for walks. She used to love shopping trips, seldom wanted anything but to meet people and be petted. Now she seldom even goes outside. If she does, I have to be right there, available at every moment. Even riding on my walker isn’t close enough to feel safe so I am making her a baby sling. We have tried one. It made a big difference. So she will be able to go more places without the fear she’s struggling with. She will be able to be velcro cat anytime anywhere. Most stores love to see her. Happy people buy more! And she’s still shy around adults, but children are literally cause for alarm if she doesn’t get petted. But there’s nothing so wonderful as seeing a man in a suit get on the ground and give her loves as she gives him the courage to go back to work. The sling will leave her the freedom to run that she now emotionally needs but the security to curl under my arm. It breaks my heart to see her anxiety & fear when she had none before this horror. Yes, I got her back after 2 weeks but she is broken in so many ways. I can try to help her. She loves me as I love her. She’s not a dog so not officially a service cat but I am cortisone dependent because of ADDISON’S. She keeps me alive. The only reason I got her back & people quit seeing her torment as a giggly joke. Really. I couldn’t get my cat and people laughed. Now I have to try to heal her broken soul. She’s smart and loving but can’t deal with too much touch now. Doesn’t like strangers when she had never met one before. But she gets lonely and it doesn’t take long. An hour is misery for her now. It breaks my heart. Yet once she knows I’m close, she may climb into her bed and turn her back. I feel like I failed her, but to have done it any other way, my little girl would be dead. I would have been blamed BUT SHE WOULD BE DEAD. I love her because she is so sweet. Yes, she keeps me alive but that’s because she loves me.

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