Home Alone

Help Your Cat be Less Lonely When You're Away

You put in the keys and turn the doorknob after coming home from work and your cat is there at the threshold, happily waiting for you. Could it be that she was actually lonely while you were away? Research shows that cats, especially solitary cats, do get lonely while their guardians are away - during the day or over a vacation. The good news is there are some things you can do to ease their loneliness.

Facts and Fables: Many people believe that cats don't mind - or actually like - being alone. "There is a popular myth that cats are antisocial animals," says Sharon Crowell-Davis, DVM, professor of veterinary medicine at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital at the University of Georgia. "But many cats absolutely enjoy and want company." The proof is in observing feral cats, says Crowell-Davis. These cats choose to form social groups, not only to share food resources, but also just to be together. "They have what is known as preferred associate relationships," she says. Cats will actually seek out other cats as friends. They'll sleep together, groom each other, and cry for their companion if he or she is missing.

So where does the myth originate that cats prefer to be alone or would rather be with a human than another cat? This notion comes from raising a solitary cat that is taken away from its brothers and sisters before the age of six weeks. "These kittens miss a critical period of learning how to get along with other cats," says Crowell-Davis, who is board certified by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. And these cats actually prefer a human because that is whom they have bonded to. House cats raised together in a group learn "cat etiquette" and how to get along well with their own species and with humans.

Separation Anxiety:  For a solitary cat raised from kittenhood, it can be quite a lonely time when you go to work each day - and even more so when you go on vacation. But not all cats are the same; some get lonelier than others. Most cats sleep a lot during the day and some spend time looking out the window for birds. Others play with toys a bit.

Signs of a cat having trouble with being alone include several behaviors, most of which have any number of causes, not just separation anxiety. "Your cat may urinate on your bed, favorite chair or laundry - anything that has your scent," says Crowell-Davis. What your cat may be saying is "I'm lonely, I'm scared."

Some cats become quite destructive when you're away - climbing the curtains, ripping up furniture, unrolling toilet paper or scattering things off your desk. This happens because your cat needs to be with you - and needs to play. Perhaps your cat is used to chasing a toy around that you dangle in front of him or her. But when you're away, your cat has to amuse him or herself by playing with a toy that's not as exciting as when you drag it around.

If you have to be away from your cat, leave reminders of yourself - clothes or a blanket with your scent, little toys that hang from a door that your cat can bat around. And when you leave for an extended period of time, hire a good pet sitter who will not only feed your cat, but play with him or her as well.
If your cat seems to have a serious problem with loneliness, first talk to your veterinarian, says Crowell-Davis. "You may end up being referred to a certified veterinary behaviorist who can come up with a way to solve your cat's loneliness problem.

Tricks to Try While You're Away:  What is entertaining to one cat will leave another yawning, but here are some ideas for keeping your cat busy when you're away.

  • Make sure your cat has access to a window so he or she can watch birds.
  • Leave a radio playing.
  • Try a cat movie that shows nature scenes with small animals and birds.
  • Rub your scent on a toy.