Leaving Kitty Home Alone?

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

how to keep cats entertained

Story at-a-glance -

  • Your cat can be left happily at home alone during the day while you work as long as you provide her with a feline-friendly environment
  • Enriching your cat’s surroundings means creating minimally stressful living quarters that also encourage her to engage in natural feline activities
  • This undertaking doesn’t have to be expensive or time-consuming when you know what areas to focus on and how to view them from your cat’s perspective

Unlike dogs, who really shouldn’t be left at home alone for eight to 10 hours at a stretch (without at least a potty break), most indoor cats seem to do fine while their humans are at work all day.

The downside is that based on the number of overweight and obese cats in the U.S., home-alone kitties aren’t getting nearly the exercise they need, and many are still being free-fed (which I never, ever recommend) by misguided owners who believe a bottomless bowl of kibble is the best way to keep kitty happy and content all day.

A more subtle but just as important drawback to leaving your cat home alone all day in an unenriched environment is lack of mental stimulation. A growing number of feline behavior experts suspect that many of the undesirable behaviors commonly seen in indoor cats today are the result of simple boredom.

The good news is it doesn’t have to be costly or time-intensive to enrich your kitty’s environment to keep her mind and body active — not just when you’re away, but all day, every day. Unlike dogs who tend to look to their humans for exercise and playtime, our self-sufficient feline friends will make their own fun in a stress-free, enriched environment.

Your Cat’s Environment Dictates Her Health and Happiness

The term environmental enrichment means to improve or enhance the living situation of captive animals to optimize their health and quality of life. The more comfortable your cat feels in your home, the lower her stress level, and reducing stress is extremely important in keeping her physically healthy.

Enriching your cat’s surroundings means creating minimally stressful living quarters and reducing or eliminating changes in her life that cause anxiety. Any variation to your kitty’s routine is experienced by her as stressful. To be at peace, she needs to feel in control of her living situation.

Enrichment may also mean adding or changing things in your cat's environment that encourage her to enjoy natural feline activities like climbing to a high spot or hunting prey. Because change is unnerving for her, nothing should be forced on her. If you decide to purchase a cat tree, for example, place it in an area of your home where she spends a lot of time, and let her discover it on her own terms.

5 Ways to Enrich Your Cat’s Indoor Environment

There are several components to your cat's indoor environment, and each should be considered from his uniquely feline perspective. These include:

1. Litterbox location — In the wild, cats not only hunt prey, they are prey for other animals. Certain activities make them vulnerable to predators, including eliminating. This vulnerability is what causes anxiety in your kitty when his litterbox is in a noisy or high traffic area.

Your cat’s “bathroom” should be located in a safe, secure location away from any area that is noisy enough to startle him or make him feel trapped and unable to escape.

2. The opportunity to “hunt” for meals and snacks — Your cat, while domesticated, has maintained much of his natural drive to engage in the same behaviors as his counterparts in the wild, including hunting for food, which also happens to be excellent exercise. A great way to do that with an indoor cat is to have him "hunt" for his meals and treats.

Separate his daily portion of food into three to five small meals fed throughout the day in a variety of puzzle toys or indoor hunting feeder mice. You can also hide his food bowls or food puzzle toys in various spots around the house.

3. Places for climbing, scratching, resting and hiding — Cats are natural climbers and scratchers, and those urges don't disappear when they move indoors. Your cat also needs his own resting place and a hiding place where he feels untouchable.

Cats prefer to interact with other creatures (including humans) on their own terms, and according to their schedule. Remember: Well-balanced indoor kitties are given the opportunity to feel in control of their environment. Jackson Galaxy has written several books on creating feline environmental enrichment around the home that I highly recommend.

4. Consistency in interactions with humans — Your cat feels most comfortable when his daily routine is predictable, so performing little rituals when you leave the house and return can help him feel more comfortable with your comings and goings. A ritual can be as simple as giving him a treat when you leave and a nice scratch behind the ears as soon as you get home.

Playtime should also be consistent. Learn what types of cat toys he responds to and engage him in play, on his timetable. Of course, while you can encourage him to play, it's pointless to force the issue. Oh, and when he's had enough, he's had enough!

5. Sensory stimulation — Visual stimulation: Some cats can gaze out the window for hours. Others are captivated by fish in an aquarium. Some even enjoy kitty videos.

Auditory stimulation: When you’re away from home, provide background noise for kitty that is similar to the ambient sounds he hears when you're at home, for example, music or a TV at low volume. Olfactory stimulation: You can stimulate your cat's keen sense of smell with cat-safe herbs or synthetic feline pheromones (e.g., Feliway).

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Getting Your Cat Outside in Nice Weather

Ideally, indoor cats get to spend some time outdoors in nice weather in controlled situations such as on a leash walk, or inside a protective enclosure. The enclosure — sometimes called a "catio" or cat patio — can be as simple or as deluxe as you like.

The idea is to allow kitty safe access to the outdoors, as well as the chance to put all four paws on the earth. Safe access is key. Allowing your cat to run around loose outside is never a good idea. It presents much more risk to her health and longevity than keeping her indoors.

Kitties with free access to the outdoors are much more likely to be exposed to disease, poisoned, hit by a car or attacked by dogs, wild animals or other cats.

Two More Recommendations to Help Your Cat Remain Happy and Healthy

Feed a moisture-rich, nutritionally balanced, species-appropriate diet — Feeding your cat an optimal diet is the single most important thing you can do to help her have a long, healthy life. That’s why it’s important to understand that some foods are metabolically stressful, for example, all dry (kibble) formulas, processed pet food (canned or dry) containing feed-grade (versus human-grade) ingredients and diets containing grains, potatoes or other starchy foods.

The nutrition that generates the least amount of metabolic stress for most cats, regardless of age, is their ancestral diet: whole, raw, unprocessed, organic, non-GMO and in its natural form. Animal meat should be the foundation of your kitty's diet throughout his life.

If you can't feed fresh food (raw or gently cooked), the second-best diet is a dehydrated or freeze-dried balanced diet that has been reconstituted with an abundance of water or broth. Your cat's kidneys and liver can be stressed as a result of chronic low-grade dehydration, so all foods served dry can pose a problem long term.

I recommend serving food in its natural state to provide needed moisture, and to ensure the highest level of biologic assimilation and digestion. That means feeding a nutritionally balanced, antioxidant-rich and species-appropriate diet that includes omega-3 essential fats, such as krill oil.

To use raw food in no-bowl feeding systems simply roll the balanced, raw food diet into small balls, freeze, then load the frozen meat marbles into the feeding system.

Keep your cat at a healthy weight — The majority of cats in the U.S. are overweight or obese. The obesity-related diseases overweight kitties inevitably acquire shorten their lifespans and often destroy their quality of life along the way. If you want your cat with you, with a good-quality of life for 20 years, one of the worst things you can do is help him get fat.

The first step in keeping your cat at a healthy weight is to feed an optimal diet as I described above. It’s equally important not to free-feed, and to calculate kcal (kilocalorie) requirements for his ideal weight. Measure his food portions using a measuring cup and drastically limit treats.

+ Sources and References