As a pet sitter, I’ve found that one of the biggest myths I run into is that cats “don’t need any social interaction.”
While some cats — particularly rescued ferals — aren’t interested in hanging out, most cats need at least some “face time” every day.
My pet-sitting clients have me do visits ranging from every other day to twice a day, and some even have me stay overnight with their cat. If someone is away for an extended period of time, I do notice a difference in behavior with cats who are left to fend mostly for themselves.
You can usually tell when your cat isn’t feeling right. If your cat’s behavior has changed and they are displaying some of the following changes, you should stop to consider whether loneliness is a factor.
There can be some significant behavior changes when a cat is experiencing loneliness and accompanying anxiety:
- Increased vocalization: A cat will wander through the house, meowing constantly or even yowling looking for someone to answer them.
- Destructiveness: Like dogs, cats can be destructive when they’re bored or experiencing anxiety.
- Clinginess: Some cats who are typically aloof will suddenly not want to leave your side.
- Aggressiveness: Cats may become aggressive or rush the door when someone (like the pet sitter) tries to leave.
- Marking: In other words, defecating and urinating outside the litter box purposefully to express displeasure.
- Excessive grooming: Cats can over-groom to the point of skin irritation when they’re stressed or unhappy.
A cat’s behavior is the best indicator of their health and well-being. Watch for any sudden changes.
Pet sitters: Never leave a visit without at least visually confirming that the cat is in good condition and in a safe place. Let your clients know about any behavior that seems off about or different from the cat’s normal behavior.
Pet parents: Inform your pet sitter about your cat’s particular habits, any stressors they may have and their favorite hiding places.
Why Cats Get Lonely
Cats can engage in any number of frustrating behaviors when they’re lonely and it’s easy for a pet parent to attribute those behaviors to naughtiness.
However, cats generally aren’t trying to simply be destructive (although nobody enjoys finding cat urine on their pillow), they’re trying to tell you something.
“It’s only when you stop interpreting your cat’s behavior as mean, spiteful, stupid, deliberate or lazy that you stand a chance of correcting the problem,” advises cat behavior expert Pam Johnson-Bennett in her book Think Like a Cat.
Sometimes you have to make household adjustments. That’s life. A new job, more travel, having a baby, moving in with a significant other, moving to a new home — the list of changes is seemingly endless.
All of the above can have an impact on how much attention your cat is getting and how much alone time they have.
“Behavioral stimulation is just as important for cats as it is for dogs – maybe even more so since many cats only have you and the world you create for them inside your home,” writes Dr. Gary Weitzman, DVM, MPH, CAWA, in the National Geographic Complete Guide to Pet Health, Behavior and Happiness.
“Create a world inside your home that allows your cat to do what cats want to do: stalk, pounce, hunt, climb and scratch,” Dr. Weitzman adds.
If you have to make changes or take a trip, it might be a great time to introduce some new interactive toys that your cat will enjoy.
You can also leave window blinds open where your cat likes to look outside and even hang a bird feeder (if your cat isn’t going to go crazy and get stressed when they can’t actually “get” the birds). Your pet sitter should have no problem opening and closing window blinds as part of their visit if you don’t like leaving the blinds open at night.
Cats run the gamut in personality, so that does need to be factored in.
One of my kitty clients is the clingiest cat you’ve ever seen and wants to spend the entire visit sitting on your shoulder (or your head!). Another is almost feral and wants nothing to do with people.
And the rest of my cat clients? They fall somewhere in between.
For pet sitters, make sure you meet the cat or cats before you take on any visits and have a frank discussion with your clients about their cats’ needs. If you have a cat who seems to really enjoy spending time with people, you’ll want to advise pet parents to try to schedule more than one visit a day.
Rescued ferals and even some household cats simply prefer less people interaction, and that’s fine — but every cat should be verbally checked and talked to daily. What types of steps you take to combat loneliness in your cat should be tailored to their personality.
How to Help Prevent Loneliness in Your Cat
Luckily, nowadays there are many ways to help prevent loneliness in your cat.
Try out different toys and objects with your cat when you’re home and in a normal routine to see what they like.
My cat, Harrison, can’t pass up a cardboard box … whether he fits in it or not. I had a massive box taking up half my living room for 3 weeks because he loved it so much that he almost never got out of it!
A Few More Ideas
1. Bird Feeders Outside the Windows
Many cats are fascinated by the sight of the birds, although some will get stressed when they can’t actually prey on the birds. If your cat is sanguine enough to just watch, then bird feeders can be a great way to keep them entertained.
This is a great solution for pet parents who want to allow their cat to be outdoors yet safe.
Catios are enclosures for cats that you can set up outside. The entrance can be placed flush with a window so by simply opening the window you allow your cat access to the catio.
Cats can sun themselves and just be out without falling prey to coyotes and other predators, or running the risk of getting hit by a car or stolen.
3. Interactive Cat Toys
There are a number of interactive toys out there for cats. Here are a few ideas that come to mind:
- My cat has a hard plastic ball that dispenses treats when it rolls across the floor. It brilliantly keeps Harrison both moving and interested.
- Some cats are fans of paper bags and the “crinkly” noises. For more fun, you can open a few bags in different places and leave toys and treats in there for your cat to find. Don’t use plastic bags — they can get wrapped around your cat, causing them to choke or get caught on something. Cats sometimes try to eat them, too.
- Catnip-filled toys have been a big hit with most of my cat clients and come in a wide variety of catnip types and toy shapes.
- Dangling-type toys can be fun, but try not to use thin strings that your cat could swallow.
4. Getting Another Cat
A playmate can be just the thing for gregarious cats. Give some thought to adopting a new feline friend for your cat.
This isn’t the solution for every cat, however. Some cats will not react well to a stranger on their turf, and it could make their behavior even worse.
You are the best judge of your cat’s personality, so it’s for you to say whether you think your cat will be happy with a playmate.
In this video, Dr. Jace King, DVM, shares some quick tips on how to tell if your cat is depressed or lonely:
The first step in correcting aberrant behavior in cats is to determine what the cause is. Always rule out anything medical with a veterinarian visit.
If there is nothing medically wrong, give some thought to what might have changed recently in your household and your cat’s routine.
A few simple steps could help correct any self-destructive or aberrant behavior and make your cat much happier.
- Johnson-Bennett, Pam. Think Like a Cat: How to Raise a Well-Adjusted Cat — Not a Sour Puss. Penguin. 2011. https://books.google.com/books?id=I_oU6Ib9nt8C&pg=PT179#v=onepage&q&f=false.
- Weitzman, Gary, DVM, MPH, CAWA. National Geographic Complete Guide to Pet Health, Behavior and Happiness. National Geographic Books. 2019. https://books.google.com/books?id=89CLDwAAQBAJ&pg=PA105#v=onepage&q&f=false.
- “10 Tips to Keep Your Cat Happy Indoors.” The Humane Society of the United States. https://www.humanesociety.org/resources/10-tips-keep-your-cat-happy-indoors.
- Williams, Julia. “10 Ways to Entertain Your Cat on a Budget.” Canidae. April 12, 2017. https://www.canidae.com/blog/2017/04/10-ways-to-entertain-your-cat-on-a-budget/.
- Mitrokostas, Sophia. “8 Signs That Your Pet Is Lonely and How to Help.” Insider. June 18, 2019. https://www.insider.com/signs-your-pet-is-lonely-2019-6.