Cats have a reputation for being self-sufficient, especially compared to their canine counterparts. Little time is required for bathing, for example, thanks to their overzealous grooming habits. They also don’t need to be taken outside for bathroom breaks several times a day.

But make no mistake: cats are not low-maintenance pets. Find out how long it’s okay to leave your cat alone.

How long can cats be left alone?

“I would never describe any pet as low-maintenance if you take good care of it,” says Mikel DelgadoCertified Applied Animal Behavior Specialist and Feline Behavior Consultant c Cat minds. “They can use a litter box, but they have physical and emotional needs that need to be met just like any other pet.”

Partly because of this misconception, she continues, some pet parents assume it’s okay to leave their cat alone at home for much longer than is recommended — or safe.

“I don’t recommend leaving a cat alone without human contact for more than 24 hours,” says Delgado, who has worked with cats for more than two decades. “And to be honest, even that I think is a little too long.”

Tips for leaving cats alone

Of course, sometimes you can’t avoid being gone for more than a day. (We all deserve a vacation now and then!) For those occasions, Delgado shares her tips for leaving cats alone to make sure your feline friend is happy and healthy when you return.

Routine, routine, routine

Whether you’re only leaving the house for a few hours while you’re at work or for longer periods of time, sticking to a routine is your best bet. This means that in addition to making sure your cat has fresh water and plenty of food, feeding should be done around the same time every day.

“There’s research that shows that if you break the routine,” says Delgado, “they can get really stressed. And when cats are stressed, they show what’s called sickness behavior — things we would associate with illness.”

Read more: Cats ruled these 4 ancient civilizations

These sick behaviors may include diarrhea, vomiting, loss of appetite, or refusal to use the litter box. If you’re usually welcomed home by these messes, chances are your cat isn’t acting out on purpose; he or she may simply be under a lot of stress.

In addition to sticking to a familiar routine, cat owners may also want to try taking advantage of other forms of familiarity—like your unique smell. “Cats are much more sensitive to smell than we are,” says Delgado.

Consider this your permission to forego doing that last load of laundry before you head out the door! Disposing of used blankets, dirty clothes, and unwashed sheets will not only save you time, but may also keep your kitty from becoming anxious.

Consider a cat sitter

For longer stays alone, a pet sitter is the perfect way to make sure your cat doesn’t get into dangerous situations (ie eat something they shouldn’t) or get hurt. Older cats may need more frequent checkups, Delgado says, because their physical needs are greater.

When choosing a sitter, familiarity is the name of the game. If a trusted family member or friend – someone your cat is already familiar with – is willing and available, this is a great option.

But Delgado says hiring a professional pet sitter, someone who’s part of an organization and comes with insurance, can bring a different kind of peace of mind. She recommends taking the time to introduce them to your cat before you leave town, and relying on the same person each time so they can build a bond.

How often the sitter should visit depends on the cat, though Delgado opts for once or twice a day. “Some cats are really needy,” she says, “and would benefit from longer visits where there is more interactions.”

Read more: 5 cats that famous scientists owned

Even for cats that are fearful of strangers, it is often helpful for the caretaker to attend to the cat’s physical needs and then simply be quietly present. “Maybe read on the couch or watch TV or do things that the owner can do for a short period of time,” says Delgado.

Another thing to consider is how long the owner will be away. Your cat’s emotional needs may begin to increase the longer you’re gone, for example—despite the stereotypical aloof behavior of cats.

“If the owner is gone for a day or two and they’re getting their physical needs met with a very short visit from the cat sitter, that might be fine,” Delgado explains. “But if the owner continues to be gone, the cat can become increasingly stressed and need more interaction.”

Products for pets

In the gadget-driven world we live in today, you may find yourself tempted to take advantage of the variety of technological pet products on the market: automatic feeders and self-cleaning litter boxes, for example, can certainly do the trick. , to conform to a more manageable routine.

But Delgado urges pet parents to think about the pros and cons of each.

For one thing, you need to consider how your cat reacts to technology. A webcam that is mounted and stationary is not intrusive, but a two-way webcam that follows your cat and allows you to talk through it can be scary or confusing.

“Some pets will find it very confusing as to why they can hear your voice but can’t smell or see you,” explains Delgado. Similarly, some cats are repulsed by the sounds made by a self-cleaning litter box.

Even gravity feeders—a raised food storage container that automatically drops more food into a bowl when it runs out—can be dangerous, she continues, because there’s no way to know how much your cat is eating. When used regularly, gravity feeders can make problems like disease and obesity easy to ignore.

“My motto is ‘pet technology, not neglect,'” says Delgado. “I’m fine with using technology, but it’s no substitute for a person coming and checking on your cat.”

Read more: Why people love their chaotic, misbehaving cats

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