Categories: anxiety

What do cats do when their owners aren’t at home?

Cat home alone. Photo in the public domain.

What do cats do when their owners aren’t at home? The first point to make is that the question implies that we are discussing full-time indoor cats or cats confined to home and catio or garden enclosure so I’ll proceed on that basis 1. I’ll also mainly refer to single cat homes.

Cat guardians should know, and they should want to know. However, in single cat households, the obvious answer is that they don’t know but might be able to glean some clues from their cat’s general behaviour and health. You might be able to guess by what they’re doing when you arrive home. However this might not be an accurate reflection of what’s happening because their behaviour often changes as you arrive home. In multi-cat homes the answer is simpler because if they get along they can entertain themselves and provide company for each other.

We know that cats have an internal clock a bit like ours and they can gauge when their owner is about to return home. So what does your cat do at home when you’re are not at home?

Routine

In my case, when I go out in the morning, my cat will usually go out as well. It’s a routine. He understands that I won’t be around so he decides to entertain himself outside. A smart response I’d say. I always leave the house in the morning at around 7:30 am to go to the gym. At that moment, more or less, my cat will leave via the cat flap at the rear of the house. He will spend the entire time that I’m away outside.

Sleep

Alternatively, while I am away my cat may simply snooze. Cats can kill a lot of time by snoozing. If a cat ‘owner’ is away during a time that their cat considers to be sleep time, which is usually in the middle of the day as cats are often crepuscular, then your cat will sleep/snooze without trouble. Conversely some cats are very active at night when their owner is not away but asleep and therefore absent. This can cause distress in elderly cats.

Separation anxiety or just plain anxiety or stress

Sometimes cats can feel separation anxiety when their owner is away. This is a frequently discussed topic but not much is done about it because sometimes not much can be done. It may be better to refer to this condition as anxiety due to a range of circumstances one of which is being separated from their human carer/companion. Frustration may also be an emotion under these circumstances.

And there is the old adage: out of sight out of mind. I remember videos of pet dogs demonstrating separation anxiety throughout the day on video and it is quite disturbing to see. They looked anxious and stressed. They might pace and try and open doors. I suspect that the same sort of anxious behaviour can be demonstrated by domestic cats if they suffer from separation anxiety.

As dogs are pack animals it is to be expected that they will suffer from separation anxiety but it is wrong to consider cats as independent and solitary. Ten thousand years of domestication has lead to them being quite sociable and far from independent and they see us as companions.

I would say that the biggest problem for indoor only domestic cats while their owner is away at work (and in the evening as well in some instances) is anxiety. Indoor/outdoor cats who have the freedom to roam don’t feel separation anxiety (or it is far less likely).

A study about three years ago concluded that domestic cats don’t suffer from separation anxiety. It implies that there is no bond between cat and person. This is incorrect and it is inappropriate assess emotional bonds with hard science. Millions of cat lovers/guardians would attest to that. Humans are companions to cats when the relationship is correct. They are bound to miss us if we are away for long periods.

Cameras

If there are signs that a cat is anxious when alone it might be a good idea to install internal cameras to record what’s going on. The results may surprise cat guardians. You can get an idea that a cat is suffering from separation anxiety because she may fall ill with stress-related illnesses such as cystitis.

Stress-related Illness

Behaviour as a result of anxiety at home can result, as mentioned, in cystitis which is a stress-related bladder condition and the cat might defecate or urinate on items such as bedding. This is to reassure the cat. It’s a form of self-medication. Stressed cats can also over-groom which may be a signal as to how your cat is behaving while you aren’t at home. Grooming is calming for a cat. Over-grooming can leave bare patches on parts of the body which are easily accessed. A response to separation anxiety might be to introduce a second cat provided they get along well. Jackson Galaxy recommends it.

Note: 1 – This is because we don’t know precisely what our cats are doing when outside roaming freely which is common sense. Therefore the question is redundant for outside cats. It follows that the question refers to inside cats.

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Michael Broad

Hi, I'm a 71-year-old retired solicitor (attorney in the US). Before qualifying I worked in many jobs including professional photography. I have a girlfriend, Michelle. I love nature, cats and all animals. I am concerned about their welfare.

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