I, shockingly, spend a lot of time talking to folks about cats. One phrase I hear entirely too often is something along the lines of, "I really like dogs, but I'm thinking of getting a cat because they're an easy pet." Cats are generally seen as being animals that can just be left alone and you don't do much with them. I refer to this idea as cats being "decorative pets" because they're cute and you just leave them be.
But is this true? Are cats really as easy to take care of as some people think? Or are they only seen as being easy pets because we aren't meeting all their needs?
Litter Boxes vs. Being Let Out
One area cats typically get a reputation for being easier to take care of than dogs is that they don't need to be let outside. Yes, you don't have to let your cat outside every few hours so they can go for longer without you being home (though they can't go for days without being taken care of... More on that later!).
However, the trade off is the litter box. In order to keep your cat happy and using the litter box, it needs to be properly maintained. Most folks don't clean their cat's litter box nearly as often as they should.
A litter box should be scooped twice a day ideally and at minimum once per day. For extra finicky cats, you may need to scoop the box after each use. Failure to clean the box properly will result in a stinky box, an unhappy cat, and potentially a box not being used entirely!
Cleaning and scooping the litter box is far from the most pleasant part of cat parenthood, but it is completely necessary. People who only scoop once per week or every few days are creating more problems for themselves down the line and often end up with cats not using their box.
To use a metaphor a lot of us are familiar with after working from home for the last two years, you can think of litter box maintenance as being asynchronous work: with dogs, you have to be there live to clean up and let the dog out. This is similar to synchronous work. You still have to do all the work in order to get the job done, but it doesn't have to be done live. It is similar to asynchronous work that you have to do that day, but you can do it on your time generally.
Cat Sitters Are Necessary
Another myth I see often is that cats don't need a pet sitter. Some people just leave their cats home for the weekend with water, a clean box, and food sitting out. Cats are self sufficient! They'll be fine! ... Right?
This is actually a terrible practice. As I already pointed out, litter boxes need to be cleaned much more frequently than people generally think. It's hard to get a properly cleaned box when you are gone for two days!
A bigger problem however is that this is likely to result in a bored, under stimulated cats. Contrary to popular belief, cats like us more than we think. They need some socialization and also need plenty of play time. Leaving them alone for a whole weekend is not a great way to meet their needs!
A bored cat is much more likely to get into trouble and you may come home to find they have gotten into things or created trouble. They may have even used your pillow as a litter box due to how unclean the box is!
A good pet sitter will stop in at LEAST once per day to check in on your cat, though twice daily may be better. You can help keep your cat stimulated between visits with toys, a bird feeder to attract birds, and leaving out a feeder toy. This still won't fully make up for interactive play with a human. Make sure they have someone check on them!
Cats Need Stimulation
Cats are incredibly intelligent. Sure, they may do silly things sometimes and things that to us don't make sense, but they're very adaptive to their environment. In fact, a lot of what people describe as a cat being manipulative is just the cat learning (and if you think about it, dogs do the same things but we don't typically call them manipulative!).
Because of this, cats need to have their minds occupied. This is a larger topic that I can't do justice in a short blog post, but the best way to keep a cat's mind in motion is with play that imitates hunting. Training is also a great way to mentally stimulate a cat.
Unfortunately, a lot of people don't think of cats as being able to be trained. As someone who has trained not only his cat but others' cats, this simply isn't true! Cats are able to learn to do a variety of behaviors on cue if you know what you're doing (and if you don't know what you're doing, I hear Class Act Cats offers clicker training for your cat...)
Sadly, this idea results in many cats not getting nearly enough play time. The way this manifests itself most frequently is in a variety of "naughty" behaviors. In reality, your cat probably isn't being a naughty cat... They're just bored!
So Are Cats Easy Pets?
I hope it's abundantly clear by now that no, cats aren't actually easy pets compared to dogs. Yes, they may fit some people's lifestyles better than a dog would. They are far from easy (or decorative) pets, though. A properly taken care of cat takes work, but they are so worth it!
A better way of looking at the level of difficulty of taking care of a cat compared to a dog is to think of them as being different rather than easier. Cats are a different species so they have different needs than a dog does. Those needs are challenging in a different way than dogs' needs are challenging. You still have to meet those needs so be prepared to do some work for your cat!
And if you're thinking of getting a cat as an "easy" alternative to a dog? I urge you to pause before doing so. Cats are fantastic in their own right and there are plenty of reasons to get one that aren't just as an alternative to a dog. You'll still need to do plenty of work, spend money on your cat, and make sure their needs are taken care of even if it's in a different way than you would a dog. Get a cat because you want a cat and you'll be much happier!
About the author: Joey Lusvardi is a feline behavior consultant and cat trainer based out of Minneapolis, Minnesota. He runs a behavior consultation service, Class Act Cats, where he helps cat parents address a variety of unwanted behaviors. He is available for consultation in the Twin Cities or virtually wherever you are located.