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Separation anxiety in cats

Separation anxiety in cats

 

Cats are supposed to be aloof, right? Independent, standoffish even.

 

But what if your cat really can’t live without you, not even for a few minutes? What if your cat has separation anxiety?

 

Will your cat suffer from separation anxiety when you finally return to work?

 

cat coronavirus meme

For many of us, quarantine due to COVID-19 has made for a very strange year for us and for our pets. Our routines may have changed dramatically. Some of us found ourselves at home a lot more often than we ever were before. As many cat coronavirus memes jokingly suggest, some of our cats may not have been comfortable with the sudden change at first. But as we start to think about “getting to back to normal” and a world without coronavirus, how will our cats handle a change back to our old routines?

 

Will our cats experience separation anxiety when we are no longer with them 24/7?

 

What is separation anxiety in cats?

 

What does it mean when you say your cat has separation anxiety? Simply put, separation anxiety is a dislike of solitude.[1]

 

But that’s not exactly right either. Separation anxiety implies a kind of over-attachment or dependency on human family members for a cat. It also implies more than a “dislike” of being alone, so much as emotional distress from being alone. It hurts my heart to even write that last part.

 

gray cat begging to be picked up

Unfortunately, so many of the signs and symptoms of separation anxiety are, to say the least, annoying to their human guardians. Who wants to come home from work and find pee in their bed? Who wants to be kept awake all night by a yowling, howling cat, especially when you have to go to work early the next morning?

 

But once you realize that your cat is in real distress, truly suffering from separation anxiety, it can change your thinking about what your cat is experiencing. It can make you want to learn more about his troubles and what to do about them.

 

How do we know cats really suffer from separation anxiety?

 

Well, do cats really suffer from separation anxiety? How do we know? That’s the million-dollar question.

 

Researchers love to do research on dogs and there are gobs and gobs of studies about separation anxiety in dogs. There are few studies on separation anxiety in cats. The problem is that there is a belief that cats can easily deal with the absence of their guardians for long periods of time, even though there is no scientific evidence to support the truth of that assumption.

 

fluffy orange cat meowing because she is suffering from separation anxiety

One study looked at 10 years of medical records for 136 cats to see if they could find evidence of separation anxiety. Because so little is known about cat separation anxiety, the researchers actually went looking for the same behaviors that they knew were associated with this syndrome in dogs. The study concluded that yes, cats do experience separation anxiety, in much the same way as dogs.[2]

 

Another tiny study involving just 14 cats compared how cats and guardians interacted after longer and longer periods of separation. Researchers found that these cats seemed to do just fine being left alone, but the longer they were alone, the more they expressed attention-seeking behavior (purring and stretching) when their guardians finally returned. What this study says is very important. It says that we cat guardians are a critical part of our cats’ social environment.[3] We are not mere can openers.

 

In fact, science tells us what we already know in our hearts to be true: cats need us as much as we need them. A study of cats’ attachment to their guardians found that cats were more playful and exploratory in the presence of their guardians than when they were by themselves or with a stranger.[4]

 

black and white cat scratching furniture

Separation anxiety might actually be more of a problem for our cats that we even knew. A more recent study in Brazil looked at 223 cats and found that more than one cat in 10 exhibited at least one sign of separation anxiety. Destructive behavior was the most frequently reported problem, followed by excessive vocalization, and then inappropriate peeing.[5]

 

All the studies together show that cats express more security and stability in the presence of their guardians and are more anxious and stressed in their absence.

 

What are the signs and symptoms of separation anxiety in cats? 

Contrary to popular belief, cats are not solitary creatures, but social beings who form very strong bonds with their human and animal families.[6]

 

When that relationship is disrupted, or when cats are forced to spend long periods of time alone, they begin to exhibit certain behaviors we now know relate to separation anxiety.

 

sick cat being examined by a veterinarian

Before I list the signs and symptoms of separation anxiety in cats, note that many of them can also be signs of medical issues. Before you play Freud to your kitty patient and decide your cat has an emotional problem, reach out to your veterinarian. Many of the symptoms listed below can also be a sign that your cat is sick.

 

Clingy and possessive behavior. Does your cat wrap herself around your leg, stand between you and the front door, and meow incessantly for attention? Does she follow you around the house? Is she overly exuberant when you finally come home from wherever you’ve been?
 
Inappropriate urination/defecation. Peeing and pooping outside the litter box can be a sign of separation anxiety. It can also be a sign of a serious medical problem, which is why a medical cause must first be ruled out by a veterinarian. Peeing and pooping outside the litter box is NEVER a sign of a spiteful cat. Cats are not capable of the complex thinking involved in “punishing” an owner for being left behind. Read this blog post, “Why is my cat peeing on my bed?” for more information.
 
Destructive behavior. Many anxious cats will chew and scratch on the door edges, presumably in an attempt to escape. But not all destructive behavior is a sign of separation anxiety. It is normal for a cat to scratch things. Read “Why do cats scratch furniture?” for more information about scratching behavior and how to redirect normal cat scratching to save your furnishings.
 
Vomiting. Cats who are anxious about being left may vomit up food or hairballs, especially in your presence.
 
Excessive vocalization. Mewing, crying, moaning are all signs of separation anxiety. A cat who has not gotten enough attention during the day may also yowl at night. This may be the worst time of day from your perspective for noise-making, but from your cat’s perspective the evening hours are when you are finally at home and available to him. Read more about this behavior in this post, “Why does my cat yowl at night?
 
Excessive grooming. There’s grooming and then there’s too much grooming. Cats spend a lot of their day grooming. Grooming becomes excessive when it’s obsessive: overgrooming can lead to hair loss and skin sores.
 
Poor appetite, or eating too fast. Some cats will stop eating when you’re away. While this sounds like a minor problem, it can quickly become life threatening due to the risk of hepatic lipidosis in which the liver becomes unable to function. Eating too fast is also dangerous as it can lead to choking, gagging, and vomiting.
 
Pre-departure anxiety. You put the suitcases in the hallway. You grab your keys. You tie your shoes. If any of your normal just-before-leaving habits trigger any of the behaviors listed above in your cat, she might have separation anxiety.

 

What should you do if you think your cat has separation anxiety?

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duffle bag on the floor

 

Consult your vet. As mentioned above, the first thing you must do is consult with your veterinarian to rule out a medical explanation for your cat’s sudden change in behavior. If your vet diagnoses separation anxiety, you can also use the appointment to discuss behavior modification and possibly medication for your pet. More on that below.
 
Rule out a dirty litter box. If your cat is urinating or defecating outside of the box, make sure it’s not because the box is not up to his standards. When you are home, you’re probably scooping more often. You can see the mess in the box, and you can smell it. When you’re away all day, your cat can see and smell the same mess, but there’s no one there to bring the litter box up to snuff. You may need to scoop more often than you’d like when you are at home, and you may need to add additional litter boxes to the household to be sure that there is always a clean toilet for your kitty when you’re away. Learn more about litter box cleanliness here.
 
Create a refuge. Give your cat a little place to escape to within your home. It might be little-used bedroom, or a less-traveled corner somewhere. But it should be a place where your cat can come and go freely, but where no other members of the house – human or pet – will be able to bother her. Outfit it with all the necessities: water and food bowls, litter box, and scratching post, so she has everything she needs when she needs to compose herself.

 

cat looking out a window 

 

Keep him busy while you’re gone. Provide window perches so that your cat can see the world go by outside. Better yet, hang birdfeeders outside the windows so there’s always something interesting to see. Get tall cat trees, cat shelves, and provide lots of hiding boxes. Rotate through a wide variety of cat toys, so you’re always bringing something “new” out for him to explore. Use puzzle toys, and hide food and treats all around for him to “hunt.” In other words, create an enriched environment for your cat.
 
Hire a cat sitter. If you’re going to be away for long hours each day, consider hiring someone to come in to play with your cat at some point during your absence.
 
Make your departures boring. Continuously practice “fake” departures. Grab your keys and your coat. Go out the door. Turn around and come right back in. Put your shoes on, then untie and remove them. Start the car engine and then turn it off. Go out, come back in. Leave your suitcase out for days when you’re not planning a trip. Perform your “pre-departure cues” so often that they are no longer the least bit interesting to your cat.
 
Change up your routines. You probably do everything in the same order every day: brush your teeth, take a shower, feed the cat, dress, and leave. Your cat is your stalker. She knows and can anticipate your every move, and with every step in your routine, she becomes more anxious. Mix it up. Feed her, then brush your teeth. Interrupt the anxiety cycle for your cat.
 
gray cat looking up and meowing
Be unemotional about arrivals and departures. You may be anxious about leaving every day because you know your cat is going to be anxious. You’re probably excited to come home at the end of the day because you miss your cat and know she misses you. But when you perform a whole song and dance for your cat right before you leave and again right when you come home, you’re creating a big buildup of anxiety around those two events each day.
 
Ignore your cat for some period of time before you leave for the day: don’t pat him or pay any attention to him. Do the same when you walk back in the door at the end of the day. Put your things away, put on a kettle for tea, or whatever else you need to do before even greeting your cat. It may feel unkind to treat your cat this way, but it is actually kinder to teach him that your comings and goings are not something to get too worked up over.
 
cat rubbing up against his owner

Consider using medications or supplements if behavioral strategies don’t work. Talk to your vet about prescription medications that may be used in conjunction with any of the above behavioral strategies. Your vet may suggest a short-acting medication to get your cat “over the hump” during times when you know she’s going to be anxious. Long-acting medications, like anti-depressants, may also be appropriate.
 
There are also some herbal supplements and other products that may be helpful. Feliway Diffuser is a product that you plug in that releases pheromones that mimic the natural pheromones cats use when they mark their home territories as “safe.” It’s clinically proven to create a calm environment and reduce stress.
 
The following products are available over the counter, but I’d encourage you to seek the advice of your veterinarian before providing these to your cat:
 
Vetoquinol Sylkene Behavior Support Capsules are made from alpha-casozepine, a natural ingredient from cow’s milk that supposedly has calming properties. It is free of lactose, so you don’t have to worry about your cat having an upset stomach from consuming a milk-based product.
 
Dorwest Scullcap and Valerian is an OTC herbal medication that is purported to be calming.

 

This video by famed cat behaviorist Jackson Galaxy can help you learn to identify separation anxiety in cats and has some great advice to help you deal with it:

 

 

Are certain cat breeds more prone to separation anxiety?

Actually yes, there are some breeds that are more likely to exhibit signs of separation anxiety, which suggests that this issue may have both genetic as well as environmental causes.

 

Siamese cat with bright blue eyes

There are some breeds that seem to be more reliant on humans for companionship. Researchers studied 12 breeds of cats because they wanted to see if breed, eye color, coat color, or pattern was associated with certain behavioral characteristics. They discovered that  separation anxiety can be a problem for Siamese and Tonkinese cats.[7] Burmese cats also seem to be affected.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Are there any other causes of separation anxiety in cats?

 

There seems to be an association between separation anxiety and kittens who were weaned too early.

 

family of cats

Kittens should stay with their mother and littermates until they are at least 12 weeks old. Many kittens are separated from their families much earlier than this and it sets them up for a lifetime of other potential problems, including inappropriate aggression.[8]

 

Cats who were not properly socialized during kittenhood can also display separation anxiety as adults. Kittens need to be handled and played with frequently during their all-important socialization window between two and seven weeks old (and up to 14 weeks old).[9]

 

Bored, under-stimulated cats are also more prone to separation anxiety. See the advice above for creating an enriched home environment for your cat, and be sure to give your cat time and attention when you are home. (That shouldn’t be too hard now, should it?)

 

Should you get a kitty companion for your anxious cat?

 

Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question.

 

a multicat household - three cats

The Brazilian study noted that there was more reporting of separation anxiety in cats who live in households where there aren’t any other pets. It's possible that cats who are prone to separation anxiety benefit from having a friend at home. It’s equally possible that in those households the cats just end up spending more time interacting with people and they become more “spoiled” than in households where there are more cats to share the attention. But there needs to be more research on this question.

 

Dr. Amy Marder, Clinical Assistant Professor at the Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine and Owner of New England Behavior Associates, told Pet Lifestyles Magazine, “There are cats who live with other cats that show signs of separation anxiety.”[10] So, there's that, too.

 

In other words, getting another cat is not a guaranteed answer to your separation-anxiety problem and it’s not a good enough reason to add to your feline family.

 

Love Pinterest? Here's a Pinterest-friendly pin to add to your boards!

Separation anxiety in cats pinterest friendly pin

 

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FOOTNOTES

[1] “Understanding Separation Anxiety In Cats.” MedicAnimal, www.medicanimal.com/Understanding-Separation-Anxiety-In-Cats/a/ART111499.

 

[2] Schwartz, Stefanie. “Separation Anxiety Syndrome in Cats: 136 Cases (1991–2000).” Separation Anxiety Syndrome in Cats: 136 Cases (1991–2000) | Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association | Vol 220 , No 7, 1 Apr. 2002, avmajournals.avma.org/doi/abs/10.2460/javma.2002.220.1028.

 

[3] Eriksson, Matilda, et al. “Cats and Owners Interact More with Each Other after a Longer Duration of Separation.” PLOS ONE, Public Library of Science, 18 Oct. 2017, journals.plos.org/plosone/articleid=10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0185599.

 

[4] Edwards, Claudia, et al. “Experimental Evaluation of Attachment Behaviors in Owned Cats.” Journal of Veterinary Behavior, Elsevier, 28 Aug. 2007, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1558787807001724?via%3Dihub.

 

[5] Machado, Daiana de Souza, et al. “Identification of Separation-Related Problems in Domestic Cats: A Questionnaire Survey.” PLOS ONE, Public Library of Science, 15 Apr. 2020, journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0230999.

 

[6] Machado.

 

[7] Wilhelmy, Jacqueline, et al. “Behavioral Associations with Breed, Coat Type, and Eye Color in Single-Breed Cats.” Journal of Veterinary Behavior, Elsevier, 8 Apr. 2016, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1558787816300284.

 

[8] Ahola, Milla K., et al. “Early Weaning Increases Aggression and Stereotypic Behaviour in Cats.” Nature News, Nature Publishing Group, 4 Sept. 2017, www.nature.com/articles/s41598-017-11173-5.

  

[9] Becker, Mikkel. “Your Guide on How to Socialize a Kitten.” Vetstreet, 29 Jan. 2007, www.vetstreet.com/our-pet-experts/your-guide-to-socializing-a-kitten.

 

[10] Plotnik, Arnold. “LONELY FELINES.” LONELY FELINES | Pet Lifestyles Magazine, www.petlifestylesmagazine.com/articles/2018/09/42.html.

 

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2 comments

  • “Cat scan”? OMG – Iove it! I’m cracking up over here. Right – you’ll never know your cats’ histories and it’s entirely possible they were separated too young from their families. The best you can do is what you are already doing: loving them, providing for them, and making them feel as safe as they can possibly feel.

    Dawn LaFontaine
  • Each time I come home I get a complete “cat” scan, obviously it’s to make sure I have not been with other cats while I was absent. My previous cat did the same thing, both were from animal shelters and female, both had had a litter of kittens. My current best friend, Vicki puss, seems to have nightmares, she while be dozing quietly then a sudden yelp and she is bolt upright looking around before settling down again. I am not sure but suspect they both had been removed from their mothers too early

    Greg

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