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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
What should you do if you think your cat has separation anxiety?
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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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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).
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.
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.” 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.
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 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.
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 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.
 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.
 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.
 Plotnik, Arnold. “LONELY FELINES.” LONELY FELINES | Pet Lifestyles Magazine, www.petlifestylesmagazine.com/articles/2018/09/42.html.