Cats have long held the reputation of being fiercely independent. This isn’t the case for all cats though. In fact, studies show that while some may have a streak of freedom in their personality, cats are social animals and often become deeply attached to their pet parents.
“Cats are viewed as solitary in nature, so people often assume they are perfectly happy without companionship—but that is generally not the case,” says Irith Trietsch Bloom, CPDT-KSA, CBCC-KA, CDBC, KPA CTP, VSPDT, CBATI, VSDTA Faculty, DWA Faculty, CCPDT Board Member and Director of Training at The Sophisticated Dog. “Like many animals, they communicate mostly using body language, and not everyone has the experience or knowledge to interpret that communication.”
When their favorite person leaves—for an hour, a day or longer—cats can experience separation anxiety just as dogs can. “It presents a little differently, though, and is just now starting to be understood,” says Bloom.
HOW TO SPOT IT: What does separation anxiety look like in cats?
Cats have unique personalities and what separation anxiety looks like for each individual cat can be different. Likewise, the symptoms of separation anxiety in cats have yet to be fully defined.
However, some common signs of separation anxiety in cats include:
Clingy, possessive or aggressive behavior. This often becomes obvious when your cat’s favorite person, or the person who triggers their separation anxiety, is preparing to leave or recently returns. They “might hide, meow repeatedly, follow the person around, or keep walking back and forth between the person and the doorway, for example,” says Bloom. “Some cats even attack their human when their human is near the door and about to leave!”
Excessive grooming. You might notice bald patches beginning to show on your cat’s legs, stomach or elsewhere.
House soiling. No, this is not your cat getting back at you or exacting revenge. “While we do not understand house soiling in cats perfectly, house soiling in cats with separation anxiety may be a way of self-soothing—their own scent is thought to make them feel more comfortable,” says Bloom. “Some also theorize that mixing their scent with yours helps cats feel closer to you. Another possibility is that the cat is leaving his scent around to make it easier for you to find him—after all, your scent is one thing your cat can follow to find you!”
Vocalization. Distressed cats often meow more than normal or even become excessively vocal. And if other medical problems are ruled out, separation anxiety could be the reason for your cat’s vocalization. In fact, a study published in the Journal of of the American Veterinary Medical Association cited excessive vocalization as one of the main behavioral problems triggered by separation anxiety in cats.
Vomiting. Either stress alone or stress-related behaviors like over-grooming can cause a cat to vomit more frequently.
Destructive behavior. Even if they are house trained and have appropriate places to scratch, cats who experience separation anxiety may scratch or claw at doors or other places you don’t want them to.
Poor appetite. While this can be a signal of other health problems, cats may lose their appetite if they are suffering from stress and separation anxiety.
“None of these signs in and of itself definitively indicates separation anxiety,” cautions Bloom. “For example, destruction while you are out may simply indicate your cat is not getting enough interaction and exercise, and excessive self-grooming can be the result of a skin disorder. But if you are seeing these kinds of symptoms and are concerned about your cat’s well-being, it’s a good idea to discuss the situation with a veterinary behaviorist or other cat behavior expert.”
Of course, any change in eating habits or litter box use should be checked out by your veterinarian to rule out potential medical issues before you assume separation anxiety. If a medical condition is present, you’ll want to treat that before starting behavioral therapy to increase your chances of success.
THINGS TO CONSIDER: What causes separation anxiety in some cats but not others?
Nobody knows for sure what causes separation anxiety in cats. “We don’t know all the risk factors for separation anxiety,” says Bloom. “It’s likely there is a genetic component in some cases, while in other cases environmental factors are likely to blame.”
Bloom explains that kittens who were orphaned or weaned too early may be more prone to separation anxiety. Cats who don’t receive adequate socialization between the ages of about two and seven weeks may also be more susceptible to separation anxiety than other well-socialized felines.
Cats can also pick up on our anxieties and take them as cues. “If we act anxious when we are about to leave, the cat can pick up on that,” says Bloom. “And if we consistently reward needy behavior, that can teach the cat to act more needy.”
FIRST STEPS TO TAKE: What can I start doing NOW to help my cat?
Separation anxiety is a fear that can be managed. While the gold standard is a desensitization protocol where you gradually change your cat’s perception of the triggers with the help of a Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer, even small changes can sometimes help a lot. If you suspect your cat is suffering from separation anxiety, try out some of these quick tactics to see if your cat responds positively.
Rule out a medical condition first. Remember, your first bet is the vet. If you see any of the signs of separation anxiety in your cat, schedule an appointment to help rule out a medical problem. Other tactics like training and behavior modification are unlikely to succeed if an underlying, untreated medical condition is the cause.
Make leaving and returning no big deal. “Stay calm as you exit and when you return,” says Bloom. “Wait to cuddle with your cat until she is relatively calm, rather than picking her up when she is greeting you frantically.”
Make sure your kitty has a clean litter box. Cats like to keep the litter box clean and will use the bathroom somewhere in the house if the box isn’t up to their standards. Consider getting multiple litter boxes for each cat in your home and cleaning them at least once per day.
Place treats around the house for your cat to adventure for and find. This will keep kitty’s mind mentally stimulated with a sweet treat at the end of the game.
Leave your scent behind. Consider giving your cat access to a t-shirt or other piece of clothing you’ve been wearing. You can also try store-bought pheromone sprays to help calm your cat when you leave.
Schedule quality playtime, every day. Try to play at least ten to fifteen minutes per day. Playing with your cat daily may help ease separation anxiety because they’ll be able to get some reliable one-on-one fun time and TLC with you. “But not right before you leave or after you return,” warns Bloom.
Find other ways to enrich your cat’s environment and life. Bring in some new items for stimulation like a new scratching post in a great viewing area, a vertical climbing platform and other toys.
Try leaving the TV on your normal channel or adding soothing music. Cat TV videos abound on YouTube and Animal Planet. Try letting this cat-based programming play out while you are outside of the house.
HOW TO GET HELP: Questions to ask veterinary and behavior professionals
If you suspect your cat is suffering from separation anxiety, get the conversation going with your vet and trainer to start managing it and getting kitty some relief. “Separation anxiety is believed to be a panic disorder, and the stress is definitely very real,” says Bloom. “Rather than letting your cat suffer, get help.”
Things you might ask are:
- My cat is exhibiting [name new behaviors you’ve been noticing] and seems upset when I leave. How do I know if these changes are caused by a medical or a behavioral issue?
- What steps can I take to reassure my cat that I will return and that they don’t need to be upset when I leave?
- I’ve tried a lot of interventions to help my cat [name them]. Are there any medications or other things I can try to help?