Did you know cats can experience separation anxiety?
Many years ago, I cared for a kitty named Precious, who at the age of 4 weeks was found crying under a bush. She became very bonded to me, and she’d hide all day while I was at work. Even my pet sitter never saw her.
As a cat behaviorist, I know Precious’ story isn’t uncommon. Some cats bond so closely with their humans that being left alone causes the cat to suffer from separation anxiety, similar to the stress kids experience when their parents leave home without them. This can be especially true for cats who have experienced trauma in their lives, such as being re-homed or abused.
Picture this: You’re leaving for work. You grab your keys and head toward the door—all the while your cat is following closely, meowing non-stop. When you come home, you find your cat has trashed the place. The litter box is clean, but nothing else is.
When your cat acts out, it could be an indication that they are experiencing cat separation anxiety. As the sensitive creatures they are, cats express their anxiety in different ways—some subtle, and some not so much. It may feel like your cat is punishing you for leaving, but in reality their behavior is usually meant to self-soothe and bring them comfort.
Common Causes of Cat Separation Anxiety
They Were Orphaned as Kittens
Cats who were orphaned as very young kittens, or who were weaned from their mothers much too soon, often develop separation issues and unusually strong attachments to their humans. Parting with their mothers at such a tender age may create lifelong feelings of abandonment.
They Were Not Properly Socialized
Cats living in shelters or rescues sometimes spend long periods of time without much human interaction, which can affect their personalities. Likewise, if a cat was not handled much as a kitten, they didn’t have many opportunities to build trust in humans. When those cats are adopted and do finally bond with their pet parent, they may exhibit signs of distress when their human leaves the house, especially if it’s for a prolonged period.
They Are Bored and Under-Stimulated
A cat who depends on their human for stimulation at home could also have problems separating. Kitty may be so bored and lonely when they’re alone that they feel stressed. I’ve conducted many behavior sessions in places where you would never know a cat lived. An environment with no cat trees and towers, no toys, and no window perches can result in no fun for the cat who lives there.
They Have Health Issues
Your cat’s physical health could be the true cause for your cat’s actions, rather than separation anxiety. A trip to your veterinarian to rule out an illness or other physical cause for your cat’s behavior is a good first step in getting to the bottom of their actions.
Cat Separation Anxiety Symptoms
You might be asking yourself, “How do I know if my cat has separation anxiety?” Here are some classic signs your cat may be struggling with separation anxiety:
- Uses excessive vocalization when you are leaving
- Urinates outside the box or defecates on clothing or bedding while you’re gone
- Scratches on doors or window frames when they are alone
- Vomits while you are away without any physical cause
- Doesn’t eat when you are not at home
- Over-grooms when they are home alone
- Becomes destructive of their (and your) environment when alone
- Is aggressive if someone else tries to touch them
- Greets you over-exuberantly when you return
Solutions for Cat Separation Anxiety
When you’ve ruled out any health issues and you’re sure your cat is having problems separating from you, there are things you can do to make it easier for you both.
A cat with separation issues is conditioned to become anxious when they see certain actions or items that tell them you are leaving. Anything from pulling out your suitcases to pack for vacation or simply putting on your coat and pulling out your keys could trigger their anxiety. They know you are about to exit the home when they see these items. The solution is to desensitize your cat to these things, so they become everyday objects, rather than signs of impending alone time.
Try leaving your suitcase out at a time when you aren’t traveling. Pull out your keys a few times a day, but don’t go anywhere. Leave your jacket out for a few days. Soon these cues will lose their power and your cat won’t become quite so anxious when they see them. When you do leave the house, make a point to distract your cat with some cat treats or a toy before quietly slipping out the door, without any long good-byes.
Organize your cat’s surroundings so they have fun things to do when they are alone. Add a cat tree so they can sit up high to view their world. Treat balls filled with their favorite snacks will keep them busy for hours, as will hiding goodies in several places around the house. Placing bird feeders by your cat’s favorite window perch will also keep them entertained. If they are an only cat, you might want to consider getting them a friend. They won’t even notice that you’re gone!
Music or Television
Try leaving some soft music playing or a television on a low volume so your cat doesn’t feel like they are alone. Videos showing birds or colorful butterflies can keep them glued to the television for hours.
Exposure to Other People
If your cat isn’t used to being around anyone but you, they could become fearful of others. Have a few friends come over from time to time, and let them offer your cat a favorite treat or toy. It may take a few repeated attempts before your cat is brave enough to come near, so be patient. Getting them used to other people will make them a less anxious cat overall, and will help them to accept other caregivers when you go away on vacations.
In very extreme cases of separation anxiety, as a last resort medication may be needed before your cat will respond to the above steps. If nothing you’ve tried so far has quelled their anxiety, talk with your veterinarian to determine the best course of action for you and your cat.
Frequently Asked Questions about Cat Separation Anxiety
How do I know my cat has separation anxiety?
A: If your veterinarian has ruled out any medical issues and your cat is still exhibiting any of the classic signs mentioned above, including not eating, acting overly aggressive or withdrawn, or becoming overly attached to one person in the household, it’s likely that your cat is experiencing anxiety.
My cat has separation anxiety at night. Do you know why?
If your cat has separation anxiety issues, they may show up more at night when your house is quiet. When your cat is craving your attention and feeling anxious, you will notice it more than you might during the busy daytime hours.
If your cat has not had enough social time during the day, all their pent-up energy and boredom may well kick their nighttime activities into overdrive, since cats are nighttime hunters. Dusk and dawn are the time periods cats are usually out hunting for food; an indoor cat may well be wrestling with their natural instincts to be actively hunting for food, which may cause them to seek more attention from you at night. A cat who hasn't had enough human interaction and playtime during the day will seek you out at night because this is when you are a still, sitting target for them. Yeowling at night and inappropriate elimination are sure signs of a stressed, lonely, anxious cat who needs more face time with their favorite human.
I think my cat has separation anxiety, but I’m not quite sure. What should I do?
If you think your cat may be exhibiting signs of separation anxiety, the first thing to do is have them checked by your veterinarian. There are some illnesses that have similar symptoms as separation anxiety, such as pacing, yeowling or not eating.
Once your veterinarian determines there is no medical reason for your cat’s anxious behavior, then there are some things you can do to help them through the problem. Give your cat plenty of playtime with each member of your family. If your cat becomes too attached to just one person in the household, then they may act out whenever that person is not at home.
Take turns feeding your cat as well, so they have a bond with each member of the household. Playtime at dusk and dawn mimics feline hunting drives, so play time just before breakfast and again before their dinner will regulate their natural biological clock for the day, and help them settle down better at night.
Also be sure to provide a rich environment for your cat that includes cat trees, comfy beds, and plenty of self-play toys so they don’t get bored and anxious when home alone. Feliway plugs, which mimic the natural pheromones cats use to mark their territory as safe, are also a great way to help calm your anxious cat (they work wonders in my home). While your cat will always miss you when you are away, providing them with these things will ensure they won't become overly anxious when you are apart.
Helping your pet overcome cat separation anxiety may take some work, but taking the time to address their fears will be well worth the effort. After working through their anxiety together, your cat will be able to let down their guard and be a happy feline, even when you are away. Of course, they will always be at their happiest when you are both at home, snuggling up together.