Can Cats Have Separation Anxiety?

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Separation anxiety is a condition commonly known in dogs, but what about cats?

Our feline companions have a reputation for being aloof, independent, or even antisocial. Those who share their homes with cats often disagree, but now there is research to back up their claims that cats are not so aloof.

A recent study showed that cats living with humans have similar attachment styles to pet parents as dogs and children do.

In fact, 64% of the cats evaluated were described as securely attached to their humans. These cats showed less stress when near their caregivers.

Here’s how to identify cat separation anxiety and what you can do to provide relief.

What Are the Signs of Separation Anxiety in Cats?

Separation anxiety is an unwelcome condition that can be a result of excessive attachment. Research supports the fact that cats can develop separation anxiety syndrome, and they show many of the same signs that are seen in dogs.

A few possible signs that a cat is suffering from separation anxiety include:

  • Urinating outside the litter box: in one study, three-quarters of the cats that peed outside the litter box did so exclusively on the pet parent’s bed

  • Defecating outside the litter box

  • Excessive vocalization: some cats also carry a favorite toy in their mouths while yowling or crying

  • Destroying things: more common in male cats

  • Excessive grooming: more common in female cats

  • Hyper-attachment to their caregiver: seeking constant contact when they are together

What Causes Separation Anxiety in Cats?

Some factors could predispose a cat to developing separation anxiety, while other causes are environmental:

  • Being a female cat. Female cats are diagnosed with separation anxiety more often than male cats.

  • Living strictly indoors. Most separation anxiety cases are seen in cats that live strictly indoors and come from a home with only one adult caregiver.

  • Not having other pets in the home.

  • Being orphaned, weaned early, or bottle-raised.

  • Experiencing a change in routine often prompts separation anxiety or causes it to get worse. (That can include a change in ownership, moving to a new home, or changes in the caregiver’s schedule. A common scenario is a pet parent that has worked from home and then transitions to leaving the house for work each day.)

How Is Separation Anxiety Diagnosed in Cats?

Since the signs of separation anxiety could also indicate other health concerns, diagnosing any emotional disorder always starts with a thorough medical workup to rule out medical issues.

This starts with a physical exam that includes lab work such as blood and urine tests. Your veterinarian will then ask detailed questions about your cat’s behavior.

Providing a video of your cat’s behavior when they are home alone can be very helpful in determining a diagnosis.

What Can You Do to Relieve Separation Anxiety in Cats?

Treatment for all anxiety disorders can be divided into three categories:

  • Management of the environment to decrease anxiety from occurring

  • Pharmaceuticals

  • Behavior modification

Management of the Environment

There are quite a few ways you can modify your cat’s environment to help relieve your cat’s separation anxiety.

Here are some examples of changes you can make to manage the environment.

Provide Enrichment Activities

There are endless options for enrichment activities to keep your cat busy while you are gone. There are TV shows designed specifically for cats and even cameras that allow you to toss treats to your cat and talk to them when you are not home.

You can also try puzzle feeders, which are toys that your cat has to play with to release the food inside. Giving one to your cat before you start getting ready to leave can keep them busy so they aren’t worried about what you are doing.

Working (hunting) for their food is wonderful enrichment for cats.

Ignore Attention-Seeking Behaviors

Try to ignore attention-seeking behaviors whenever possible. Instead, provide attention when your cat is calm and shows signs of independence.

For example, you can praise or toss a small treat to your cat when they are resting in another room or when they stop meowing for attention.

Remain calm when you leave your house and return home. Wait until your cat is calm and quiet to give them attention after you get home.

Giving your cat activities to keep them busy and engaged as you get ready to leave and while you are gone can be very helpful. Some cats also experience a calming effect from pheromone products, such as plug-in diffusers or collars.

Create and Maintain a Consistent Routine

Consistent routines are very beneficial for pets with anxiety disorders. Keeping to the same schedule as much as you can is good for them.

Pharmaceuticals and Nutraceuticals

If management changes alone are not enough, your veterinarian may recommend a supplement or medication to reduce your cat’s anxiety.

Supplements can yield a 25% improvement in signs, while medications should yield at least a 50% improvement.

Some cats benefit most from a short-acting medication that is only given before departures. Others do better on a longer-acting medication that stays in their body all the time.

The goal of medications and supplements is to make adjustments to the cat’s brain chemistry.

Medications can help cats cope with stressful situations more easily and can help them make progress with behavior modification therapies.

The desired effect is the happiest and least-stressed version of your beloved pet. The intention is not for your cat’s personality to change or for them to be a zombie.

If there are side effects, a medication can be stopped and you can try something else. Some cats remain on medications for a short period of time, and others can remain on them safely for years.

Behavior Modification

Behavior modification serves the same purpose as cognitive therapy in human psychology. The aim is for the cat to learn coping skills and to change their emotional response to stressful things.

Relaxation Exercises 

One basic technique you can use is a relaxation exercise. This is where you consistently reward your cat when they show signs of being in a relaxed state, such as lying down, sighing, having a loose and still tail, and closing their eyes.

The exercise is paired with an item like a mat, so that over time, your cat learns to become relaxed when they see that item.

Once relaxation is learned, you can perform parts of your departure routine while your cat is in the relaxed state.

Start with simply moving around the room and then progress to approaching the door. As long as your cat remains calm, you can eventually leave the house for longer periods of time.

Counterconditioning

If your cat shows signs of stress when they see certain cues, like putting on shoes or picking up keys, classical counterconditioning can be used. This changes the emotional response from a negative to a positive one.

For example, you can pick up your keys, toss a treat to your cat, and then puts your keys down.

This only works if your cat’s stress level stays low. If your cat doesn’t look expectantly for a treat after doing this at random times consistently for one week, then a medication may need to be started or adjusted.

Methods to Avoid for Separation Anxiety in Cats

There are many suggestions out there for how to help separation anxiety in cats, but not all of them are accurate. Some of the most common management suggestions you might find are getting an additional cat, punishment, and confinement.

Here’s why you should not use these responses if your cat is suffering from separation anxiety.

Getting an Additional Cat

Unless you get two kittens or littermates together, adding another cat could lead to even more stress and conflict.

There is no guarantee that your cat will like the new cat, or that they will become fast friends. You are also adjusting their environment to accommodate the new cat, which can cause additional stress.

Punishment or Confinement for Anxious Behavior

Punishment makes stress and anxiety worse.

Keep in mind that cats do not behave out of spite. Cats with separation anxiety have an illness, no different than diabetes or kidney disease.

Pets that panic when left alone are frequently more stressed when they are confined.

How to Prevent Separation Anxiety in Cats

There is no surefire way to predict which cats will develop separation anxiety. However, there are steps you can take to help decrease the chance your cat will develop this condition.

Look for Confident Cats, Littermates, or Bonded Pairs

When looking for a cat to join your home, select confident and well-socialized kittens or cats. A pair of kittens, especially littermates, can keep each other company and decrease their dependence on humans. A bonded pair of adult cats is also a good option.

Encourage Independence

Encourage your cat to be independent. They should be used to spending some time away from you as a part of their usual routine. Praise them and give them attention when they choose to spend time across the room or out of sight.

Keep Your Daily Departures Low-Key

From the beginning, keep your departures and returns home very low-key. This helps your cat feel like it’s not a big deal when you leave. Saying a consistent but calm phrase when leaving is helpful for some pets, such as, “Be good; see you soon.”

Try Enrichment Activities

Allowing your cat to explore the outdoors safely provides great enrichment if your cat enjoys it. There are several great options now, including special fencing, “catios,” and walking your cat with a harness and leash.

Talk With Your Veterinarian

It makes sense that the human desire for a devoted companion can also lead to hyper-attachment and separation anxiety. Like any illness, diagnosing and starting treatment early gives your cat the best prognosis.

Speak with your veterinarian if you notice any signs that cause you concern. If needed, there are veterinary behaviorists who focus solely on pet psychiatry to help your beloved family member.

Your veterinarian can help recommend a veterinary behaviorist in your area. You can also check this directory to find a board-certified veterinary behaviorist near you.

Sources

Vitale K, Behnke A, Udell M. Attachment bonds between domestic cats and humans. Current Biology. 2019: 29(18).

Schwartz S. Separation anxiety syndrome in cats: 136 cases (1991-2000). JAVMA. 2002: 220(7); 1028-1033.

Schwartz S. Separation anxiety syndrome in dogs and cats. JAVMA. 2003: 222(11); 1526-1532.

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