This post is written by guest author, Allison Hunter-Frederick, from Allison Helps Cats LLC.
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Each year our pet sitter will tell my husband and I, about one week into our two-week vacation, that our youngest cat seems to be missing us. She’s meowing more, eating less, wanting more attention, and overall seems depressed.
It’s possible that she’s showing signs of separation anxiety, a condition which we’re likely to see more of in our cats as the world returns to normal following the COVID-19 pandemic. This article will cover how to recognize and possibly prevent separation anxiety.
One study that appeared in 2020 in the US National Library of Medicine reported that more than 1 in 10 cats may have separation-related problems. Symptoms may include the following:
- Depression during the owner’s absence
- Destructive behavior
- Excessive grooming
- Excessive vocalization (during which time cats might carry a favorite toy in their mouths)
- Hyper-attachment to owner
- Inappropriate elimination
- Poor appetite
As a cat behavior consultant, some of the most troubling cases I receive are those where cat owners report that their cat is peeing on their bed and other possessions, and so the owner wants to rehome or euthanize their cat. These cases are troubling because inappropriate elimination is one of the most prevalent signs of separation anxiety, and yet their owners mistakenly believe the cats are deliberately being bad.
A diagnosis of separation anxiety should start with a veterinary exam that includes lab work such as blood and urine tests to rule out medical issues. Your veterinarian might ask questions about your cat’s behavior. Videos of your cat’s behavior during your absence could be helpful in determining a diagnosis. For cats to be diagnosed as possibly having separation anxiety, they’re expected to display at least two characteristic behaviors during their owner’s absence.
In the aforementioned 2020 study, destructive behavior and inappropriate elimination were the most widespread of the symptoms, in that order. The latter was displayed by 60% of the cats diagnosed as having separation anxiety. The study further backed up the results of a 2002 report by Schwartz, which found a prevalence of 71% for inappropriate elimination.
In Schwartz’s report, 75% of the cats that peed outside the litter box did so exclusively on the owner’s bed. Other places where inappropriate elimination occurred include on clothes, carpets, sofas, and chairs, underneath living room furniture, next to floor drains, and in plant vases and the kitchen sink. The studies concluded that inappropriate elimination might be most typical in places where there is presence of the owner’s smell, including that of pillows and shoes.
Whenever my husband and I take an extended vacation, we always take measures to prevent separation anxiety with our cats. Those measures include having a pet sitter check on them multiple times throughout the day during our absence, placing items of our clothing where our cats spend most of their time, having a radio set on an automatic timer, and leaving multiple toys for our pet sitter to use with our cats.
In 2019, Current Biology published the results of an experiment which found that cats aren’t loners as traditionally believed. Rather, the researchers found that 64% of cats were securely attached and 36% were insecurely attached. It should come as no surprise then that the 2020 study reported cats were more likely to suffer from separation anxiety if they were left alone in the house five to seven times a week and more than six hours a day.
The 2020 study also said that cats were more likely to show separation anxiety if they lacked access to the whole house, other animals, and toys. The following are essential to a cat’s home:
- safe spaces which includes the provision of multiple hiding places and escape routes
- sufficient resources which includes one feeding station, one litter box, and one scratching post per cat
- effective play
With regards to the effective play, environmental enrichment might be as simple as adding more entertainment for your cat to engage in while they’re home alone. The following might help alleviate their boredom and anxiety:
Three other possible ways to address separation anxiety in cats include:
Ignore attention-seeking behaviors: Remain calm both when you exit and enter your house. When you return, wait until your cat is quiet before providing attention. Once your cat shows some independence, reinforce the desired behavior with praise and a treat or toy.
Integrating relaxation exercises: Encourage relaxation exercises by reinforcing your cat with treats when they show signs of being relaxed, such as lying down, having a loose and still tail, and closing their eyes. The exercise can be paired with an item like a mat, so that over time your cat learns to become relaxed when they see that item. Once these relaxation exercises are learned, they can be integrated as part of your exit and entrance.
Counterconditioning: If your cat acts anxious upon seeing cues of your departure, such as putting on shoes or picking up keys, classical counterconditioning can be used. This changes the emotional response from a negative to a positive one. To do this, fake a few departures to show your cat that departures can be short, by using the following steps:
- Grab your keys.
- Take out your suitcases and grab your keys.
- Take out your suitcases, grab your keys, and go to the door.
- Take out your suitcases, grab your keys, go to the door, and leave your home for just a minute.
- Repeat the latter step, but vary the time spent out of your home.
With each step, treat or play with your cat to create a positive experience.
A fellow cat behavior consultant shared with me that to help her cat with separation anxiety, she provides several feeding stations and litter boxes, combined with increased play. Her cat also is treated with medication, because his anxiety is severe and has been linked to childhood trauma and fear.
If behavior management changes alone aren’t enough to treat your cat’s separation anxiety, your veterinarian may recommend medication to help reduce your cat’s anxiety. According to PetMD, some cats benefit most from a short-acting medication that is only given before departures, while others benefit most from a longer lasting medication. The goal of medications is to help cats more easily cope with stressful situations.
Many of us will return to our workplaces, resume gatherings with family and friends, and begin traveling again. While these changes may be both exciting and healthy for us, our cats may experience separation anxiety as a result of our absence. As cat guardians, we owe it to our feline friends to understand the symptoms of separation anxiety, and to provide help through medication and veterinarian advice.
For more on separation anxiety in pets, visit our help page.
About the Author: Allison Hunter-Frederick is a cat behavior consultant, cat therapy handler, and pet education blogger. Her articles have been published in local and national publications, as well as on her blog, Lincoln Pet Culture. Through her business, Allison Helps Cats LLC, she uses a research-based, positive reinforcement teaching approach to help cat owners improve their relationships with their cats all from the comfort of their home.