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You might think of your cat as an aloof, independent creature that’s capable of handling anything — they do have nine lives, after all. But many owners have learned that cats can develop separation anxiety, just like dogs.
Cats may not express separation anxiety as enthusiastically as a squirmy, slobbery dog might, but cats are capable of forming deep attachments with their owners that can leave them feeling panicked when you leave. Cats who are newer to their families likely adjusted to their human’s constant presence during the pandemic. So when people started to venture out more, some cats may have struggled with the abrupt change. Coupled with the fact that 23 million U.S. households acquired a dog or cat during the pandemic, it’s no surprise that separation anxiety has become a big issue for some cat owners.
If you think your cat has separation anxiety, you’ve come to the right place. We’ve talked to experts and broken down what you need to know.
What is cat separation anxiety?
“Separation anxiety is a stress response in an animal observed when they are separated from a person or other animal that they are strongly bonded to,” according to Dr. Erin Katribe, medical director of Best Friends Animal Society.
If you’re surprised that cats can have separation anxiety, you’re not alone. “While a belief exists that cats are less social than dogs,” said Katribe in an email exchange, “a newer understanding of feline behavior tells us that cats are, in fact, very social animals, particularly when it comes to pet cats and their owners.” Katribe points to research published in PLOS ONE and the Journal of Veterinary Behavior Clinical Applications and Research that is teaching us more about our cat’s social proclivities.
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Another study, published in Current Biology, found that when compared to dogs, cats form similar attachment bonds to humans. In fact, 64 percent of cats showed a secure attachment to their owner (as opposed to an ambivalent or averse attachment) and showed signs of distress when separated from them.
So while your cat may not express their affection as overtly as a dog, they do love you. Probably.
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What causes separation anxiety?
Katribe said the exact cause of separation anxiety is unknown, but it’s likely a combination of “environmental and hereditary” factors. Any cat can develop separation anxiety, but some cats are more prone to it, such as kittens who were orphaned, bottle-fed, or weaned too young, or cats that have spent a lot of time in shelters and are unaccustomed to consistent human interaction. Cat behavior expert Ramona Marek writes about how kittens that didn’t have an opportunity to form secure attachments or build resilience to stress are not as equipped to handle changes.
Sudden changes to routines can trigger separation anxiety. Your cat has grown accustomed to you being home all the time, so going back to an office or simply leaving more often might cause an adverse reaction.
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What are some signs of separation anxiety in cats?
While many of the signs of separation anxiety for cats are similar to those in dogs, some are specific to felines, said Katribe. “Signs of stressed cats that may not be obvious to those familiar with dog behavior include excessive hiding, feigned sleep, excessive grooming, and inappropriate elimination behavior (urinating outside the box).”
According to Katribe, some common signs of separation anxiety in cats are:
Inappropriate elimination habits (urinating or defecating outside the litter box, urination on owners’ belongings or furniture)
Not eating or drinking when owners are away
Other signs of stress can include excessive grooming (and subsequent hairballs)
If your cat shows any of these signs, talk to your veterinarian; these behaviors could also indicate an underlying medical condition. “Eliminating outside the litter box might be due to urinary tract infection or excessive meowing could be due to hyperthyroidism, as can a ravenous appetite,” said Dr. Bruce Kornreich from the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine.
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What should you do if your cat has separation anxiety?
Once you and your veterinarian have ruled out any medical issues, Kornreich recommends working with them to formulate a plan. “Right from the start, a veterinarian should be involved, and they would likely discuss the sorts of things that you could do to soften the manifestation of separation anxiety.” This might look like trying some tactics on your own or hiring a behavior expert depending on the severity of the separation anxiety.
In the case of severe separation anxiety, Kornreich says prescribed anti-anxiety medication can help, but with a caveat: “We always strive to address these issues without medication. But there are some cases where medications can be beneficial.”
Helpful tips to prevent or curb separation anxiety
Kornreich says preventing or curbing separation anxiety is about preparation. That means learning about cat behavior and how to identify the signs of a problem, understanding that there are tools and resources to minimize the likelihood of separation anxiety, and knowing that talking to a veterinarian can empower you to address the problem.
1. Enrich their environment
When it comes to creating the right environment for your cat, a lot of it is about “instilling confidence,” said Kornreich. “Owners should make sure that a cat has a safe place where they can always go, perhaps a perch, a little nook, or something like that, and a cat should feel comfortable going there on their own.”
Echoing this, Katribe recommends creating hiding places for your cat to retreat to in times of stress. “Consider providing elevated resting spots and utilizing vertical space,” she said. Cats often feel safer when they are elevated.
2. Provide mental stimulation while you’re home and away
“One of the most helpful ways to prevent separation anxiety is to provide your cat with mental stimulation and physical activity, both when you’re at home and when you’re away,” said Katribe.
When you leave, providing your cat with mental stimulation keeps them occupied and entertained. Katribe suggests puzzles, a scavenger hunt for treats or other rewards, interactive toys, cat-friendly TV, and access to an enclosed yard or patio. There are even apps available for tablets and smartphones. Yes, there are apps for cats.
And when you’re home, both Kornreich and Katribe highlight the importance of dedicated playtime. Play with a cat-approved toy, “where they can exercise and kind of carry out their normal behavior and the prey drive,” said Kornreich. In general, whether it’s playtime or downtime, dedicated time together provides an opportunity to give positive reinforcement for good behavior and strengthen your bond.
Credit: Getty Images
3. Address the cues and teach resilience
When your cat has separation anxiety, certain actions like picking up your keys or putting on your shoes are cues that tell them it’s time to freak out because you’re leaving. Helping to minimize the cues might help reduce this feeling because your cat isn’t in a triggered state of mind. “Don’t make a big show of leaving, and try to perform obvious cues (like picking up your keys) well ahead of leaving,” said Katribe.
Kornreich even suggests scrambling the cues like picking up your keys, but then putting them back down and not leaving. “Then the cat will know that sometimes when the keys get picked up, my owner’s not going anywhere.”
As a way of teaching your cat that coming and going is normal, Kornreich also suggests leaving for 30 seconds and then coming back. “By leaving and coming back quickly, that can be really helpful for them to get in their minds that [you’re] not going to be gone forever and are coming back.”
Resources and products to help with separation anxiety
As mentioned above, food puzzles are a great way to provide your cat with mental stimulation and keep them engaged while you’re away. Pheromone diffusers have also been reported to help, says Kornreich. They work by emitting a synthetic copy of the facial pheromones your cat uses to mark their territory, thus making them feel more safe and secure.
Organizations like the Best Friends Animal Society, Cornell Feline Health Center, the ASPCA, and the Humane Society have a wealth of resources dedicated to cat care and dealing with separation anxiety. Also, PetMD is a site dedicated to healthcare information from vetted veterinary professionals.
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Don’t worry, you can get through this
For cat owners who need to hear it, Kornreich says the vast majority of cases are manageable. “It may take time, it may take perseverance, it may take consultation with the appropriate people, but we know that in most cases, these problems can be dealt with.”
Plus, he says, tackling separation anxiety with your cat has the silver lining of deepening your bond. “The cat gets the benefit from your love, and you get the benefit of the cat’s love and having gone through it. Sometimes a little bit of adversity brings people and animals closer.”
UPDATE: Feb. 28, 2022, 12:00 p.m. EST This article previously misquoted Dr. Bruce Kornreich — the medical issue in question is hyperthyroidism, not hypothyroidism. The correct name of the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine has also been updated.