How to Curb Cat Separation Anxiety

Strange cat behavior could mean anxiety

You’ve likely heard plenty about canines with separation anxiety – but what about felines? Cheryl Lock from Pet MD explains.

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It might be hard to believe, but that independent cat who snubs you when you try to pet her could, on occasion, suffer from separation anxiety.

“Classically defined, cats with separation anxiety exhibit distress and behavior problems when they’re left alone,” said Mark Newkirk, BS, MS, VMD, veterinarian at Saint Francis Veterinary Hospital.

According to Dr. Newkirk, the most common behaviors in cats with separation anxiety include:

  • Biting the owner
  • Howling or crying
  • Urination and defecation outside the litter box
  • Over grooming

Unlike dogs, cats with separation anxiety may become either excited or depressed, and could act out in opposite ways. For example, your cat may follow you from room to room whenever you’re home, or she could hide from you. She could display effusive greeting behavior towards you when you come home, or she may remain aloof.

Often these behaviors occur whether they are left alone for short or long periods of time, and the behaviors could continue even when you’re home. “It’s not fully understood why some cats suffer from separation anxiety and others don’t,” said Dr. Newkirk. “But it’s important to realize that biting and house soiling that often occur with separation anxiety are part of a panic response. Your cat isnot trying to punish you for leaving him alone.”

The following are common scenarios that could trigger separation anxiety in a cat:

  • You change the type of litter, the position of the litter pan or you do not have enough litter pans
  • A new cat is introduced to the household
  • A cat suffers a traumatic event (from his or her viewpoint), such as spending time at a shelter or boarding kennel
  • There’s a change in the family’s routine or structure, or the loss of a family member or other pet

The first step in tackling behavioral issues is to rule out any underlying medical problems that might be causing the cat’s behavior. “For example, if your pet is urinating in the house, he might be suffering from a urinary tract infection, bladder stones, diabetes or kidney disease, all of which can cause urinary incontinence in cats and change behavior,” says Dr. Newkirk. “So see your vet first.”

If you finally do determine that your cat is suffering from separation anxiety, there are a few things to do:

  • Don’t make a big deal out of arrivals and departures. For example, when you arrive home, ignore your cat for the first few minutes, if he’s an effusive greeter, and then calmly pet him. If he’s aloof, do not seek him out.
  • Many cats can tell when their owners are about to leave, and they’ll get anxious or prevent your departure altogether. One way to tackle ‘pre-departure anxiety’ is to teach your cat that when you pick up your keys, or put on your coat, it doesn’t always mean you’re leaving. For example, put on your boots and coat and sit down and watch TV instead of leaving.
  • Consider using an over-the-counter calming product, like Pro quiet or Bach flowers, to reduce fearfulness.

More severe problems could require the use of a behavioral anti-anxiety medication, but your veterinarian would determine when/if that’s necessary.

One important thing to keep in mind: punishment is not a good idea. “This is not effective, and can make the situation worse,” says Dr. Newkirk. “Getting your cat a companion cat won’t work either. The anxiety cat’s get results from his separation from you, not just the result of being alone.”