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Separation Anxiety in Cats

Lessening Your Cat's Anxiety

By Meredith Alling. April 05, 2013 | See Comments

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Separation Anxiety in Cats

Many people think cats don't require much attention, but some cats can even develop separation anxiety when their owners leave. Learn why some cats get separation anxiety.

Cats have a reputation for being independent, but they are actually social creatures who form close bonds with their owners and animal companions. Because of this, cats are susceptible to developing separation anxiety -- a behavioral disorder that causes stress when the cat is left alone.

Causes

There are a number of factors that can contribute to the development of separation anxiety in cats.

  • Orphaned cats are more prone to feelings of abandonment and thus can develop separation anxiety when left alone

  • Cats who were weaned too early may develop separation anxiety as a result of the early experience of being removed from their mother before it was appropriate

  • Clingy, needy cats who are attached to you when you’re home are more likely to develop separation anxiety, especially if the behavior is reinforced with praise and attention

  • Cats who do not have other activities in the house -- such as toys, scratch posts, cat condos, etc. -- will rely on you for fun and entertainment, and feel at a loss when you leave

  • Changes in your work schedule, a vacation, or other lifestyle disruption could trigger separation anxiety

Symptoms

If your cat is experiencing separation anxiety, they may exhibit one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Excessive meowing when you leave the house

  • Anxiety or distress before you are about to leave

  • Urinating or defecating on your bed, clothes, or other belongings when you are gone

  • Destructive behavior (scratching or chewing items around the house when you are gone)

  • Excessive self-grooming

  • Overeating or undereating in your absence

Treatment

Before you decide that your cat has separation anxiety, take a trip to the veterinarian to rule out any medical problems. Many of the symptoms exhibited by cats with separation anxiety could also be caused by an illness, injury, or skin irritation. Once you’ve determined that your cat does in fact have separation anxiety, there are a number of behavior modification techniques that can help:

  • Provide Stimulation: Create an environment where your cat will feel stimulated and entertained even when you’re not home. Scratching posts, cat condos, puzzle toys, and setting up a bird feeder outside of their favorite window can offer lots of amusement when you’re away. If your cat has a favorite toy, save it for when you are going to be out of the house.

  • Encourage Independence: Clingy cats who get praise and affection for their needy behavior are more likely to develop separation anxiety. Instill confidence and independence in your cat by rewarding them when they are quiet or entertaining themselves.

  • Easy Come, Easy Go: If you know that your cat has separation anxiety, you may be tempted to console them before you leave (“Don’t worry - I’ll be back!”) or greet them excitedly when you return. This type of attention will only validate your cat’s feeling that your absence is a big deal. When you leave, do so quietly, and when you return, wait a few minutes before greeting your cat.

  • Desensitize and Countercondition: Cats quickly begin to recognize the rituals you perform when leaving the house. Grabbing your keys, putting your bag over your shoulder, or opening the door can send an anxious cat into a tizzy. Desensitize your cat to these triggers by picking up your keys and putting them back down throughout the day, and opening and closing the door without leaving. Soon your cat will start to ignore these cues altogether. This same technique can be applied to leaving the house. Walk in and out of the door over and over, gradually increasing the time that you spend outside. Eventually your cat will stop paying attention to your coming and going, and will learn that no matter how long you are out of the house, you will always return.

  • Tunes and TV: Just like humans, cats feel less alone when a radio or television is on. Before leaving the house, turn the radio to a classical, easy listening, or talk station at a pleasant volume. Many cats also enjoy watching television, so much so that there are videos on the market created specifically for cats. Pop in one of these DVDs set to a timer before you leave, and you may find that your cat will have their eyes on the television -- and not you -- when the door closes.

Medication

In cases of serious separation anxiety, your veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist may suggest anti-anxiety medication. Medication should always be used in conjunction with behavior modification therapy, as medication alone will not treat the source of the problem.

More on Cat Care

Make a Comfy Hideaway for Your Cat
Toys Your Cat Will Love
Diet and Nutrition for Dog and Cat Anxiety

This information is for informational purposes only and is not meant as a substitute for the professional advice of, or diagnosis or treatment by, your veterinarian with respect to your pet. It has, however, been verified by a licensed veterinarian for accuracy.

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