The bond between cat and pet parent is a wonderful thing, but what happens if it goes a step too far? Like dogs, cats can suffer from separation anxiety if they become over-attached to a human family member or even another companion animal. So, what should you do if your cat has separation anxiety?
When Separation Anxiety Occurs
Separation anxiety in cats most commonly occurs when a kitten is orphaned, or taken away from their mother and siblings too early. Young kittens are dependent on their mothers and feline family members for more than just food; they need comfort and to learn how to be a cat. If their time with their mother and littermates is cut short, they will naturally shift their dependence on to their human parent.
Many cat parents also inadvertently reinforce separation anxiety by rewarding their cat for clingy and needy behaviour. I know that I’m guilty of this parenting mistake… Charlie was a very needy and vocal kitten. When I first got him at 3 months old he’d follow me everywhere howling most of the time. To comfort him and stop him meowing day and night I’d pick him up and pop him inside my sweatshirt where he’d comfortably sit or fall asleep. He’s almost 3 years old now, and whilst he’s a lot better that he was, the best way to stop that 3am howling on the occasions when he starts, is to pick him up and take him back to bed for cuddles.
Other factors that are likely to trigger separation anxiety in cats are changes in their routine or lifestyle, such as a divorce or change of family members living in the household, or changes to your work routine and the times at which you leave the house and arrive back home again at night.
Signs of Separation Anxiety in Cats
A cat with separation anxiety will often develop inappropriate toilet habits, such as going outside the litter tray, or urinating or defecating on your personal items and clothing to mix your scents and make him feel more secure. He’ll probably vocalise excessively and display obvious distress when you leave the house and greet you over-enthusiastically when you come home. Excessive grooming and not eating when they’re on their own are other signs of separation anxiety in cats.
Of course, these symptoms could also be indicative of an underlying medical issue, so it’s important that you take your cat to the vet to rule out any illnesses.
How to Treat Separation Anxiety in Cats
There are many different things you can try to minimise your cat’s anxiety when you are apart, including:
- Change the routine around your coming and going – don’t make a big deal of petting him and saying goodbye when you leave, and leave him alone for 15 minutes when you get home.
- Let other members of the family get involved in playing and feeding times, so your scaredy cat isn’t so focussed on just one person.
- Give your cat more confidence by increasing playtime and letting him explore on his own; a cat perch next to the window is great to let him see the outside world and boost his confidence.
- Make sure you enrich his home environment as much as possible, so there’s plenty to do when you’re not there. He should have lots of interactive toys to play with, scratching posts and comfy areas at different levels to explore and sleep in.
- It may help if you leave the radio on for ‘company’ when he’s home alone, or invest in a cat DVD. I know some pet parents who call home regularly and leave answer phone messages that their cat can hear.
A cat with separation anxiety is always going to be distressing for their pet parent, but with time and patience you can reduce your cat’s stress and anxiety.
Have you experienced separation anxiety with your cat? How did you deal with it?