Compared to dogs, there are very few studies on separation anxiety in cats. For a long time, cats were considered to be rather anti-social and not dependent upon the social interaction with humans to keep them happy.
Separation anxiety in cats definitely exists, though there is a much wider variation in social needs with cats compared to dogs (whose social requirements are very high). This is why it’s less common in cats, but not uncommon.
Anecdotally, it’s more often the guardians who have to separation anxiety when they leave their cats!
Let’s take a trip through the concept of separation anxiety – what it is, what causes it, what does it look like, and how to manage it if your cat is prone to it.
As guardians to animals who deal with separation anxiety, we often see the end result of our absence.
In behavioural terms, separation anxiety (in any animal) is the distress associated with the separation from a preferred companion, group or place.
It is somewhat a small and manageable part of life for most animals. For instance, it’s normal in newly-adopted kittens or cats who must shift their social attachments from Mum and littermates, to their new guardian.
However, it becomes a problem when it results in what we call ‘separation distress-related behaviours’, which I’ll get into shortly.
There is a strongly held belief that cats can easily cope with a guardian’s absence for long periods of time, but recent studies are demonstrating that is not necessarily the case for a not-insignificant portion of cats.
Separation distress-related behaviours can be different for each cat, but generally fit into a set of typical behaviours.
This study looked at 136 cases of separation anxiety, and recorded 96 cases of inappropriate urination, 48 cases of inappropriate defecation, 16 cases of excessive vocalisation, 12 cases of destructive activity, and 8 of overgrooming (I thought there’d be more!).
Interestingly, 75% of the inappropriate urination cases were on the owner’s bed! This has also been my experience when helping clients with this issue.
This more recent questionnaire survey showed similar results, but elaborated a bit more. Apart from the ‘normal’ anxiety-induced behaviours like inappropriate elimination, vocalisation and destruction, It included what they called ‘owner-perceived’ emotional states e.g. depression, agitation or apathy (which can be quite subjective).
It’s important to note that these behaviours aren’t ‘bad’ behaviours intended to ‘get back at you’. Instead, they are self-soothing, intended to escape the negative emotions a cat is feeling in your absence.
This type of anxiety is not so much stopped, as it is managed. If you have a naturally anxiety-prone cat who has developed a social bond with you, he or she may be predisposed to some sort of separation-related stress.
There are a few strategies you can (and probably should) put in place. Helping your cat develop a sense of independence and confidence in your absence will help both your cat, and you (you’ll be able to leave the house for long periods without worry or guilt!).
Let’s talk about some of these behaviour modification strategies now. I’ll split them up into two categories:
(1) Short periods of absence (less than a day e.g. going to work), and;
(2) Longer periods of absence (holidays, overnight, using pet sitters etc).
The strategies used in (1) should still be used for (2), though (2) has some extra considerations.
Some cats who suffer from separation anxiety don’t mind intra-day absences. Over time, they’ve developed enough confidence that if you walk out that door, you’ll be home in time to feed them for dinner!
Though there are a cohort of cats who find this level of absence distressing. Especially during COVID-era where working from home (meaning almost permanent presence) may be normal.
Even without working from home, some cats are just so attached to their guardian that any absence is ‘bad’ and results in anxiety.
Here are some strategies to put in place to help your cat find his independence:
– cat trees
– scratching posts
– window spots (being able to see out the window will provide hours of entertainment)
– puzzle feeders
– music (yep, there are cat-specific albums on Spotify – check them out!)
– cat grass
– cat TV (you can get 8 hour videos of youtube to keep your cat occupied! Here’s an example)
– treasure hunts (hide tasty treats around the house in various spots)
I even have a client who will get a handful of treats, and just as she’s leaving will throw/disperse them into her living room to keep her cat occupied for a while when she’s first leaving.
Desensitisation will help your cat get used to longer and longer absences, and will be proof that you come home every single time.
Desensitisation is easy – simply start to go out and leave your cat(s) by himself. Start small (5 mins), and gradually lengthen the time. Make sure the environment is enriched before you do this, so you’re not setting him up to fail. Eventually you’ll be able to leave for hours at a time without issue!
Do you want to go on holiday but worried about your cat’s separation anxiety? First off, you’ll need to do everything outlined in the previous section, but there are some extra considerations for longer absences.
An anxious cat is an unhappy cat. If you’re dealing with a case of cat separation anxiety, it’s worth your while to get started on creating a confident and independent fur-baby!