Cats have a bad reputation for being loners. Many people think of felines the opposite of how they think of dogs, assuming they are content to be alone and even prefer it to the company of other pets or humans. This is why some cat owners are shocked to discover that their kitty has developed separation anxiety.
Our feline friends can experience separation anxiety just like dogs do, and in many cases, the condition appears in the same ways. This problem is born out of a cat’s “excessive attachment” to their owner, causing them to fear being left alone.
How can pet parents navigate this tricky disorder with their overly clingy cat? Here’s what you should know.
Getting to the root of separation anxiety
Many cats develop a strong attachment to their owners and feel less stress when they’re around. This is pretty normal. What’s less normal is when a cat begins acting out or showing signs of distress when their owner is gone. These cats may be suffering from a mental condition called separation anxiety.
Unfortunately, some owners might misinterpret the signs of their cat’s anxiety as a behavioral or training issue. Cats experiencing separation anxiety might:
- Urinate or defecate outside the litter box, particularly in your bed
- Scratch or destroy furniture and personal belongings
- Groom excessively
- Meow, howl and cry consistently
- Refuse to eat if you’re not home
- Undergo periods of distress, particularly when you leave the home
- Act extremely clingy and in need of attention
Under closer examination, some pet owners might be surprised to learn that their cat is not being destructive because they are bored or because they are upset about something in their environment. Instead, they might be beside themselves with stress because their owner is gone!
Any cat can develop separation anxiety, and there doesn’t necessarily need to be an underlying reason. However, a few things might make your cat’s separation anxiety more likely. Female cats are more likely to develop anxiety than male cats, as are cats who don’t have any other pets in the home. Orphaned or bottle-fed cats who were weaned from their mothers at a very young age might also be more likely to form strong attachments to their owners.
Home-related stress or trauma can also trigger feline separation anxiety. In general, cats do not tolerate change well. Therefore, big changes like being relocated to a new home with new owners or experiencing a rapid change in their owner’s schedule could trigger feelings of stress.
Unfortunately, diagnosing separation anxiety in cats is not as simple as having your vet run a few tests. Because cats can’t communicate what they’re thinking, many of their behaviors might be attributed to different problems. For example, excessive clinginess could be separation anxiety, or it could be related to a serious health problem.
Separation anxiety diagnoses typically occur after your vet has conducted an exam and a few preliminary tests to rule out physical ailments.
Helping your kitty manage their anxiety
Separation anxiety is not as easily managed as other forms of cat anxiety. Other household stressors can usually be adjusted to make your furry friend feel more at ease. With separation anxiety, only your presence can help soothe your cat, and that’s not always possible (or productive).
Your vet can work with you to create a holistic treatment plan that helps your cat relax while you’re away. One of the biggest elements of this plan will be managing your cat’s environment. Little things, like keeping a consistent routine your cat can adapt to and giving your cat extra enrichment activities they can do alone, might help them calm down and learn that your absence is not a threat.
Behavioral training is another possibility. These methods typically require a lot of patience and attention, but they are often successful at “training” the cat to relax during potentially stressful periods like you leaving the house. You might reward your cat any time you see them in a relaxed and independent state, so they learn that this behavior is desirable. Rewards can also be used to counter condition anxiety triggers.
Finally, some cats will need additional support for their separation anxiety so they stay calm and healthy. Anti-anxiety supplements might be useful for cats with more mild cases, and prescription medications might be necessary for severe cases.
Dealing with separation anxiety in cats is never fun—not for you or your furry friend. It can feel awful to see your kitty in distress! But, by working with your vet and potentially a behavioral specialist, you’ll be able to reassure your cat that you will return to them with all they love they deserve, and they can rest easy while you’re away.