Cats are generally thought of as more independent and aloof than their canine counterparts. But, just as in many species, cats come in all personalities as well as sizes and colours. Some cats become very attached to their owners, and it can be a source of distress to be parted from them. Separation anxiety, where a cat becomes distressed or anxious when left alone, definitely does occur, although less commonly than in dogs. Cats also love routine, and so irregular comings and goings can be a source of stress. With the end of the summer, this is going to be more and more important over the coming weeks!

How do I know if my cat is anxious?

Signs of separation anxiety can vary, from the hugely obvious to the very subtle. The key to differentiate from other issues is that the behaviours only manifest when the owner is not there, or when they are preparing to leave. A cat who urinates on the doormat every time the owner goes to work may have separation anxiety, but a cat who continually urinates outside of the litter-tray may have a urinary issue, or more generalised anxiety. 

Signs to watch for include:

  • Vocalising or calling after owner has left the house
  • Following the owner around, demanding attention constantly
  • Unusual behaviour when the owner is getting ready to leave, even aggression
  • Destructive behaviour such as scratching up furniture

Chronic stress if the anxiety is ongoing can lead to other, more generalised signs such as: 

  • Toileting in inappropriate places
  • Hiding away, not interacting as much as usual
  • Over grooming

How can I help my anxious cat?

Cats are creatures of habit and thrive on routine. Keep their schedule predictable and repeatable and try to minimise disruption, especially to their feeding and sleeping. Some symptoms of separation anxiety, particularly inappropriate toileting and overgrooming, can be signs that your cat is medically unwell, so a check over from your veterinary surgeon is always helpful to rule out anything more physically wrong.

If you think that your cat’s behaviour is separation related, here are some useful things to consider to try and improve their wellbeing.

1) Create a safe space

Cats love hiding in small, dark, warm areas when they feel anxious. Try to create a ‘den’, or area that your cat feels safe and relaxed in. Cats often like to be up high, so get creative with your thinking! Make sure they have the resources they need (water, food, litter box) in easily accessible places. Pheromone sprays can help anxious cats to feel more settled in their home environments. Allowing them a view of the outside world can help with anxiety when an owner leaves them. 

2) Don’t make a fuss about leaving

Some cats find the ‘pre-departure’ time the most stressful: the finding of the keys, putting shoes and coats on, last strokes and cuddles. This build-up can make things worse. If your cat seems to be one of these, try placing your keys quietly in your pocket 10 minutes before you have to go, for example, or get your things all ready by the door the night before. Try to avoid dramatic rushing-around exits, and keep your leaving as unobtrusive as possible. 

3) Leave some activities for your cat to do

Plenty of cats are happy to snooze the day away whilst their owners are out and about, but some are more active. Giving them some stimulation whilst you are away can help to prevent boredom and stress. This is especially important if your cat is indoor only. Leaving a radio on can help create a sense of ‘normality’ for your cat if they find being alone stressful. Puzzle feeders and puzzle toys are good to keep cats mentally stimulated – or try making your own entertainment for them: ‘treasure hunts’ of treats hidden around the room just before you leave can be an excellent way to ease the transition of you leaving. 

None of these are working, my cat is so anxious!

Don’t panic. Having your pet unhappy is a horrible feeling, but there is always something to be done. If you feel you have exhausted all options, including having your cat checked for any underlying medical issues, have a chat with your vet. It may be appropriate to be referred on to a veterinary behaviourist who can help further. There is also medication that can be used in relevant cases, although this is never a miracle cure! Behavioural problems take time and patience to resolve, and often require hard work and co-operation from owners. 

Could it be that something else is wrong?

Unfortunately, yes! Deciding on a definitive diagnosis of separation anxiety, or any behavioural issue, is difficult. Signs such as urinating in the wrong places can be signs of behavioural anxiety, but may also be caused by a urinary tract infection, for example. You know your own cat best, so if you think the signs fit the picture of separation anxiety, then the tips in this blog may help, but if you are concerned about your cat’s health, an appointment with your local vet is never the wrong answer. 

Can it be cured?

This is a tricky one. There is no ‘cure’, as such, for many behavioural issues, but it is very much possible to manage anxiety in such a way as to make your cat’s life (and yours!) much happier. A good routine, some measures to keep your cat settled and interested when you’re away, and a safe place to hide can be all that’s needed to ensure your cat no longer becomes distressed when you leave. It is not feasible to expect cat owners to never leave the house, but these simple changes can make the experience much more pleasant for all. 

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