Picture this: You’re packing for a long-awaited vacation, only to find that your cat has jumped into your suitcase and won’t get out of it. Or worse, he’s decided to use it as a litter box.
The old myth that cats are solitary creatures who crave nothing more than to be
left alone still persists. But the reality is that cats are very social creatures, and they often form strong bonds with their owners. Your cat could be so attached to you that being away from you triggers extreme nervousness and some troubling behaviors. In other words: separation anxiety.
Children suffer from this syndrome, as do dogs. But it does happen in the feline world, too. As the sensitive creatures they are, a cat’s expressions of angst can happen in both subtle and not so subtle ways. While it might feel like your cat is punishing you for leaving, his behavior is meant to self-soothe, bringing him comfort while you’re away from him. Signs your cat has some separation issues can include: following you around the house and getting distressed if he can’t be near you; hiding from other people; using excessive vocalization when you leave the house; and greeting you overexuberantly when you get home.
In more severe cases, your cat could be urinating outside the box or defecating on clothing or bedding while you’re gone; scratching on doors or window frames when he’s alone; getting anxious to the point of vomiting when you’re away; and overgooming or refusing to eat when you’re not there.
It’s common for cats who were either orphaned as kittens or weaned too early to develop unusually strong attachments to their humans. If your cat has only been exposed to one or two people, he’ll probably feel nervous while home alone, especially if it’s for a prolonged period.
Likewise, a cat who has no stimulation at home, apart from interaction with his human, could also have problems separating. Kitty might be so bored and lonely that he feels stressed when home alone with no distractions. I’ve conducted more than a few behavior sessions in homes where you would never know a cat lived there. No cat trees, no toys, or no window perches equal no fun for a cat.
Health concerns, however, could be the true cause of your cat’s actions and not separation anxiety. A trip to your veterinarian to rule out a physical cause for your cat’s behavior is a good first step in getting to the bottom of his actions.
Once health issues have been ruled out, there are things you can do to make it easier for you both.
Behavior modification: A cat experiencing separation issues is conditioned to become upset when he sees certain actions or items that tell him you’re leaving. Desensitize these items and actions, so they have no meaning to your cat. Bringing out your suitcases to pack for vacation or simply putting on your coat and pulling out your keys could trigger anxiety. Try leaving your suitcase out for a while when you aren’t traveling. Pull out your keys a few times a day, but don’t go anywhere, or leave your jacket out for a few days. Soon these cues will lose their power, and your cat won’t become quite so anxious when he sees them.
When you do leave the house, make a point to distract your cat with some treats or a toy before quietly slipping out the door without any long goodbye.
Environmental stimulation: Create a paradise for your cat so he has fun things to do when he’s home alone. Add a cat tree so he can sit up high to view his world. Keep him busy for hours by filling treat balls with his favorite snacks or hiding goodies in several places around the house. Placing bird feeders by your cat’s favorite window perch will also keep him entertained. If he’s an only cat, think about getting him a friend. He might not even notice you’re gone.
Music or television: Leave some soft music playing or a television on low volume so your cat doesn’t feel like he’s alone. Videos showing birds or colorful butterflies will keep him glued to the television for hours.
Exposure to new people: If your cat isn’t used to anyone else being
around but you, he could easily become fearful of others. Have friends come
over from time to time, and let them offer your cat a favorite treat or toy. It might take a few attempts before your cat is brave enough to come near, so be patient. Getting him used to other people will make him less anxious overall and will help him accept other caregivers when you’re gone. If you’ll be gone for a prolonged period, find a pet sitter who will visit your cat daily and spend time playing with and paying attention to him.
Anti-anxiety medication: In extreme cases of separation anxiety, medication might be needed before your cat will respond to the steps above. If nothing you’ve tried so far has quelled his anxiety, talk with your veterinarian to determine the best course of action for you and your cat.
Helping your cat to be less upset when you’re away from him will help him become less nervous and much happier, even when you are away. Of course, he’ll always be happiest when you’re together, and he gets to spend quality time just being with you.